“Achieving Spiritual Ascendance Through Sacrifice”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, is the opening Torah portion of the book of Leviticus. As the Latin name “Leviticus” indicates, the book has much to do with the laws that apply to the children of Levi and the priests (who are also Levites) who minister in the Tabernacle. The Rabbinic name for the book is Torat Kohanim, which means, instructions for the priests.

Much of the complex book of Vayikra focuses on the sacrificial rites and rituals. Despite the challenging nature of the subject matter, it is a long-standing custom in Israel for young children to begin their study of Torah with parashat Vayikra.

The Midrash in Vayikra Rabba 7:3 explains:

Why, when we begin teaching children, do we begin with Torat Kohanim, the section of the Torah that deals with the Temple service? Because children are pure of sin, and the offerings purified those who brought them. Let the pure children come and involve themselves in the study of purifying offerings.

The Avnei Azel suggests that the young children begin their studies with parashat Vayikra in order to convey to parents that if they truly desire that their children become Torah scholars, they must expect to make significant sacrifices. Parents must be prepared to forgo significant comforts, pleasures and, in some cases, even necessities, in order to convey the message to their children that Torah study is a foremost priority.

The Talmud in Nedarim 81a, cites the warning of the rabbis to be wary of the children of the poor, for from them will Torah emerge. Again, emphasizing the importance of parental sacrifice, Rabbi Meir Shapiro explains that the sacrifices that poor parents make in order to enable their children to study Torah is what inspires the children and fuels their commitment.

Given the necessity for commitment and sacrifice, the fundamental question remains: What is the message that is conveyed by the animal offerings and taking an animal’s life as a form of worship?

The Zohar explains that the act of sacrificing an animal conveys the vital message that sinful actions always come with a price, impacting gravely on the sinner’s very humanity. It is hoped that by taking an animal’s life as an act of atonement, the sinner will identify with the animal and recognize the inappropriateness of his/her actions. The sinner will thus, hopefully, realize that not only has an innocent animal’s life been taken because of the sinner’s misdeeds, but also recognize how similar the sinner’s own mindless behavior is to that of an animal’s behavior.

The late Rabbi Nison Alpert points out that a powerful message is to be found in the unusual structure of parashat Vayikra. Rabbi Alpert notes that the sequence of the offerings listed in the parasha does not seem to follow a rational order. The parasha opens with the rules regulating an Olah, a voluntary offering, and is followed by the Shelamim, the peace offering. This, in turn, is followed by the Chatat, the sin offering brought by one who transgressed without intent. Finally, the parasha concludes with the Asham, the guilt offering, which is brought for a sin that was committed willfully.

Rabbi Alpert notes that one would have expected the parasha to begin with those offerings that are obligatory, and only later, enumerate the voluntary offerings. It seems far more logical to first mention sacrifices that are required as atonement for sinfulness, and only then to note the voluntary sacrifices. After all, says Rabbi Alpert, a person should first be concerned with paying one’s debts, and only afterward with giving away gifts.

Rabbi Alpert suggests that by maintaining this unusual order, the Torah is conveying an important message to would-be sinners. Sinners who wish to raise themselves from the depths of sin should not focus exclusively on atonement for their sinful actions, but should rather aim to set their standards higher by aspiring to bring free will offerings. Those who set lofty goals for themselves will save themselves from sinfulness. Those who allow their goals to remain low may still achieve atonement, but will probably not experience the significant moral growth that is necessary to enhance one’s relationship with G-d.

The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked who is higher on a ladder, the person on the top or on the bottom? The Rebbe, who realized the provocative nature of the question, answered astutely: “It depends upon which direction the person is going. If the person on top is on his or her way down, and the person at the bottom is on his or her way up, then, theoretically, the person at the bottom is higher than the person on top.”

This, according to Rabbi Alpert, is the message of parashat Vayikra. Never settle for simple atonement. Aspire for greatness and aim for excellence. This is why the Torah speaks of the voluntary and the more elevated offerings first, rather than the obligatory.

May you be blessed.