Dr. Thomas Dooley
The Book of Leviticus is all about sacrifices. Parshat Vayikra opens with instructions concerning the olah, the only sacrificial offering that is not eaten by either priest or Israelite, but rather is burned entirely (with the exception of the skin) on the altar. It is dedicated in its entirety to God’s “pleasure” and “benefit.”
If your offering is a burnt offering from the herd, you shall make your offering a male without blemish. You shall bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before Adonai. You shall lay a hand upon the head of the burnt offering, that it may be acceptable in your behalf, in expiation for you. The bull shall be slaughtered before Adonai, and Aaron’s sons, the priests, shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar, which is at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Leviticus 1:3-5)
Not only is the olah the first offering discussed in Sefer Vayikra (the Book of Leviticus), but it is also the first offered on occasions when a variety of sacrifices are being offered at the same time. A commentary in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, which addresses the relationship of the person who brings the sacrifice to God who receives it, got me thinking about the olah in connection with personal relationships, as well as our relationships with God. Here’s the commentary:
“The fact that the burnt offering usually appears first in a series of sacrifices suggests that its purpose may be to open up communication with the Divine; if so, then that goal would be accomplished by manifesting generosity — giving part of one’s wealth to God.” (p. 572)
How do we open up communication — initiate meaningful relationship — with God and with other people? Another way to ask the question, using Martin Buber’s idiom, is: How do we move beyond an I-It relationship, and enter into an I-Thou relationship?
Beginning with our relationships with other people: People continually parade through our lives (as we do through the lives of others), but every once in a while, someone enters our lives who is different — someone to whom we are drawn to create an opening that turns our I-It encounters into I-Thou encounters. We want to go past conversations about politics, philosophy, children, culture, and all the other things that we are delighted to discuss. We want to touch souls.
Does that require a sacrifice? I think it does. To reach another’s soul, we have to open ours. We bring our olah to the altar. Our olah takes the form of entrusting this person with something that makes us feel vulnerable, something deeply personal and meaningful, and knowing that the outcome of that trust is that we are going to be changed. From the other side, when someone reaches out to us to create such an opening and we want to accept their olah, we must suspend judgment, which is to say, sacrifice the stereotypes and pre-conceived notions we harbor to make ourselves feel safe, and be open. From this side, as well, we will be changed.
This opening is, as the passage from A Women’s Commentary suggests, a generous gift. It is the gift of the self. What is more, Torah requires the olah to be tamim — pure and without blemish. How does this translate into our efforts to open up deep, meaningful, and transformative communication with another person? Certainly we are not without blemish (no person is) but our sacrifice — our gift of self — can be tamim. When we offer our true selves, unvarnished and detached from the projection of an image of how we would like others to see us, we are offering an olah that is tamim.
The sacrificial cult is long gone and has been replaced by prayer. In fact, shacharit and minchah, the morning, and afternoon services, are direct replacements for the morning tamid and afternoon minchah offerings. The word for prayer in Hebrew, l’hitpalel, is a reflexive term meaning “to judge or examine oneself.” This suggests that to a very great degree, praying is introspective. (It’s difficult to square this with the high degree of petitionary prayer found in the siddur, but that’s a subject for a separate discussion.) Can prayer that is l’hitpalel — introspective self-examination — provide a way to “[open] up communication with the Divine”? The genuine spiritual connection requires sacrifice: it requires us to look deep within and reveal to God-within, our whole and true selves. Introspection of this sort is difficult and makes us feel vulnerable. When it is honest, it is tamim. If the divine in us can accept our sacrifice — that is to say, if we can accept ourselves with love and with gentleness, we will emerge changed, transformed.
The French essayist Charles Du Bos (1882-1939) wrote in his book Approximations (published 1922): "...premier tressaillement vital; surtout il s'agit à tout moment de sacrifier ce que nous sommes à ce que nous pouvons devenir." "The important thing is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become." A worthy exchange indeed!