Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Vayikra

The other day, I read an article about song lyrics gone wrong. The classic misreading is of Iron Butterfly’s “Ina Gadda Davida,” which is actually “In the garden of Eden.” Go figure. The article I read pointed to hundreds of other songs that have been abused … I even found a few that I had always gotten wrong. One has to ask how the phenomenon happens. Is it that the vocalist was not clear? Perhaps the listener was not paying attention? What we do know is this: it happens.

Every time I look at this week’s Torah portion, I am reminded of the many times we not only mishear something, but then build a world around defending it as true. After all, the official title of the song is now “Ina Gadda Davida.” Why this week? This week is all about sacrifices. The whole world takes for granted that all Jews sacrifice (or at least sacrificed) animals on an altar. I was welcoming a Christian Day school to Temple the day before Passover, a few years back. I asked the Principal where to begin. She said that I should confirm whether or not she correctly instructed the school on what was going to happen in our sanctuary that night. I was confused. I asked her what she told them. “I told them that at sundown, you were going to march a lamb or goat down this center aisle and then place it on that altar to sacrifice it to God for Passover.” Dumbfoundedly, I retorted, “You’re kidding, right?” She was not.

Ok, I admit that at one point in our history, our worship revolved around the offerings at the altar in Jerusalem. I know that there is an absolute legacy of a ritual sacrifice that took place at the altar, and that a priestly class oversaw the process. I also know that a close reading of the Hebrew calls into question whether the sacrificial practice was supposed to be what it was.

The text reads “Ki yakriv mikem korban …” Most folks translate this as “When one amongst you brings a sacrifice …” The text does not offer a command to sacrifice here; the language is conditional. Some will read the “ki” as “If,” further making it clear that the offerings are not necessarily what “God” had in mind.

I think that there is a play on words here. Yakriv and korban are from the same root (koof-resh-bet), and the reference is clear that we are referring to bringing something/someone closer to God. I guess, on a literal level, if animals go to heaven, then this is one way to get them there quickly. Again, though, I don’t think that this is what “God” had in mind.

We know that the practical practice of the sacrifice was to feed the priests and the poor. It was only for some really bad transgression that the whole animal was wasted. We know that the text tells us that the smoke from the offering was a pleasing odor to God. We also know that if God’s behavior to us is rooted in sensual and culinary satisfaction or disdain, then everything we teach about God’s grace, God’s love, God’s justice has no value. The Jewish bible is filled, though, with the command to care for the widow the orphan, and the stranger. The text reminds us that there is one standard for the entire community, without discrimination. Most fervently, it reads, “Justice justice, you must pursue it.”

So, I do not believe that we come closer to good because we feed God, or because we smell nice. I do not think that burning flesh on an altar was God’s choice. Certainly there are lots of substitutions for the animal if one cannot afford it. Even flour can be brought, if that is what the family can afford. There are textual references that lead us to believe that the sacrificial cult was a way of accommodating an existent ritual practice with a new meaning. “Ki” … If you are going to sacrifice, do it for God, and not for the pagan idols.

So what is it that brings us closer to God in the practice? Perhaps the idea is that you come close to God not by what else you bring, but by bringing yourself. It takes intentionality to drop what one is doing, gathering the offering and then waiting in line at the altar. “Ki” … If one is to bring something, make sure that it is brought with the heart of giving, contrition, or thanksgiving. It is the motivation that separates an altar offering of a piece of meat on a grill from the korban that brings us closer to God.

We don’t do burnt offerings any more, there is no altar waiting to bring a pleasing odor to God. Our traditions have evolved passed the transitory sacrificial cult and the Third Temple cannot be a walled structure in one place of the world. The prophet Jeremiah said, “for I (God) have not talked with your ancestors about matters of sacrifices the day I delivered them from Egypt……”

Bottom line: whatever you bring to whichever altar you bring it, make sure that your heart is in the right place in bringing it. One’s heart and your intentionality are the most valuable offerings on can bring anywhere, and anything less is … less. We pretend that what we feel like doing is all that is required of us. Making up the rules is no different than making up the words to a song misheard. The artist bristles when his work is misunderstood and perverted. In the same sense, in however God interacts here, the reaction has to be the same when we pervert the justice with which we are supposed to take care of each other and of the world around us.

Shabbat Shalom.