Repost: Vayikra

March 26, 2020 at 4:09 pm | Posted in Tzav, Vayikra | Leave a comment

And [God] called to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:1)

The opening of the book of Leviticus/Vayikra leads us to expect an important announcement.  Instead, God explains how to make six kinds of offerings at the altar of the brand-new Tent of Meeting.  The only technology on offer for pleasing or appeasing God involves slaughtering animals at the altar, splashing their blood around, butchering them, and burning them.

My 2014 posts on the first two Torah portions in the book, Vayikra and Tzav, reinterpret the six types of animal sacrifices from a vegetarian viewpoint.  You can read a revised version of the first one here:  Vayikra & Tzav: Fire-Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1.  (I will rewrite Part 2 for next week.)

This year I feel sadness and disgust once again at the gratuitous slaughter of innocent animals.  I feel gratitude once again that Jews now serve God with prayer and good deeds instead.  I stand by my earlier interpretations of fire-offerings as ways of dealing with anger, and of rising-offerings as ways of continuously directing our desires toward doing good.

But the let-down of learning that God’s first words from the new tent-sanctuary are instructions for animal offerings hit me harder this year.  It reminds of the let-down I went through when I reached the climax of our journey, Jerusalem itself.

Men’s side of the western wall (kotel) on March 13, 2020, after most tourists left

My first disappointment was that although I prayed at the Western Wall (Herod’s retaining wall for the Temple Mount) three times, and stuck my own heartfelt written prayer into a crevice, I was unable to feel holiness emanating from the stones.  I was sad, but not surprised.  I have always been a practical person, capable of flights of imagination but untouched by the world that mystics sense so vividly.

My second disappointment was the abrupt end of my time in Israel.  I wanted to attend a third teaching by Avivah Zornberg, one of my favorite biblical commentators.  I wanted to go to several more archaeological sites and museums.  I wanted to see some places outside Jerusalem that I had read about in the Torah and in later Jewish writings—the  Dead Sea, the Negev, the Galilee, the kabbalistic town of Sfaat, the northern cities on the Mediterranean.

But like the United States, Israel shut down all public places in order to fight the spread of the coronavirus.  Museums closed, tours ceased.  There was no point sitting in our apartment day after day, watching teachings online that we could watch from anywhere in the world.  And what if we could not return to the U.S., where we have health insurance, when we need medical care for our pre-existing conditions?

We canceled our flight to Athens, the next stop on our itinterary, and booked an earlier flight to the United States.  Now we are repatriated in our home state of Oregon, looking for a new place to live.   I remind myself that while the whole world is shut down, I will have time to work on both of the books I was writing when we left last September: my book on the ethics of free will in Genesis, and my fantasy novel.  Staying home to write will not be so bad.

But I was expecting something bigger when I reached Jerusalem.  I suppose I wanted a divine voice to call to me from a holy place and tell me something important.  All I got was instructions on making sacrifices.

Now I will have to make my own meaning out of life during the pandemic.

 

Vayikra & Tzav vs. Isaiah & Psalm 40: Smoke vs. Words & Deeds

March 14, 2019 at 4:41 pm | Posted in Isaiah 1, Psalms/Tehilim, Tzav, Vayikra | Leave a comment

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra gets right down to business.  The first Torah portion opens with God calling to Moses, then telling him more instructions for the Israelites—this time about conducting the rituals at the altar.

from Treasures of the Bible, Northrop, 1894

Speak to the Israelites, and you shall say to them:  Any human among you who offers an offering to God, from the livestock—from the herd or from the flock—you shall offer your offering.  If it is an olah he will offer from his herd…  (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:2)

olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering; an offering that is completely burned into smoke.  (Plural: olot (עֺלוֹת).)

A person who offers an offering of minchah to God, fine flour will be his offering …  (Leviticus 2:1)

minchah (מִנחָה) = gift of allegiance or homage; a grain-offering.

And if he offers a zevach as a thankgiving-offering …  (Leviticus 3:1)

zevach (זֶבַח) = animal slaughter as an offering on the altar.  (Plural: zivechim (זִבְחִעם).)

The text continues through this week’s Torah portion (Vayikra) and next week’s (Tzav) with instructions for a total of six kinds of offerings.  (See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.)  The last four all involve slaughtering animals, burning parts of them so God can enjoy the smell of the smoke, and eating the remaining edible parts after they have been roasted on the altar.

The primary method of serving God throughout the Hebrew Bible is turning animals into smoke, “… a fire-offering of a soothing smell for God” (Leviticus 3:5).  In the first twelve books of the bible (Genesis through 2 Kings) this method goes unquestioned.

Where does this idea come from?  The Torah does not say, but I believe the ancient Israelites assumed God wanted animal sacrifices because the other gods in the Ancient Near East were worshiped that way.1

Only when foreign empires began swallowing up the kingdoms of Israel did prophets and psalmists begin to question this approach.  The first prophet in the book of Isaiah reports:

“Why your many zivechim for me?” God says.

“I am sated with olot of rams.

And suet from fattened animals

And blood of bulls and lambs and he-goats

I do not want!”  (Isaiah 1:11)

“… And when you spread your palms

I am averting my eyes from you.

Even though you multiply [your] prayers

I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!

Wash, become pure;

Remove your evil acts from in front of my eyes;

Cease doing evil!

Learn to do good!

Seek justice,

Make the oppressed happy,

Defend the orphan,

Argue the widow’s case!”  (Isaiah 1:15-17)

Here God does not totally reject animal sacrifices, but God does consider good deeds and justice a higher form of service.

Psalm 40 declares:

[God] gave my mouth a new song,

A song of praise for our God.

May the many see, and may they be awed

And may they trust in God.    (Psalm 40:4)

Zevach and minchah you do not want.

You dug open a pair of ears for me!

Olah and guilt-offering you do not request.  (Psalm 40:7)

That is when I said:

Hey, I will bring a scroll of the book written for me.

I want to do what you want, my God,

And your teaching is inside my guts.

I delivered the news of right behavior to a large assembly.

Hey! I will not eat my lips.  (Psalm 40:7-10)

The speaker in Psalm 40 maintains that God does not want smoke, only words of praise. Nothing can make this poet recant; he will not “eat his lips”.  (See my post Tetzavveh: Smoke and Pray.)

*

What does God want?  Most, but not all, of the Hebrew Bible assumes God wants offerings on the altar.  Today we assume God wants words of prayer and blessing, as well as deeds of kindness and justice.

But why should we give God what we think God wants?

Suppose you want to thank a person for saving your life.  You might speak to them, send them a card, send them flowers or a bigger gift.

Suppose you want to manipulate or appease a person who has power over you.  You might speak to them, send them a card, send them flowers or a bigger gift.

The same human impulses apply to thanking or manipulating a semi-anthropomorphic God.  In the bible, the Israelites slaughter their animals in order to give them to God, either in gratitude or in an attempt at appeasement.2

Today, do we pray and do good deeds to express gratitude?  Or to appease God?  Or to manipulate God into giving us what we want?

