The 'Korban' and the Service of the Heart

  • Rav Michael Hattin






The 'Korban' and the Service of the Heart


By Rav Michael Hattin





Parashat Vayikra is the first section to be read in the Book of Vayikra.  Like the majority of the book, it deals primarily with the order of the sacrificial service.  The concluding sections of Sefer Shemot, which we read last week, detailed the construction and erection of the Tabernacle or Mishkan, as well as the precise fashioning of the priestly garments.  Thus, Sefer Vayikra, describing the service that took place by the Kohanim at that edifice, follows the end of Sefer Shemot quite naturally.


The order of the sacrifices is a complex and exacting service involving a wealth of details and contingencies.  Broadly speaking, however, we may conveniently divide up the sacrificial cult into public and private offerings.  Public offerings are of course communal in nature, and the Daily Sacrifice, as well as the Shabbat, Holiday, and Mussaf sacrifices belong to this category.  These sacrifices and other communal ones like them are offered on behalf of all of the people of Israel and are secured through the use of public treasury funds.  In contrast, private offerings are brought to the Mishkan by the individual man or woman, who presents them to the Kohanim for immolation.  Among the more well known individual offerings we may enumerate the Olah (Burnt Offering), the Chattat (Sin Offering) and the Asham (Trespass Offering), as well as the Shelamim (Peace Offering). 


To organize the matter from another perspective, we may speak of obligatory as well as of voluntary sacrifices.  This is to say that some sacrifices (such as the Chattat and Asham) are obligations that are occasioned by specific transgressions or situations. Others (such as most Olot and Shelamim) are brought as an expression of the free will of the supplicant and are not motivated by ritual or ceremonial necessity.


As a general rule that is not, however, absolute, the majority of communal sacrifices tend to be obligatory in nature while many individual sacrifices are readily presented by the person without prior liability.


The Opening Sections of the Book


Significantly, Parashat Vayikra, which opens this most obscure and, for many of us, most atavistic of the books of the Torah, does not begin with a description of the public offerings nor with a enumeration of obligatory sacrifices.  This is notwithstanding the fact that we naturally would tend to ascribe more importance or gravity to these types of offerings.  After all, communal concerns tend to outweigh individual needs and necessity overrides contingency.  Nevertheless, the text rejects this convention by opening with a listing of the Olah or Burnt Offering presented by the individual who simply desires to voluntarily present it.  This is followed by a detailed description of the Shelamim or Peace Offering, another type of sacrifice presented by the individual as an expression of free will.


The inference of this subtlety is far-reaching, for it casts the sacrificial service in an entirely different light.  As moderns, most of us have sufficient difficulty relating to forms of worship which seem to us arcane and perhaps even primitive.  The killing of animals, the collection and sprinkling of their blood, the burning of their internal organs and fats, all strike us as no longer meaningful, at least in so far as serving God is concerned.  We may countenance such practices to fill our bellies, but draw the line at employing them for 'higher' purposes!  The difficulty is of course greatly compounded by the fact that the sacrificial cult, characterized by incessant detail, restrictive formalism and fixed ceremonial, appears to us as the antithesis of what sincere worship ought to be.  Such a reading of the matter may be a comfortable and convenient means of allowing us to reject sacrifice out of hand as being entirely irrelevant to our experience, but also, unfortunately, misses the point. 


The Desire to Connect


At its core, the notion of sacrifice is a concretization of the genuine and authentic desire of the human being to establish or to strengthen communion with God and to foster a relationship with the Creator.  We offer sacrifice because we desire to be close to God.  The text highlights this fundamental truth by opening with a listing of individual freewill sacrifice, for it is this form of worship that is meant to color the entire service at the Mishkan.  While it is the case that there are sacrifices of the community as well as offerings that are obligated, they too must be brought in the same spirit of drawing near and coming close to the Absolute One Who is not only approachable but even desirous of being approached. 


This important but often overlooked fact is emphasized by the recurring use of the Biblical word for 'sacrifice,' for the context refers to 'KoRBan' (noun) and 'lihaKRiV' (Verb) without fail.  This word 'korban' is predicated upon the root 'KRB' and means to come close or to draw near.  Thus, the Torah describes this form of worship in all of its variations, be they communal or individual, obligatory or voluntary, by employing grammatical forms that suggest its primary and principal theme.  'Korban' is a means of joining the human with the Divine, of bringing together the frail human heart and the Life of the Worlds.  Korban eloquently speaks of a possibility that ultimately can be a function of only one thing: our veritable and heartfelt longing to connect with God.


Four Variations of the Olah or Burnt Offering


We may further note that the text describes this Olah offering according to four variations: a sacrifice offered from cattle (1:1 – 1:9), sheep (1:10 – 1:13), birds (1:14 – 1:17), or even grain (2:1 – 13).  The implications of this ordering are clear for it actually represents a schematic description of the socioeconomic status of the supplicant.  Thus, the wealthiest individuals offer cattle for their Olot, the members of the middle class present smaller and less expensive sheep, the lower classes offer birds, while the most indigent people present grain. 


