Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Stuff and Sacrifices / Parshat Vayikra

One of George Carlin’s funniest routines is about “Stuff.” You can watch it here. “That’s the whole meaning of life isn’t it? Trying to find a place for your stuff… That’s all your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.” Humans are the only animals that keep “stuff” they don’t need. Other species, if they squirrel away anything at all, are likely to keep primarily food, and only what they need. People, however, have a complicated relationship with the material world. The psychology of “stuff” is exceptionally complicated. We ascribe meaning to what we have, what we don’t have, what we want, what we must give up, what we have lost, what we can and cannot regain, who gives us stuff, what we give to others. We judge others and ourselves by the metric of possessions.

This week we begin reading sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus. In a way, it’s all about stuff. It’s about the stuff – animals, grains, oil, wine – we give to God in the form of sacrificial offerings. The mitzvot relating to the sacrificial offerings in the Mishkan (and later the Temple in Jerusalem) constitute approximately 100 of the 613 commandments in the Torah.

Leviticus reads like a pocket manual for priests. Picture a small book with tiny print encased in a vinyl cover. Imagine every kohane (priest) keeps a copy in his back pocket. It’s filled with instructions about every sacrifice (sin offerings, guilt offerings, peace offerings, purification offerings, compulsory and voluntary offerings), when it’s made, how it’s made, which require incense and libations, what is to be sprinkled, waved or burned, what may be eaten and by whom, and what must be burned up entirely. That’s Leviticus.

The essence of Leviticus is sacrifices, but what is the essence of sacrifices? It’s about the stuff we give to God and what that means to us and does for us. The Hebrew word korban (whose root – kuf-resh-bet means “near” or “draw close”) suggests that the essence of a korban is an act that draws us close to God. While Torah poetically describes God smelling the smoke of the offerings – rei-ach ni-choach / “a pleasing odor” – we know that God does not need our offerings. Rather, the act of offering them binds us to God; it intensifies our relationship with God. Think about what it means to you to give something to someone else. What does it do to your relationship with that person? For our ancestors, God was beyond this world, the Creator and Owner of the universe. Offerings bound the individual and the community to its Creator, just as gifts we give one another draw us closer.

After the destruction of the Temple, our Sages were faced with a tremendous challenge: how do we maintain our relationship with God now that the sacrificial cult is gone? Midrash Avot de-Rabbi Natan (4:5) provides a remarkable, transformative, and brilliant response:
Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai once was walking with his disciple Rabbi Joshua near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Joshua looked at the Temple ruins and said, "Woe to us! The place where the sins of the people Israel were atoned lies in ruins!" Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said to him: “Do not be grieved, my son. We have another means of atonement as effective as this. And what is it? It is acts of loving kindness, as it is written, For I desire loving kindness, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6).”
With this, the Rabbis redirect us to see that God is not only “out there” and beyond us, but also among us and indeed, within each of us. The kindness we bestow on others – not in a ritual manner, but as a way of living in the world day in and day out is how we connect with God. It’s not about stuff anymore. It’s about loving kindness. Maybe God never really cared about stuff and it’s just that we had to grow beyond our obsession with possessions to realize that what truly matters is the tzelem Elohim (the image of God) standing before us. We still have a way to go.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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