  1. For example, the odor of Utnapishtim’s burnt sacrifice gives the gods of Mesopotamia pleasure in Gilgamesh tablet 11, part 4. In the book of Numbers, Moabite women invited Israelites to worship Baal Pe-or with them through zivechey their god” (Numbers 25:2).  (Zivechey (זִבְחֵי) = slaughter offerings of.)  In the book of Ezekiel, God complains that Israelites are flocking to foreign altars and burning sacrifices to give idols soothing smells (Ezekiel 6:13, 16:19, and 20:28).
  2. Offerings of wholeness or thanksgiving (shelamim, שְׁלָמִים) are described in the portion Vayikra in Leviticus 3:1-16 and in the portion Tzav in Leviticus 7:11-21. Offerings to appease God after violating one of God’s rules (chataat, חַטָּאת, and asham, אָשָׁם) are described in Vayikra in Leviticus 4:1-5:22.

Vayikra & Jeremiah: Kidneys

March 15, 2018 at 8:07 pm | Posted in Jeremiah, Vayikra | 2 Comments

In English we speak of rational thinking as using our brains, of feelings emotions in our hearts, and of reacting intuitively as having gut feelings.  But no body part corresponds to our conscience, or to our inner self.  And no colloquial metaphor uses our kidneys.

Biblical Hebrew associates the whole conscious mind, rational and emotional, with the heart (leiv, לֵב or leivav לֵבָב).  There is neither a separate word nor a body part for intuitions.  But the seat of both the inner self and the conscience is in the kidneys (kelayot, כְּלָיֺת or kilyot כִּליוֹת).

Kidneys are first mentioned in the Torah in the book of Exodus/Shemot, when God gives Moses instructions for ordaining priests.  The first animal offering prescribed is a bull.

And you shall take all the fat that covers the innards and the extra lobe on the kaveid and the two kelayot and the fat that is on them, and you shall turn them into smoke on the altar.  (Exodus 29:13)

kaveid (כָּבֵד) = liver; heavy, weighty, oppressive, impressive, important.

The first eleven verses that refer to kidneys are all part of prescriptions for making animal offerings to God.1  For most types of offerings2 the fattiest parts, including the abdominal organs, are completely burned up into smoke.  Other parts of the animal are reserved for other purposes: meat for human consumption, blood for splashing on altars and curtains, and hides either for leather or for burning outside the camp.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra (“And he called”)3, describes specific organs burned up along with the belly fat in two types of offerings:

  • the shelamim (שְׁלָמִים = wholeness offering) of a community member who wants to thank God or give a voluntary donation.
  • the asham (אָשָׁם = guilt offering) of a priest who unwittingly caused the people to disobey one of God’s rules.

And [the priest] shall offer, from the slaughtered animal of the shelamim, a fire-offering to God: the belly fat and the entrails and all the fat that is on the entrails; and the two kelayot and the fat that is on them, which is on the sinews; and the extra lobe on the kaveid over the kelayot which he removes.  And the sons of Aaron shall turn them into smoke at the altar … a fire-offering, a soothing scent for God.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 3:3-5)

The same organs are singled out for burning up into smoke when a priest offers a bull as an asham.4

Priests with ordination offering

When the instructions for removing and burning these organs were recorded,5 they were literal instructions for the priests serving at the temple in Jerusalem.  Before each animal is slaughtered, its owner must lay a hand on the animal’s head, a magic or symbolic act transferring some of the owner’s spirit or identity.6  Then when the animal is offered to God, the owner is offering part of himself to God.7

The meaty parts of the animal are lifted toward God, roasted rather than completely burned, and then eaten by the priests and their families and/or the owners and their guests.  Thus the animal’s owner shares his muscles, representing his actions in the world, with God.  He will continue to act so as to take care of himself, his family, and his community, but now he dedicates himself to doing so in alignment with God’s laws.

The organs from a shelamim or an asham that are completely burned could correspond symbolically with what the owner is surrendering entirely to God.  The extra lobe of the kaveid, the liver8 might represent excess self-importance; by surrendering it, the owner humbles himself.

What part of the owner is being offered with the kelayot. the kidneys?

*

The kidneys appear as metaphor in poems elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.  Sometimes kidneys refer to a person’s deepest self.  For example, the father in the book of Proverbs says:

            My son, if wisdom [is in] your leiv,

                        My leiv will rejoice in me.

           And my kilyot will exult,

                        When your lips are speaking upright things.                                                 (Proverbs 23:15-16)

The father predicts that if he observes his son thinking and speaking wisely, he will be happy both at the level of his conscious mind and at the level of his deepest feelings.

In some biblical poems, the kidneys represent a person’s conscience or moral sense.  For example, Psalm 16 implies that the voice of one’s conscience is the voice of God:

          I bless God, who has advised me;

                        Even [during] the nights my kelayot have chastised me.                        (Psalm 16:7)

And Jeremiah asks God:

Why does the way of the wicked succeed?

                        All the treacherous enjoy peace and quiet!

            You planted them, and they also took root;

                        They went and made fruit.

            You are close in their mouths,

                        But remote from their kilyot.

            Yet you, God, you know me, you see me.

                        And you have tested my leiv; it is with you.  (Jeremiah 12:1-3)

In other words, the wicked talk about God easily, but they have no access to divine warnings from their consciences.  Therefore they calmly continue to produce evil results.  Jeremiah, on the other hand, is dedicated to God with all his thoughts and feelings; his heart (mind) is in harmony with his kidneys (conscience).9

*

In the 6th century B.C.E. and earlier, astute Israelites and those who recorded their words understood the human conscience.  Jeremiah expected people with a weak conscience to be treacherous and violate God’s laws.  Today we identify sociopaths (or people with “anti-social personality disorders”) as those who have little or no conscience, who lack empathy or any deep feelings, and who casually disregard rules.  They are “the wicked” of the bible who have no communication with their shriveled kidneys, and therefore are unable to surrender their conscience or their feelings to God.

For the rest of us, who make it out of childhood with healthy kidneys, our minds have a chance at connecting with both our deepest feelings and our conscience.  But it does not happen automatically.

In Vayikra, the owner of a sacrificial animal brings his deepest self, as well as his conscience, to God as the kelayot of the animal are turned into smoke.  It is the ultimate act of trust in God.

Today we know that it is wise to check one’s own conscience before following what anyone else says God wants.  Some people find the voice of God in their own deepest selves and their own moral sense.

I pray that we all find our own ways to express thanksgiving and become more generous, like the shelamim donor; to pay attention and notice when we have inadvertently done something wrong, like the asham offerer; to cultivate empathy without selfishness; and to enlarge our own conscience so that we hear the divine voice of love rather than fear or hatred.

  1. Exodus 29:13, 29:22; Leviticus 3:4, 3:10, 3:15, 4:9, 7:4, 8:16, 8:25, 9:10, 9:19.
  2. In an olah (עֺלָה), a rising offering, the entire animal is turned into smoke rising up to God.
  3. The first Torah portion in each of the five books has the same name as the book, which is the first significant word to appear. In this case, both the book and its first portion are called Vayikra, the Hebrew word that opens the book of Leviticus.
  4. Leviticus 4:8-10.
  5. Modern scholars agree that Leviticus 1:1-8:36, comprising the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, were written by the “P” source. Although they disagree on the century in which P passages were written, scholars in the late 20th and early 21st centuries C.E. have all dated the P source to sometime when the first Israelite temple stood in Jerusalem, i.e. between the 10th century B.C.E. and the temple’s destruction in 588 B.C.E.
  6. Samakh (סָמַךְ) = he leaned or lay (a hand or hands) on. When Moses lays his hands on Joshua, he transfers some of his authority and spirit to his successor as the leader of the Israelites (Numbers 27:18-23, Deuteronomy 34:9).  When the Levites are ordained, the Israelites lay hands on them to make them the people’s substitutes for service in the sanctuary (Numbers 8:10).  The word samakh is also used for the ritual before an animal sacrifice.  The word smikha (סְמִיכָה), from the root samakh, refers to the ordination of rabbis and other Jewish religious functionaries to this day.
  7. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra Part 1, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem & New York, 2002, p. 16-17.
  8. Cattle, sheep, and goats have an extra lobe of the liver not found in humans. In Hebrew this lobe is the yoteret (יֺתֶרֶת), from the same root as yeter (יֶתֶר) = remainder, excess, what is left over.
  9. Kelayot also appear in Jeremiah 11:20, 17:10, and 20:12 as a different part of the mind from the leiv.

