Mark David Walsh
March 19, 2019
Central to this parashah are the five different offerings, or sacrifices, (korbanot) that were to be presented to the priests in the sanctuary and later in the temple. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 c.e. these sacrifices no longer had a place within Jewish religious practice, but even while the Temple was in existence, there were already changes in the ways in which Jewish communities sought to draw near (karov) to God. The need for communities to gather together to express their desire to draw near to the Eternal One, their physical the distance from Jerusalem, and the emergence of the synagogue as a place of gathering, study of scripture, also brought with it a greater sense of importance of prayer in Jewish worship (Fields, 100).
When the Temple was destroyed in 70 c.e., Jews had to come to terms not only with this tragedy of immense proportions, but also what to do about the Torah’s instructions regarding Temple worship and sacrifice. Whilst the traditional version of the Amidah includes petitions for the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of sacrificial practice, Jews have also sought to find new ways of drawing near to the divine. Thus, prayer, already part of Temple and synagogue practice, came to be seen as not only replacing sacrifice, but in the eyes of sages such as Maimonides, surpassing it, since prayer “can be offered anywhere and by any person.” Closer to our own time, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel suggested that prayer was not a substitute for sacrifice, but that it was a form of sacrifice. In prayer “we try to surrender our vanities, to burn our insolence, to abandon bias, dishonesty, envy” (Fields 101).
Others sought to find new meanings in ancient texts that because of their sacredness are able to speak across generations, conveying new interpretations for ever-changing times. In his book Torah of Reconciliation, Sheldon Lewis highlights a discussion amongst the Sages as to the importance of peace (shalom) in prayer, sacrifice and in the messianic age to come.
Lewis notes that “all benedictions and prayers conclude with [an invocation for] peace…for the sages, the final term in a series is consistently the climactic term. It is the most important” (p. 183). If we look at the order in which the offerings listed in this parashah, we find the instructions for the shelamim (well-being / peace) offering (Lev 7:11ff) coming at the culmination of a series of directives concerning the olah (burnt) offering (Lev 6:2ff); minchah (grain) offering (Lev 6:7ff); the chatat (sin) offering (Lev 6:18ff); and the asham, (guilt) offering” (Lev 7:1ff). The shelamim offering also concludes a list of offerings in Lev 3:37 and Numbers 29:39. For Isaiah, the Messiah will usher in the age of peace: “Behold I will extend peace to her like a river” (Is 66:12); “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger of good tidings that announces peace” (Is 52:7) (Lewis 184).
For Reflection and Discussion: As I sat down to offer some reflections on this week’s Torah portion, I was struck by the gap that exists between the lived reality of the authors of the book of Leviticus and my own and by the need to interpret the words of Torah in the light of the times in which I live. I must ask, just as the sages did, “what does this mean for me? Now?”
Bibliography: Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Vol. 2 (New York, 1991), Lewis, Torah of Reconciliation (Jerusalem 2012/5772).
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