“Insights for the Contemporary Soul from Ancient ‘Primitive’ Rituals”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

With this week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, we begin reading the Book of Leviticus, which, as its name reflects, deals primarily with the priestly laws and the laws of sacrifices.

Those not intimately familiar with the Book of Leviticus often mistakenly conclude that the third of the five Books of Moses is simply a collection of primitive rites and rituals of an ancient people and that these rituals have no meaning for contemporary society, and in fact, are quite distasteful. Taking an animal’s life for the sake of worship is not something that invokes sympathy or can be easily fathomed by 21st century humanists.

In our past studies of the weekly portion, we have attempted to explain the remarkable role that the sacrifices played in ancient times, and even to suggest that their reintroduction today would serve a meritorious purpose in contemporary society.

Whether sacrifices have a role to play in contemporary times or not, the messages conveyed by the sacrificial offerings are indeed cogent, and there is much that present-day society can learn from those messages.

Let us explore some of these messages.

While the word “kor’ban” is often translated in English as “sacrifice,” the actual Hebrew meaning of the word implies “drawing near”–drawing near to G-d by offering a gift to G-d. Consequently, the “Oh’lah” or burnt offerings that are brought daily are meant to serve as a gift from the people of Israel, symbolizing their steadfast and regular commitment to G-d.

The “Ah’sham,” or guilt offering, is brought when a doubtful sin is committed. “Sh’lah’mim” peace offerings, are offered to express thanks, and the “Chah’tat,” sin offering, is brought on the occasion of accidental sin.

The role of the “Chah’tat” sin offering is fascinating, and deserves expanded elucidation. In Leviticus 4:2, G-d speaks to Moses and says: Speak unto the children of Israel and say unto them, “Ne’fesh kee teh’cheh’tah bish’gah’gah mee’kol mitzvot Hashem, ah’sher lo tay’ah’seh’nah.” When a person sins unintentionally from among the commandments of G-d that may not be done, and he commits one of them. The Torah then not only informs us of the laws regarding the process of atoning for sin, but also elucidates the varied forms these sins may take. The sin may be that of the “Anointed Cohen,” or a sin committed by the entire nation when the High Court issues a mistaken ruling. It may be a sin offering brought by the king for his transgression, or the sin offering brought by an ordinary Jewish man or woman.

In contrast to the other offerings that were mentioned thus far in Leviticus that are voluntary, the “Chah’tat” sin offerings are mandatory. It’s interesting to note that the sin offering is only brought to atone for sins that were committed inadvertently, usually as a result of carelessness. The Ramban, Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) shares a profound insight about the person who commits a sin “b’sho’geg“–inadvertently and carelessly. Despite the fact that the sin is unintentional, says the Ramban, this misdeed blemishes the soul and requires purification. That is why the Torah portion regarding the sin offering begins with the words (Leviticus 4:2) “nefesh kee teh’che’tah,” the soul that has sinned. After all, had the sinner sincerely regarded his/her actions with proper gravity, these violations would never have occurred!

As the Artscroll Stone commentary elaborates, we know only too well that people are careful about things that matter to them, but tend to be careless about those things that they regard as trivial. One who truly cares about the Shabbat, will not forget what day of the week it is. One who truly cares about keeping kosher, would not miss an obvious non-kosher ingredient that is clearly marked on the product label!

Through the lesson of the sin offering, our rabbis teach us that it’s not so much the passion, the desire, or the lack of control, that causes a person to sin mistakenly, but lack of caring, indifference, and disregard.

Furthermore, the Torah is teaching us that it is not the offering of a slaughtered animal that removes the stain of sinfulness. Sinfulness can only be atoned for by a change of heart and attitude.

And so, do these primitive laws and rules regarding the ancient rites of sacrifice have meaning to us? I believe they do, and profoundly so, and that the more we explore them, the more we will uncover the secrets of human nature that abound in our amazing Torah.

May you be blessed.