Vayikra: A Voice Calling

March 29, 2017 at 4:38 pm | Posted in Vayikra | 1 Comment
Tags: , , ,

Moses at the Burning Bush,
by Rembrandt

There are only four times in the Bible when Gods “calls” to Moses before speaking to him, and all four happen at Mount Sinai. God calls from the burning bush1 for their first introduction; from the top of Mount Sinai when the ex-slaves from Egypt first arrive2; and from the top of the mountain again (when it is smoking and thundering) to give Moses more instructions before the revelation known as the “Ten Commandments”3.

The fourth time, God calls to Moses from within the Tent of Meeting that the Israelites have constructed at the foot of Mount Sinai.

Vayikra to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them… (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:1-2)

vayikra (וַיִּקְרָא) = and he/It called (by name).

This divine call opens the book of Leviticus/Vayikra and this week’s Torah portion, which is also named Vayikra. Why does God call to Moses before giving him a new set of instructions?

One answer is that God always called Moses before speaking to him, as an expression of affection or courtesy, but the Torah does not always mention it.4

Cloud resting on
the Tent of Meeting

Another explanation points out that at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses assembles the new Tent of Meeting for the first time, and the presence of God moves from the top of Mount Sinai into the tent.

Then Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud dwelled in it, and the magnificence of God filled the Dwelling-Place.  (Exodus 40:35)

Moses is not willing to try entering again until God calls to him from inside the tent. When he hears this call, he realizes that his job is not finished; he must continue to serve as an intermediary between God and the Israelites.5  The only difference is that now he will hear God’s voice from the empty space above the ark in the back chamber of the tent, the Holy of Holies.6 To facilitate this, the cloud moves and hovers above the tent.

A unique feature of the word vayikra at the beginning of Leviticus is that in every Torah scroll, the letter aleph (א) at the end of the word is written smaller than the other letters.

Six words in the first five books of the Bible (Genesis through Deuteronomy, the contents of a Torah scroll) have been written with one letter smaller than the others ever since the 7th century C.E.7  No one knows the historic reason for these miniature letters, but symbolic interpretations have been proposed for each one.

The Zohar explains the small א in vayikra as indicating a restriction in God’s summons. Earlier in the Torah, God calls to Moses in full majesty from out of fire: first from the burning bush, then from the fire at the top of Mount Sinai. Now God calls from the Tent of Meeting, from inside the Holy of Holies.8

The idea of restriction is reinforced by the fact that in the first sentence of Leviticus, the Torah says He/It called to Moses, instead of God called to Moses; the name of God is only used in the second clause, when God speaks to Moses and gives him instructions. Moses hears the initial call when he is standing outside the Tent of Meeting. Then he goes inside to receive God’s new instructions.

From that point on, although Moses occasionally prostrates himself on the ground to get a quick word of divine advice, God usually speaks to him from the empty space above the ark in the Holy of Holies.

from Vesuvius in Eruption,
J.M.W. Turner, 1817

What does it mean that God now speaks with an indoor voice instead of an outdoor voice?  I think this change is related to a change in the Israelites’ relationship with God.  In the book of Exodus, God only speaks to the people once, on the day of revelation, and the people at the foot of Mount Sinai experience thunder, lightning, heavy cloud, the blare of a horn, smoke and fire, and earthquake.9

The experience is too devastating for the people, and they beg Moses to be a go-between for them.10  Moses does so, trotting up and down Mount Sinai, speaking with God at the top and the people at the bottom.  The ex-slaves from Egypt remain passive.  Even when they are afraid Moses has died, and they want an idol to replace him as their leader, they ask Moses’ brother Aaron to make it; they wouldn’t dare make a golden calf by themselves.

But when Moses passes on God’s instructions for making a dwelling-place for God, everyone with a willing heart donates materials, and everyone with a wise heart helps with the craftsmanship. (See my post Vayakheil: Will My Cup Run Over?)  In the book of Leviticus, Moses passes on God’s instructions for when and how the people should serve God by bringing their offerings, both animal and vegetable, to the altar.  Aaron and his four sons get new jobs as priests conducting sacred rituals, and at every stop on the journey through the wilderness, each tribe has a designated camping spot in relation to the Tent of Meeting.

Everyone is involved in serving God.  But only Moses and Aaron (the high priest) hear God’s voice; only they are permitted to enter the Holy of Holies.

Today we still see a difference between the organized religion of a congregation, and a lone person hearing God’s voice on a mountain-top.  People still have individual mystical experiences, usually when they are alone and confronted with a sight or sound that inspires awe.  Those experiences are precious.  But they are not sufficient for leading a good or holy life.  After all, does anyone today get explicit instructions from God whenever he or she needs them?  Is anyone today like Moses?

When we yearn for a moral compass or a way to walk with (or at least toward) God, we need help from other people.  We need a community of fellow-seekers, wise teachers to advise us, books to study, prayers to chant, rituals to perform.  We need our own equivalent of the Tent of Meeting.

If we do build a dwelling-place for God, in the right way for our own community in our own time, then we, too, can draw closer to God.  We may not hear God’s voice, but we can all feel that God is calling, and God’s presence rests in our midst.

(An earlier version of this essay was posted on March 6, 2010.)

1  And God saw that he had turned aside to look, vayikra to him, God, from the middle of the bush, and said: Moses! Moses!  (Exodus 3:4).

2  And they journeyed on from Refidim, and they entered the wilderness of Sinai, and they camped in the wilderness; and Israel camped there in front of the mountain. And Moses went up to God. Vayikra to him, God, from the mountain, saying: Thus you shall say to the House of Jacob…  (Exodus 19:2-3)

3  And God came down onto Mount Sinai, vayikra Moses, God did, to the top of the mountain.  And Moses went up.  (Exodus 19:20)

4  Rashi (12th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) on Torat Kohanim (Leviticus), after Sifra, ed. by Rav Chiyya of the Babylonian Talmud.  Also see Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar, 14:21.

5  “Moses needed constant goading because he was a humble person who instinctively withdrew from the attention and the honors that go with leadership.”  (Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, 1992, p. 2)

6  And when Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with [God], then he would hear the voice speaking to him from above the lid that was on the Ark of the Testimony, from between the two keruvim; and [God] spoke to him.  (Numbers 7:89)

7  During the 7th to 10th centuries C.E., rabbis arrived at a single, authoritative Biblical text derived from various copies written in consonants only. The Masoretes added diacritical marks to the text to indicate vowels, cantillation, and grammar. They also added marginal notes, and made some letters abnormal in size or position. The small letters (zeira) were among the earliest changes by the Masoretes. These six miniscule letters appear in Genesis 2:4 (ה in behibaram = when being created), Genesis 23:2 (כּ in velivkotah = and to wail for her), Genesis 27:46 (ק in katzeti = I am disgusted), Leviticus 1:1 (א in vayikra), Leviticus 6:2 (מ in mokdah = fire-place), and Numbers 25:11 (י in the name Pinchas).

