Let’s Get It Right: Sacrificing Sacrifices and Learning to Use our Words

Posted on March 9, 2022

by Hazzan Jacob Sandler

It’s that time of year again when Jews around the world begin reading the third book of the Torah: Vayikra — Leviticus. Most modern people have some degree of difficulty with this parasha because it deals primarily with the sacrificial system. Whether you salivate at the thought of a fleischig kiddush, or can’t stand the idea of harming animals as part of worship, there’s an awful lot of time spent detailing these offerings. The attention to detail is quite moving. Ours is and was a people who wanted to get it exactly right when it came to worship. Now, 2000 years since we last had a Temple for these animal sacrifices, what can we learn from this system about worship?

There were several kinds of offerings: The Olah – burnt offering, Mincha – grain offering, Hattat – sin/purification offering, Asham – guilt offering, Zevach Shelamim – the peace offering. The Zevah Shelamim also has three types: A Todah – thanksgiving, Neder – vow, and Nedavah – free-will offering.

Prayer has replaced sacrifices as the model for connecting with God, and I believe that the kinds of prayers we offer parallel these offerings like so:

The Olah was fully consumed to demonstrate complete devotion. Prayers of song and praise found in P’sukei D’Zimra allow us to raise our voices in deep devotion to God. Our voices are like the reiach nichoach (pleasing odor) of the smoke rising straight upward.

The Mincha offering was directly replaced by the Mincha service. Mincha offerings required no animals – just flour, oil and some frankincense. Similarly our mincha service is short and sweet, allowing us to check in each afternoon.

In our Tachanun prayers, we ask forgiveness and mercy for the ways in which we missed the mark. And in our Amidah, too, we pray for forgiveness for our sins. Sometimes our sins are bein adam l’Makom (between a person and God), and other times our sins are bein adam l’chaveiro (between multiple people). These prayers and supplications which give us room to reflect, apologize and seek forgiveness are mirrored by the Chatat and Asham offerings. These sought to purify us from our mistakes.

Zevach Shlamim – peace offerings included gratitude, vows and free-will offerings. Much of our liturgy focuses us on Gratitude, particularly in Hallel or Birkot HaShachar. Prayer offers us the chance to resolve to be better and can be a time when we make pledges to give Tzedakah – a feature of the Yizkor service. And the free-will offerings are analogous with the prayers of our hearts. Rather than our usual keva – fixed liturgy, I believe that the voluntary offering is much like our kavanah – our personal intentions, the prayers we say spontaneously or as needed. This way of prayer was always concurrent with sacrifices, modeled by Hannah and other pray-ers in the Tanakh.

I hope that when you come to shul this week and the weeks ahead, you can look closely at the translations, commentaries and footnotes of our Torah reading, so you might begin to see that we’re not so different from the Israelites in our quest to feel close to the Divine. We’ve simply taken a page out of every mothers’ playbook and learned to “use our words.”