Shabbat candles: 5:40 p.m.
Torah reading: Lev. 1:1-5:26
Haftarah: Isaiah 43:21-44:23
“And God called to Moses, and spoke to him out of the Tent of Meeting, saying: ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When any man of you brings an offering to God, you shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd or of the flock’” [Leviticus 1:1-2].
Rather than commanding to bring an offering to God, the Torah speaks of the bringing of a korban (sacrificial offering) as a matter of fact. Relating to God through words and sacrifices is viewed by Judaism as a natural, self-evident gesture. This is why, early on in the history of the world, Cain was judged for bringing a low-grade offering to God even though he was not commanded to bring anything in the first place. It should also have been understood by Cain that sacrifices were expected by God as an expression of gratitude and that this gesture of gratitude was supposed to be a lovely one, a high-quality offering brought out of deep love for God.
The word korban doesn’t mean sacrifice; it connotes an act of closeness. The point is to draw close to God. King David said, “Va’ani, kirvat Elokim li tov” [Psalms 73:28], that the only goodness David knew in life was characterized by closeness to God. When the Torah first gives details about the bringing of a sacrifice, the word used for person is not ish but adam (small “a.”) This is not an accident but is meant to evoke the image and correct the error of Adam (capital “a”), as will be explained.
Man's first mistake was prompted by the pervasive urge to circumvent the will of God and use human judgment in place of Divine discretion. Adam and Eve thought that if the snake could enjoy the tree that was forbidden to them then maybe it wasn't so forbidden after all. They decided to treat God’s one law as a suggestion and to follow their feelings instead. They thought that people and animals were alike. At the same time that they wanted to be like animals doing whatever they pleased, they also wanted to be like God in having final say on all judgment calls.
The laws regarding offering a korban hearken back to man’s first mistake. We are told to undo the mistake of Adam by offering a korban exactly as God says to offer it. In this instance we are told to willfully offer food to God, so to speak. This is the reverse of Adam and Eve who took food, which God forbade them to take. We take animals and offer them to God, accepting that we are higher than animals, not the same. At the end of the episode of the Garden of Eden the snake is made distinctly different from people. This was less of punishment for the snake and more a reminder to Adam and Eve and their children that people and animals are quite different from one another. Thus we bring korbanot (sacrifices) to remember that difference in rank. God originally asked one thing of us, and the Rabbis break all of our mitzvot down to one thing: Listen to God.
We have a bond of trust offered to us by God. When we choose to keep it, we are human to the highest degree. Then we trump animals and even angels. Only humans, like God, have the ability to make choices. Animals act on instinct and even angels are pre-programmed. Thus, the phrasing regarding the offering of a korban says that we must take it from inside ourselves (“Adam ki yakriv mikem”) in the first verse of Vayikra is generally translated as “when any man of you brings a korban” but the way the Hebrew words are ordered it actually means “when any man offers from within himself…”
Numerous statements of our prophets echo the words from Isaiah, quoting God: “Why do I need your numerous sacrifices?” [Isaiah 1:11].
When the Torah was given we were brought close to God in the deepest way. The Ramban says that the Mishkan’s point was to recreate that experience we had at Mount Sinai on a daily basis. It is important to note that closeness is not geographical, it's emotional. The point of a korban is to bring out the feeling of connection to God.
Although man is the pinnacle of creation all that exists serves a role in man's connecting to God. There are four levels in existence: inanimate objects, plant life, living creatures, and humans who are unique because they speak. A korban is offered by a person who brings an animal or vegetation, and always there is salt [Lev. 1:13]
Salt brings out the offering itself, as opposed to yeast or honey, which are forbidden additives. The Ramban says that we should imagine offering ourselves to God. Salt is the final step in reminding us that what matters most is the act of coming close itself, coming close to God.
May we be blessed to organically and on a regular basis connect closely to our God.
Rabbi Neil Fleischmann, director of Torah guidance at The Frisch School, is the author of the newly released “In the Field: A Collection of Haiku.”