8  Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, p. 3, paraphrasing the Zohar, a multi-volume kabbalistic commentary by Moshe deLeon, 13th century.

9  Exodus 19:16-19.

10  Exodus 20:15-18.

Haftarot for Vayikra & Tzav—Isaiah & Jeremiah: Useless Gods

March 23, 2016 at 6:03 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Jeremiah, Tzav, Vayikra | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). Last week the Torah portion was Vayikra (Leviticus 1.1-5:26) and the haftarah was Isaiah 43:21-44:23. This week the Torah portion is Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 7:21-8:3 and 9:22-23.

The first two Torah portions in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra consist entirely of instructions for making offerings on the altar: what each type of offering is for, what kind of animal or grain should be brought, and how the priests should process them. In Leviticus, this is the primary way to worship God, so the instruction manual is important.

The two accompanying haftarah readings both declare that offerings on God’s altar are meaningless when people are also making and worshiping idols.

The children of Judah have done what is bad in My eyes, declares God. They have set their abominable idols in the House with My name on it, defiling it. And they have built shrines of the Tofet in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, for burning their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command and which did not arise in my mind. (Jeremiah 7:30-31)

Tofet in "Bible Pictures", 1897

Tofet in “Bible Pictures”, 1897

Jeremiah decries the placement of statues of other gods right in God’s temple (“house”) in Jerusalem, as well as the practice of Tofet-worship in the valley below.  The haftarah from Isaiah points out that a craftsman might burn part of a log to burn for heat and cooking, and carve another part of the log into a statue to which he bows down and prays.

Yotzeir of an idol—

All of them are emptiness;

And what they crave

Cannot be useful.  (Isaiah 44:9)

yotzeir (יֹצֵר) = one who shapes, forms, fashions.

Other gods and the statues that represent them are empty, useless. God is the yotzeir of real humans; but a human is a yotzeir of false gods.

Jeremiah agrees that worshiping other gods is useless. In a prophecy that follows this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah says:

And the towns of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem will go to the gods for whom they sent up offerings in smoke, and call for help. But they [these gods] will certainly not rescue them at the time of their adversity. (Jeremiah 11:12)

The haftarah in Isaiah goes a step further, and declares other gods simply do not exist.

Thus said God, king of Israel

And its redeemer, God of Armies:

I am first and I am last

And except for Me there are no gods. (Isaiah 44:6)

The haftarot in Jeremiah and Isaiah agree that God punished the people of Judah for making and worshipping other so-called gods by sending in the Babylonian army to conquer the land and destroy Jerusalem and its temple. (See my post Haftarah for Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.)

Does that leave any hope for the future? Jeremiah, who witnessed the siege of Jerusalem in 589-587 B.C.E., predicts only more disaster.

Vulture on Assyrian relief carving in Kalhu

Vulture on Assyrian relief carving in Kalhu

And the carcasses of these people will be food for the birds of the sky and for beasts of the earth, and there will be no tomorrow. (Jeremiah 7:33)

And death will be preferable over life for all the remainder of those remaining from this wicked family, in all the places where I will push them… (Jeremiah 8:3)

But chapters 40-66 of the book of Isaiah were written at least 50 years later, after the Babylonian empire had been replaced by the Persians. Although the Jews did not get an independent kingdom again, the new Persian emperors granted them religious freedom and let those who wished go back to Jerusalem and build a second temple for their god.

The haftarah from Isaiah interprets this Persian policy as God’s intervention. After criticizing the Israelites for their idolatry, the haftarah says:

I have wiped away like a mist your rebellion

And like a cloud your transgressions.

Return to Me, for I have reclaimed You. (Isaiah 44:22)

How can they return? What should they do that is more important than making offerings at a rebuilt altar?

This week’s haftarah from Jeremiah says they should follow God’s directions for the right way to behave in the world.

Heed My voice, and I will be your god and you will be My people; but you must walk on the entire path that I command you, so that it will go well for you. (Jeremiah 7:23)

Last week’s haftarah from Isaiah says they should praise God to the rest of the world.

This people yatzarti for Myself:

My praise they should report! (Isaiah 43:21)

yatzarti (יָזַרְתִּי) = I formed, I shaped, I fashioned. (From the same verb as yotzeir above.)

Instead of forming statues of empty, useless gods, the people should report what the real God is.

But the Israelites of Judah turned deaf (according to Jeremiah) and mute (according to Isaiah) where God was concerned.

*

We still make idols, 2,600 years later, and we still worship “gods” that are ultimately useless. Some people pursue power as if it were the source of life—until their careers or families crash and they discover they live in a spiritual exile. Others dedicate themselves to accumulating or spending money—until a disaster reveals how they devoted so much time and energy to something so transient. We do not need an anthropomorphic god to send an army against us; serving the false gods we create carries its own intrinsic punishment, preventing us from leading full and meaningful lives.

A Jeremiah can point out that the wrong path leads to a bitter death. Sometimes this is the slap in the face we need to wake up.

But an Isaiah can give us hope for a second chance, however late in life. If we return to God—if we return of a life of appreciating reality (one form of praising God), appreciating one another, remembering we are only human, and rejoicing when we come home to our better selves—then the divine spirit will wipe away our former false worship like a mist, like a cloud. We can change, and true meaning can return to our lives.

Vayikra: Happening or Calling

March 16, 2015 at 3:41 pm | Posted in Vayikra | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Vayikra to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting. (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:1)

vayikra (וַיִּקְרא) = and he/It called, proclaimed, summoned; and he/It met.

The book of Leviticus and its first Torah portion are called Vayikra, the opening word.  In Hebrew, the word looks different here than in any other place in the Bible, because of the size of the last letter:

Vaiykra with nikkud

Early copies of the Torah had no diminutive letters.  But when the Masoretes wrote their definitive 9th-10th century versions of the Torah, they spelled 28 words with small letters, including Vayikra with a small alef, and the word has appeared that way ever since.

Torah scrolls omit the vowels that the Masoretes added to the text, but keep the Masoretic diminutive letters. So in a Torah scroll, the first word of Leviticus looks like this:

Vayikra alef

Most of the Masoretic additions to the text of the Hebrew Bible make it easier for someone to read (or chant) the Bible out loud. The nikkudim (marks above, below, and inside letters to indicate vowels and doubled consonants) clarify pronunciation. The trope (cantillation marks above and below letters) indicate which syllables to accent, and which melodic phrases to use for chanting. With both kinds of markings, the first word of Leviticus looks like this:

Vayikra with trope

There are also places where the Masoretic text gives two versions of a word, one (ketiv) in its original spelling (an actual word, but probably a scribal error), and one (kere) in a spelling that makes sense in context.

But the 28 words with diminutive letters would be spoken or chanted the same way regardless of the size of their letters.  Why did the Masoretes use small letters?

Some versions of 10th century Masoretic texts include marginal notes, and at least six of these notes on small letters say (in a rough translation of the Aramaic) “small [name of letter] to state the accepted version”. The footnotes for at least four more just say “small” (ze-ira), probably an abbreviation of the note that the letter is small to indicate the accepted version.

In other words, in the versions of the text that the Masoretes found unacceptable, the words were spelled with the controversial letters omitted.  For example, the first word of Leviticus was spelled ויקר.

