Shabbat candles: 6:44 p.m.
Torah: Leviticus 1:1-5:26
Havdalah: 7:43 p.m.
Turning the page from Exodus to Leviticus, we transition from a powerful narrative about the miraculous birth of a nation to essentially a technical, Levitical handbook. The plethora of laws in Leviticus is intended to guide us towards a closer relationship with God through sacrifices, ritual and prayers.
As modern readers, we may wonder how our ancestors considered these messy rites to be spiritually uplifting and imbued with holiness. Yet, before our prayer services took center stage, sacrifice was our main mechanism for approaching the Divine, atoning for transgressions and celebrating life’s special moments.
This week’s Torah portion showcases a variety of sacrifices. After each one has been introduced, sacrifices are described as “rei-ah niho-ah,” “of pleasing odor,” to God. Akin to a chorus in a Greek play, this phrase frames these ancient rituals.
Sacrifices may have given off a pleasing smell, but would we expect this aroma to have any value to God? To our modern sensibilities, this perplexing anthropomorphism, repeated over ten times in the first two portions in Leviticus, begs to be understood.
Ibn Ezra, the 11th-century Spanish sage, noting the similar language describing Noah’s sacrifice after the flood [Genesis 8:21], writes: “Heaven forbid, that God actually smells or eats,” but that rather the sacrificial offering is as “acceptable to God as [it would to] a human being who smells a delicious odor.”
Rashi explains “the pleasing odor” as acceptance of the one who offers the sacrifice: “What really matters is that one’s heart is directed to God,” a framing that expresses God’s appreciation for the Jewish people’s obedience.
The traditional commentators clearly reject any anthropomorphisms in the Bible. Yet, this anthropomorphic image of God is just one of many found in the Torah. Another timely example, with Passover coming, is that of God’s “outstretched arm,” liberating the Israelites from Egypt.
The Talmud is peppered with God depicted in human imagery. The Almighty is described as a king, creator, healer, parent and judge. The Talmud even imagines God as a student and teacher of Torah and Talmud [Avodah Zarah 3b].
These images of God through the ages run counter to Judaism’s discomfort and ultimate rejection of these very depictions.
So how are we supposed to understand this paradox?
The most obvious explanation is that Torah — and every Jewish text afterwards — is written in a language that people can understand as well as visualize.
Stephen Covey, the author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” asserts: “Each of us tends to think that we see things as they are, that we are objective. But this is not the case. We see the world, not as it is but as we are — or as we are conditioned to see it.”
Covey’s insight helps us understand why images of God frequently reflect those who create them. People draw what they know, what they value and what they love. Just as the rabbis in the Talmud imagine God learning Torah, so too do African-American Christians picture their deity as being black.
The idea of God taking a whiff of an ancient sacrifice to judge its acceptability may seem strange or disturbing to us today.
But it was an image to which our ancestors could relate, reflecting the values of a sacrificial system in the Mishkan and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Covey may be correct in that when we figure out how we picture God, we realize how we see ourselves. However, his comments limit the Torah’s intended purpose.
The higher purpose of holiness is to become more than we ever imagined ourselves to be. The centerpiece of the book of Leviticus is “Kedoshim Teheyu,” which means, “You shall be holy.” The fact that this Divine charge is phrased in the future tense underscores the idea that God wants us to strive perpetually to attain higher levels of holiness in our lives.
With this mind, we have a deeper appreciation for the rabbis’ use of imagery throughout the ages. They didn’t just depict God in human form; rather, they envisioned God performing the commandments that they held most dear. In other words, they used religious imagery not to affirm, but to challenge themselves to cultivate a deeper commitment to Torah and God.
As human beings we frequently need to visualize our values and ideals so that we can work towards actualizing them. The image of God accepting sacrifices with “a pleasing odor” was always meant to inspire a higher level of connection with the Divine. By exploring the meaning of this perplexing phrase, we not only gain insight into the minds of our ancestors, but also appreciate how Torah continually motivates us to look beyond ourselves to cultivate a spiritual life of purpose and connection within community.
Rabbi Charlie Savenor is director of Kehilla (Congregational) Enrichment of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.