In the accepted version of the text, the words were spelled with the controversial letters included.  Vayikra was spelled ויקרא. The Masoretes spelled these words according to the “accepted” version—but they made the controversial letters undersized to document that they were missing in some Torah scrolls.

Out of the 28 words with diminutive letters, seven are proper names, and ten are not even Hebrew words without the small letter. So only eleven of the words might mean something different if the diminutive letter were omitted.  And one of these is vayikra, the first word of this week’s Torah portion.

Without the alef (א) at the end, vayikra (וַיִּקְרא = and he/it called, summoned, met, encountered) would be vayiker (וַיִּקֶר = and he/it happened to, befell). The opening sentence would read: And It happened to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.

God “happens to” (וַיִּקֶר) the Mesopotamian prophet Bilam in Numbers/Bemidbar 23:3. God tells Bilam what to do, and then when it is time for him to utter a curse or blessing, God puts the words into Bilam’s mouth. It is a one-way relationship.

But the prophet Moses has a two-way relationship with God.  They have long conversations, and sometimes argue with one another.  So God wants to get Moses’ attention, God “meets” him or “calls” to him.

In an earlier post, Vayikra: A Voice is Calling, I mentioned that God “called” Moses three times, the first two times from Mount Sinai, and the third time (with the diminutive alef) from the Tent of Meeting. I cited commentary in Rashi and the Zohar that the miniature alef  indicates a restriction or muting of the call, and suggested that God switched to an “indoor voice” when the people switched to connecting with God through the vehicle of the sanctuary tent.

This year, I’d like to add that whether you encounter God in a sanctuary, or anywhere else in your life, there are two kinds of encounters. Sometimes a mystical experience just happens to you. If you are like Bilam, your mind is wired in such a way that it happens relatively often.

Moses at the Burning Bush by Rembrandt van Rijn

Moses at the Burning Bush
by Rembrandt van Rijn

The other kind of encounter begins when you merely notice the possibility of the numinous—as Moses noticed the bush that burned but was not consumed. You stop and pay attention, and try to figure out what is going on. If you are quiet enough, you may discover that the divine is calling you—as God called to Moses in the first portion of Exodus:

God saw that he had turned aside to look, vayikra to him from amidst the bush, and It said: Moses! Moses! (Exodus/Shemot 3:4)

18th-century rabbi Menahem Nahum Twersky of Chernobyl wrote in Me’or ‘Eynayim , “God the cosmic aleph is present in miniature form within each Israelite, calling us to return. These are our pangs of conscience, but we do not perceive them as God’s own call to us.” (Translated by Rabbi Arthur Green in Speaking Torah, Vol. 1, p. 250.)

Thus a conversation with the divine voice could be a much quieter affair than when God “happens” to someone.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, at the beginning of the book of Leviticus, God calls Moses with a small alef.  Then Moses realizes that completing the Tent of Meeting according to God’s specifications is not the end of his work. Even though God’s radiance has filled the sanctuary, Moses hears the divine inner voice urging him to go back into the Tent of Meeting for further instructions.

May all of us learn how to be still, pay attention, and listen for the call inside ourselves.

Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2

March 9, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Posted in Tzav, Vayikra | 7 Comments

fireWhen oil burns, either light or smoke rises.  In the Torah priests light the lamps of the menorah inside the sanctuary every night to make light.  Outside the sanctuary, on the altar, they place the fatty parts of animals day and night, to keep the fire going and to keep smoke rising up to the heavens.

The first two Torah portions in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra explain that God enjoys the smell of smoke, especially the smell of burning animal fat.

The donor of every type of fire-offering except the grain-based minchah must bring an animal, lean a hand on its head, then watch the priests slaughter and butcher it, splash the blood around, and burn all or part of it on the altar to generate smoke.  (The minchah grain offering is sprinkled with frankincense to flavor the smoke to God’s liking.)

Killing and burning animals was the usual technology for worship in the Ancient Near East, and the ancient Israelites probably found fire-offerings spiritually moving.  Today some people view the slaughter of animals as an unfortunate necessity, and others find it unethical to kill animals for human food.  Can we apply the Torah’s categories of offerings to a more ethically refined set of procedures?  Last week I suggested new ways of interpreting fire-offerings in general, as well as another take on the first kind of fire-offering in Leviticus, the olah or rising-offering.  In this post we will look at the other five categories.

*

In the order of their appearance in the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, the six types of fire-offerings are:

1) olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering.  (See last week’s post, Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1.)

2) minchah (מִנחָה) = allegiance-offering; a gift to a king as a sign of homage or respect.  (In the Torah a minchah offering to God is an offering of grain in some form, often in conjunction with an animal offering.)

A person who offers a minchah for God, he shall offer fine flour, and he shall pour oil over it and place frankincense upon it … and the priest shall make a memorial portion go up in smoke on the altar, a fire-offering of soothing fragrance for God.  (Leviticus 2:1-2)

When I burn my toast, it only sets off the smoke alarm.  But before I eat bread or any other food, I say a blessing to give thanks for it.  The blessing is my gift of allegiance to the source of all life.

3) shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = wholeness-offering.  (From the same root as shaleim (שָׁלֵם) = complete, safe and sound, at peace; and shalom (שָׁלוֹם) = peace.)

The Torah gives three reasons for offering a shelamim:

todah (תוֹדָה) =  thanks,

neder (נֶדֶר) = a pledge or vow that the offering fulfills, or

nedavah (נְדָבָה) = a donation made out of generosity.

All three kinds of shelamim include both an animal and several types of bread.1  The animal and the unleavened loaves are divided into three portions: one to be turned into smoke for God, one for the officiating priest to eat, and one for the donor and his guests to eat in God’s presence, i.e. in the courtyard in front of the altar.  The leavened bread is not burned, but entirely eaten by the priest and the donor’s party.

And if his offering is a shelamim, if he offers it from the herd, whether male or female, he shall offer it unblemished in front of God.  And he shall lean his hand on the head of the offering …  (Leviticus 3:1-2)

Just as with the olah in last week’s blog post, the donor slaughters the animal and the priests splash its blood around the altar.  Then the fatty parts of the animal are burned up into smoke for God, as in every fire-offering.  The same rules apply to a male or female sheep or goat.2

The difference between a shelamim for a todah and and a shelamim for a neder or nedavah is the time limit for eating the meat and bread in the donor’s portion of the offering.  The donor and his family and guests have one day to eat the meat and bread from a todah.  They have two days to eat the meat and bread from a neder or nedavah.3  One theory is that these time limits ensure the donor invites more guests to share the feast.  This increases his generosity.

Today we can say blessings to express our appreciation for life and the whole world.  We can also show our appreciation to human individuals and groups by giving thank-you gifts, pledges, and donations.  The more often we do so, the more we add to the world’s supply of generosity—and that brings more wholeness (shaleim) as well as holiness into the world.

4) chattat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering.  (From the root verb chata (חָטָא) = miss the mark, commit an offense against God; make amends for doing wrong.)

If one person from among the people of the land should chata unintentionally, by doing one of the commandments of God that should not be done, and he incurs guilt—  If the offense that he committed becomes known to him, then he shall bring his offering: an unblemished female goat for his chatat that he chata…  (Leviticus 4:27-28)

This is one example in a list of the proper animals to offer for the unintentional misdeeds of priests, leaders, the whole community, and individuals.  All the animals are offered in the usual way: the donor leans a hand on the live animal’s head, it is slaughtered, a priests splashes its blood on the altar, the dead animal is butchered, and the fatty parts are burned on the altar to provide soothing smoke for God.

And the priest shall make atonement for him and he shall be forgiven.  (Leviticus 4:31) 

 

What can we do today when we realize after the fact that we did something wrong?  When I inadvertently violate a vow I made to myself (for example, if I bite into what I thought was a vegetarian omelet and taste bacon in my mouth), I stop what I was doing and say a short prayer for discernment in the future.  That helps to reconcile my conscience with the knowledge that I made a mistake, so I can forgive myself.

But when I realize I did something that hurt another person, I need to find reconciliation with both my conscience and the person I wronged.  I have to find a calm time to talk with the person, then say what I think I did wrong and apologize.  Next I give the other person a chance to say how the offense looked to them.  If I need to explain anything, I try to do it humbly, without defending my ego.  Then I ask what I can do to make up for the wrong I did.  When we agree, I do it.  Only then can I be forgiven by both the other person and myself.

5) asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering.  (From the root asham (אָשַׁם) = incur guilt.)

If a person offends and betrays God’s trust and lies to his fellow about a pledge, or a loan, or a theft, or fraud; or he finds a lost item and lies about it, and he swears falsely … he shall return the stolen item that he stole or the fraud that he committed or the pledge that was left with him or the lost item he found … and he shall pay back the principal and add a fifth …  And he shall bring his asham to God …  And the priest shall make reconciliation for him before God, and he shall be forgiven for everything that he did to become guilty.  (Leviticus 5:21-26)

If we steal or defraud another person, we must make reparations to the person we have wronged.  We must also bring an offering to God for the sake of atonement, so we can reconnect with the divine spirit.  If we have lied about our misdeed, we are doubly guilty, and the offering must be an asham.

When we have made reparations for our original misdeed, but we still feel guilty for lying about it, what can we do to clear ourselves?  For some people, the answer is to give a large donation to charity, in money or labor.  For others, the answer might be to conduct a ritual that includes washing with water and saying prayers borrowed from the Yom Kippur repentance liturgy.

6) milu-im (מִלֻּאִים) = ordination-offering.  (From the root mala (מָלַא) = fill, fulfill.  Filling someone’s hands is the Biblical Hebrew idiom for ordaining that person as a priest.)4

Then [Moses] offered the second ram, the ram of milu-im, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on the head of the ram.  (Leviticus 8:22)

The milu-im seems to apply only to the act of ordination.  But if our goal is to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), then we need to give ordination-offerings whenever our hands are filled—i.e. whenever we receive authority to act in the public sphere.

What can we give today in return for this authority?  Humble service, regular prayers or meditations on becoming worthy, and the sacrifice of stepping down again at the right time.

*

When the ancient Israelites wanted to give God fire-offerings, offerings of the heart, they could come to the altar and follow the established rituals.  They knew what to do; and probably the death, blood, and smoke made the rituals more impressive for them.

Today we have to think harder about our practices.  Yet we can still give six kinds of offerings to the divine, with the fire of our hearts.  We can rise higher (olah), give allegiance (minchah), cultivate wholeness through thanks and generosity (shelamim), repair mistakes (chataat), undo guilt (asham), and turn our positions of authority into holy ordinations (milu-im).

Let’s keep on giving our own offerings!  And may the whole world someday become a holy nation.

  1. Leviticus 7:12-13.
  2. See Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1 for comments on fire-offerings in general.  Instructions are repeated for a shelamim of a flock animal in Leviticus 3:7-16.
  3. Leviticus 7:15-17.
  4. (or more details about the ordination of the first priests, see my posts Tzav: Oil and Blood and  Tzav: Seven Days of Filling Up.

Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1

March 2, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Posted in Tzav, Vayikra | 8 Comments
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My teeth clench every year when I start to read the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.

The first two Torah portions, Vayikra (“And [God] Called”), and Tzav (“Command”) consist of rules for various kinds of offerings, or sacrifices, at the altar.  The Torah refers to these offerings or sacrifices as a korbanim (קָרְבָּנִים) = things brought near.1  Since God now inhabits the tent-sanctuary behind the altar, at least part time,2 bringing something to the altar means bringing it close to God—i.e., presenting it to God as a gift.

Almost all the gifts God requests in the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav include animals slaughtered on the spot.

The book of Leviticus opens when God calls to Moses from the new Tent of Meeting and begins giving instructions for korbanim.

Leaning hands on a bull in an ordination offering

“… you shall offer your offerings (korbanim) from the animals from the herd or the flock.  If someone offers an olah from the [cattle] herd, he shall offer an unblemished male at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.  He shall offer it out of his own desire in front of God.  And he shall lean his hand on the head of the olah, and it will be accepted for him, to atone for him.  And he shall slaughter the young bull in front of God.  Then the descendants of Aaron, the priests, shall offer the blood and splash the blood against the altar all around … (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:2-5)

olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering.  (From the root verb alah (עלה) = go up.)  In an olah the entire slaughtered animal is burned up, so olah is often translated as “burnt offering” or even “holocaust offering”.

The same procedure applies to a ram or a male goat offered as an olah.  After the animal’s throat has been slit and its blood is splashed on the altar, it is butchered and various pieces are waved around and burned in the altar fire.

This is difficult reading for someone who stopped eating mammals and birds 24 years ago because they are too much like human beings.3

The Torah also recognizes an affinity between livestock animals and humans.  The instructions for offering cattle, sheep, or goats include leaning or laying a hand on an animal’s head just before it is slaughtered.  This act transfers the donor’s identity to the animal, so that killing and offering it is the equivalent of sacrificing one’s own life to God.4

Altar, “Treasures of the Bible”, Northrup 1894

Live, healthy cows, sheep, and goats were valuable items among the ancient Israelites, suitable as bribes, gifts, or payments to chieftains and prophets.  Dead animals were only good for hospitality for that day’s meal.

What use would God have for a dead animal?

In the book of Leviticus, the fatty parts of the animal offerings are burned up into smoke, which ascends to the heavens, and the scent pleases God.  The Torah does not specify whether an anthropomorphic God loves the smell of burning fat, or loves the smell that means humans are sacrificing valuable assets as gifts.

I can understand the desire to present God with a gift—out of sheer gratitude for our lives in the world, or out of a desire to return to harmony with the divine after we have strayed.  And I am grateful that Jews have moved beyond killing animals at an altar.  So what we can give to God instead?  The usual answer is that prayer has replaced animal offerings, and the passion of sincere prayer replaces the fire on the altar.  Yet the first two Torah portions of Leviticus describe six kinds of fire-offerings.  Perhaps we need six kinds of prayers to replace them.

Fire-offering

For all six kinds of gifts to God, at least part of the gift is a fire-offering.   When the Torah describes the first type of offering, the olah or rising-offering, it establishes that fire-offerings make God relax.

…and the priest shall bring all of it and make it go up in smoke on the altar; it is an olah, an isheh of restful fragrance for God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:13)

isheh (אִשֵּׁה) = fire-offering; offering burned on the altar. (From the word eish (אֵשׁ) = fire.)

Yet fire often evokes the emotion of anger the Torah; Biblical Hebrew, like English, uses words meaning “burning” and “inflamed” to indicate rage, especially God’s rage.  It is not the fire that is restful, but the fragrance of the smoke.5

Today, we might make an isheh, a fire-offering, by praying, chanting, or meditating on anger.  If we are easily inflamed by controversies or by the behaviors of other people, we might imagine offering our passionate anger on the altar to burn itself down.  We might visualize the smoke rising into a clear, calm sky.  After a while we might reach a state in which our original outrage is tempered by both rational considerations and empathy for people who at first appeared to be enemies.

Pillar of Fire, by Paul Hardy, 1896

If we are anxious or afraid of the anger expressed by another person or group, we might sing prayers while imagining the majesty of God’s pillar of fire leading the way through the wilderness.  Eventually we, too, can move forward into the unknown with courage and calm strength.

Rising-offering

The first type of fire-offering in Leviticus, the olah, is the only one which stays on the altar fire all night until it is completely burned up into smoke.  An olah is required twice a day as a matter of routine, perhaps to keep a sustaining level of fragrant smoke rising to the heavens.  A holy day calls for an extra olah.  This type of offering is also prescribed for individuals in a variety of conditions who need to return to a normal relationship with God and their religious community.  Maybe a normal relationship includes continuous, unflagging dedication to serving God.

Today, if we want our souls to keep rising up toward the divine day and night, we must keep burning up the fatty parts of our lives.  Sometimes animals need fat as a reserve source of energy in lean times, but accumulating too much fat is physically unhealthy, just as accumulating too much wealth is spiritually unhealthy.  For a good relationship with our God, our community, and ourselves, we have to keep tending the fire of our desire to do good and not let ourselves lapse into selfish hoarding.

*

Next week I will look at the other five types of fire-offerings described in the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, and how we might address the impulse behind each one today—without slaughtering animals.

(I published an earlier version of this essay in March 2014.)

“Leviticus cares about how the people, individually and collectively, process our guilt for our less-than-honorable deeds, and how we process our gratitude for the grace we have been shown. Leviticus understands that owning our mistakes and expressing our gratitude are necessary elements in maintaining a healthy spiritual ecosystem.”  (Irwin Keller, Itzak’s Well, “A Planet of Priests”, info@irwinkeller.com via gmail.mcsv.net on Mar 27, 2020 09:15 pm.)

  1. From the hifil form of the verb karav (קָרַב) = come near.
  2. Exodus 29:42-45.  See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.
  3. When I posted my first version of this essay in 2014, it was 18 years.
  4. Samakh (סָמַךְ) = he leaned (or lay) a hand (or hands) on.  When Moses lays his hands on Joshua, he transfers some of his authority and spirit to his successor as the leader of the Israelites (Numbers 27:18-23, Deuteronomy 34:9).  When the Levites are ordained, the Israelites lay hands on them to make them the people’s substitutes for service in the sanctuary (Numbers 8:10).  The word samakh is also used for the ritual before an animal sacrifice.  The word smikha (סְמִיכָה), from the root samakh, refers to the ordination of rabbis and other Jewish religious functionaries to this day.  See my post Tzav: Oil and Blood.
  5. See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.

Vayikra: Sour, Sweet, and Salt

March 12, 2013 at 10:42 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Vayikra | Leave a comment

Humans tend to bring gifts to their gods. They have done it all over the world, from the beginning of history. In the Torah, the first human to offer a gift to God is Cain, the oldest son of Adam and Eve … and God rejects his offering. Religions help people to avoid the fear of being rejected by their gods by spelling out what gifts are and are not acceptable.

The first part of the book of Leviticus/Vayikra (And It Called) is devoted to instructions about offerings for the altar. What kinds of animal and grain offerings will be acceptable to God? The first Torah portion begins by considering animals for burned offerings.

If one brings an olah from the herd, he shall bring an unblemished male; he shall bring it to the opening of the Tent of  Meeting, liretzono before God. And he shall lean his hand upon the head of the olah, and it will be nirtzah for him, to atone for him. (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:3-4)

olah = an offering that is completely burned, so its smoke will rise to the heavens

liretzono = to be accepted for him

nirtzah = favorably received, acceptable, counted as good (from the same root as liretzonoרצה)

After an initial review of animal offerings, the Torah gives particulars about the minchah offering: a gift of homage to God, made from grain. (See my blog post “Vayikra: Gifts to the Giver”.) Embedded in the minchah instructions is a ban on any leavening or sweetener in a burned offering:

Every homage that you bring to God you shall make without chameitz; for you shall not bring any sourdough or any devash into an offering by fire to God. (Leviticus 2:11)

chameitz = leavened bread, fermented food

devash = syrup, bee honey, fruit nectar

Leavened loaves of bread can only be brought to the sanctuary for the priests and their families to eat; they must not be burned on the altar. Fruit syrup or jam can only be brought at the annual festival of first fruits, Shavuot, and the fruit preserves were also eaten by the priests.

Why are leavened bread and syrup are banned from burned offerings?  Philo of Alexandria, who lived 2,000 years ago, began a long line of Jewish commentatary comparing bread rising to a human puffing up with self-importance—the opposite of the humility needed to pay homage to God. Another view stresses the instruction in the book of Exodus/Shemot to eat unleavened matzah on Passover/Pesach in order to remember that the Israelites did not have time to let their dough leaven before escaping Egypt. Since matzah is “the bread of our affliction”, the Israelites presumably did not have time to watch bread rise during their years of slavery, either. According to 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphel Hirsch, leavened bread therefore represents political independence, which the Israelites achieved not by their own efforts, but only by following God’s Torah. Fruit syrup represents ownership of land where dates and other fruit trees grow naturally—another gift from God. Hirsch argued that an acceptable offering to God could only be something that the Israelites had acquired by their own efforts. (Presumably the Israelites put a lot of their own labor into making flour and tending their animals.)

I am not persuaded by either Philo or Hirsch. I suspect that the key lies in the way the ancient Israelites viewed leavening. For modern Americans, leavened bread is sweet and yeasty, and sourdough bread is an interesting variation. But the ancient Israelites had only sourdough leavening, and their word for leavened bread, chameitz, comes from the same root as the word for vinegar, chometz. In Biblical Hebrew, when something leavens or ferments itself, yitchameitz, it turns sour and sharp, whether it is flour becoming sourdough bread or grape juice becoming vinegar.

An offering that is going to straight up to God in smoke should not be sour. If we give ourselves to God in a sour mood, our offering will not be accepted.

Nor should an offering sent straight to God be sweetened, as if the donor wanted to make it more palatable to God. If we try to sweet-talk our way into God’s favor, or to adopt a sweetness that we do not feel inside, our offering will not be accepted.

After banning leaven and syrup in burned offerings, the Torah says that all offerings to God must be salted:

Every offering of your homage you shall salt with salt; you may not omit the melach of the brit of your God from your homage. You shall put melach on every offering of yours. (Leviticus/Vayikra 2:13)

melach = salt

brit = covenant, pact, alliance

Why is salt required for acceptance? Salt was not a rare commodity in Canaan; the Israelites used to quarry rock salt near the Dead Sea, which the Hebrew Bible calls the Sea of Salt. The salt quarries between that sea and the city of Sodom may be the “Valley of Salt”, the site of at least two battles in the Hebrew Bible. When God annahilates Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Lot’s wife looks back at Sodom and becomes a pillar of salt (one of many strange salt formations left by the evaporation of the Dead Sea). In Deuteronomy/Devarim Moses warns that when the Israelites worship idols in the future, God will destroy their land, and visitors will compare its barrenness to burning with sulfur and salt.

Yet the proper care of a newborn infant included bathing it in water and rubbing it with salt, according to the book of Ezekiel/Yechezkeil; and the prophet Elisha “heals” a contaminated spring with a dish of salt in 2 Kings/Melakhim. Salt is both a preservative and a condiment for food. Thus the Hebrew Bible associates salt with both death and life.

This week’s Torah portion refers to salt as a form of covenant. A covenant of salt also shows up in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. After disposing of Korach’s threat to the rights of priests, God tells the high priest Aaron:

All holy upraised offerings that the children of Israel raise up to God, I give to you and to your sons and to your daughters with you, as a decree forever; it will be a brit melach forever; it is before God for you and your offspring with you. (Numbers/Bemidbar 18:19)

And in the second book of Chronicles, Aviyah, king of Judah, says:

Listen to me, Yaravam and all Israel! Don’t you know that God, the god of Israel, gave kingship to David over Israel forever, to him and to his sons, a brit melach? (2 Chronicles/2 Divrei Hayamim 13:4-5)

Salt apparently makes a covenant especially unbreakable and long-lasting. Many commentators attribute this to the fact that salt was the main preservative used by the Israelites. But salt was also their universal seasoning, set on the table for every meal. Eating a man’s salt was an idiom for being either his friend or his dependent. So a covenant of salt might imply not only durability, but also dependence or even friendship.

Now that we reach out to God by praying instead of by burning animals and matzah, we can apply the ideas in Leviticus about leaven, syrup, and salt in a more subtle way. All too often, when we stand before other people, we have to paste on a sweet smile. But when we stand before God, we need to abandon any false sweetness, as well as the pride and the sourness implied by leavening. And we need to be serious about life and death, offering our whole selves, and acknowledging that we all eat our salt at God’s table.

Vayikra: Gifts to the Giver

March 23, 2012 at 9:58 am | Posted in Bereishit, Passover/Pesach, Shavuot, Vayikra | 1 Comment

Imagine you own nothing.  You are homeless, penniless, hungry.  Then someone gives you a farm with good soil, crops in the ground, and seeds.  All you have to do is work the farm and trade your harvest for everything else you need. The farm still belongs to your benefactor, but he or she lends it to you rent-free for your lifetime, and you can even pass it on to your children.

As soon as begin to feel secure, you are moved to thank the farm’s actual owner.  So you send your benefactor a nice selection of its produce.  Maybe you also include a loaf baked from the wheat you have grown.  It’s the best you can do to express your gratitude, and perhaps your humility.

This is how I imagine ancient peoples felt when they made sacrifices to their gods.  They knew their lives depended on the gifts of rain, sun, and soil, as well as the plants and animals that were already in the world before humans came along.  People wanted to recognize this by making a formal expression of humble gratitude, a gift to pay homage.  But how could they deliver their gift?  Some cultures made idols for their gods to inhabit, and set their gifts in front of the idols.  But the ancient Israelites shunned idols.  Until they built the sanctuary for God to dwell in, the only address they knew for God was “the heavens”.  So they built altars, laid offerings on them, and burned them, sending the smoke up to the sky.  It was the best they could do.

The first offering to God in the Torah is Cain’s.

And it happened, at the end of a period of time, that Cain brought from the fruit of the ground a minchah for God.  And Abel, he also brought, from the firstborns of his his flock and from their fat …  (Genesis/Bereishit 4:3-4)

minchah = gift to a superior, homage, tribute, offering to a god

The Torah does not say whether Cain and Abel built altars and burned their offerings.  But it is clear that the first offering to God is Cain’s minchah, consisting of the fruits of his harvest.  Abel follows his brother’s lead by offering animals from his flock to God, and the Torah also calls this offering a minchah.

The rest of the offerings mentioned in the first two books of the Torah, Genesis/Bereishit and Exodus/Shemot, all appear to be animals, and none of them is called a minchah. That word is used again a few times in Genesis, but only for gifts from one human to another.  Jacob gives a minchah to his estranged brother Esau to butter him up, and Joseph’s brothers bring a minchah to him when he is the viceroy of Egypt, for the same purpose.  The Torah uses other Hebrew words for animal offerings.  The standard procedure in Genesis, starting with Noah, seems to be building an altar out of stones, laying firewood on it, slaughtering the animal, and burning it.

In the book of Exodus, the instructions for offerings to inaugurate the sanctuary include the word minchah three times, and all three refer to an offering that is neither an animal sacrifice nor a libation.  Are we returning to Cain’s vegetable offering?  The first Torah portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra answers with a technical definition of the proper types of minchah:

And a soul who would bring near an offering of minchah (homage) to God, his offering shall be wheat flour; and he shall pour oil over it and place frankincense upon it. And he shall bring it to the sons of Aaron, the priests, and one shall scoop from it … a memorial portion on the altar, a fire-offering, a fragrant aroma for God.   (Leviticus/Vayikra 2:1-2)

The Torah then describes four ways the minchah can be cooked before it is offered.  The mixture of flour and oil can be baked into loaves of unleavened bread, or into flat bread wafers.  It can be fried on a griddle, or cooked as soft dough in a pot.  But it must always be sprinkled with frankincense, and then salt, before a piece of it is burned up into smoke. Furthermore, the bread of the minchah must never be left to rise, and it must never include fruit syrup:

Any minchah that you bring near for God you shall not make leavened, for you must not make any sourdough or any syrup go up in smoke with a fire-offering for God.  You shall bring them near to God as an offering of first-fruits, but they shall not be upon the altar, nor go up as a fragrant aroma.  (Leviticus 2:11-12)

Later the Torah describes the annual offering of first-fruits on Shavuot, which also includes an offering of two loaves of leavened bread from each pilgrim.  These offerings are presented to the priests at the sanctuary, but no part of them is burned on the altar.

Why does a minchah have to be unleavened and unsweetened, while offerings for Shavuot, the Day of First-Fruits, include both leaven and fruit syrup?

There may be a connection between the observance of Passover, when no leaven may be eaten, and the observance of Shavuot exactly seven weeks later, when the bread brought to the priests must be allowed to rise.  Yet the Torah describes Passover as a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt, and Shavuot as a harvest festival.  (Shavuot was not associated with the revelation at Mount Sinai until much later, after the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E.)

I believe the key difference is that a portion of every offering of unleavened, unsweetened bread is burned on the altar to make smoke for God, while leaven and syrup are given to the priests with a ritual recitation instead of burning.  (See my blog “Ki Tavo:  The Perishing Aramean”.)

Plain flour and oil, whether cooked or not, represents basic subsistence.  This makes an unleavened flour or matzah offering an expression of humility and gratitude that God makes life possible at all.  Sourdough loaves and fruit syrups are examples of foods that go beyond basic subsistence, providing the luxury of pleasant tastes. As offerings, these foods express gratitude for a richness of life beyond what is strictly necessary to survive.

The offering of gratitude for the bare fact of life is turned into smoke.  Perhaps the smoke is not only a metaphorical fragrance for God to enjoy, but also a sign of the evanescence of life.  We are lucky to have life at all — and all too soon, we fade away.  But we are grateful for every moment of life.

The offering of gratitude for luxuries and extras is not turned into smoke.  It is a way of rejoicing that the early harvest is going well, that life is going well, with surpluses to enjoy.  We can rejoice out of the fullness of our hearts, without any grim reminders of death.  But we only indulge in this kind of gratitude once a year, as spring turns to summer.  The rest of the year, we still need the reminder of the smoke.


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