In other words, the Torah clearly indicates that no one is to be excluded from participation in the service as a function of their financial standing.  Or, to employ the more colorful language of Rashi (11th century, France) who quotes from the Talmud: "(The Torah mandates that the bird offering be completely burnt on the altar, including its covering of feathers).  Is there anyone who smells the scent of burning feathers and does not thereby become nauseated?  Why then did the Torah mandate that the bird Olah be so offered?  Rather, it is to emphasize that the altar must be accepting, satiated and in fact glorified by the sacrifices of the poor as well…" (commentary to 1:17). 


Concerning the grain offering, Rashi similarly explains: "The Torah speaks of 'a soul that desires to offer an offering of grain'.  Why does the Torah employ the term 'soul' rather than 'individual' or 'person'?  In fact, in the entire description of voluntary Olot here enumerated, the Torah employs the term 'soul' only with respect to the offering of grain!  Who is the person most likely to be presenting an offering of grain?  Is it not the poor man?  Thus, it is as if God states: 'I consider the offering of the poor person to be a sincere offering of his soul to Me'"(commentary to 2:1).


We may sum up thus far by therefore noting that the opening of Sefer Vayikra represents the key to comprehending the broad outlines of the sacrificial service in its entirety.  The meeting between God and man may take place in the shadow of ceremonial and convention, but the spiritual yearning that constitutes the engine of that encounter is expressed by the 'korban.'  This desire to engage God in meaningful dialogue is universal in scope and therefore cannot be the exclusive preserve of the wealthy or the powerful.  The sacrificial service therefore allows for all people, irrespective of social status, to freely participate.


An Innate Desire


There is another dimension to the sacrificial service that is expressed not by the formal acts of the rites but by the location in which they take place.  The Mishkan, God's so-called 'Dwelling Place', represents a physical point in space where human beings may experience God's presence.  In the context of the Torah, it is a temporary expression of a more permanent idea, namely that of the Mikdash or Temple.  Thus, as the people leave Egypt and triumphantly traverse the Sea of Reeds, they sing of God's greatness and miraculous intervention (see Shemot Chapter 15).  In their mind's eye, they see God's helping hand not only in the overthrow of Pharaoh's host (15:1-12), but also assisting them during their expected entry and settlement of the land of Canaan (15:13-16).  Climactically, they sing of God establishing His Temple among them and 'being sovereign forever' (15:17-18).


But many setbacks and delays await the people, reversals that may check the progress of their journey for some time.  Therefore, God provides them with the possibility of the Mishkan, a more temporary structure that will always accompany them wherever the winds of fate may carry them, until that day of permanent settlement in the land dawns.  The sacrificial service introduced in the Mishkan will then be transferred to more permanent quarters, and eventually to the Temple at Jerusalem. 


Rambam's Formulation


Significantly, the Rambam (12th century, Egypt) traces the continuum of this 'temple' idea and relates it to the beginnings of human history.  In his Book of Service, Laws of the Temple (Chapter 2:1-2) he records: "The location of the altar must be very precise, and can never be moved.  As the verse states: 'This shall be the altar of burnt offering for Israel' (Divrei Ha-yamim/Chronicles 1:22:1).  At the very location of the Temple, the binding of Yitzhak had taken place (centuries before), for God had commanded Avraham to 'go to the land of Moriah, to offer Yitzhak upon one of the mountains that I will show you' (Bereishit 22:2). and In the Book of Divrei Ha-yamim (2:3:1)it states that 'Shlomo commenced the building of God's House at Jerusalem on Mount Moriah where God had appeared to David his father, at the place that David had prepared…"


"It is a well-established tradition that the place where David and Shlomo erected the altar at the threshing floor of Ornah the Yevusi was the very place where Avraham had prepared his altar upon which to sacrifice Yitzhak.  It is the same place where Noach had built an altar when he disembarked from the ark, and the same location where Kayin and Hevel had sacrificed to God.  The first man, Adam, there offered sacrifice after he had been created, and in fact was created from earth drawn from that very place.  As the Sages put it: 'Man was fashioned from the place of his atonement'".


Rambam thus relates the location of the Temple to a series of events in Biblical history.  If we rely exclusively upon textual evidence, however, only the tradition linking the binding of Yitzhak with the building of the Temple is unassailable, for the Torah does not explicitly record Adam's presumed sacrifice, nor does it state the location of Kayin and Hevel's altar.  In fact, the Torah itself seems to argue against Noach offering sacrifice at the site of future Jerusalem, for the text makes it clear that the ark landed at Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey!


The Human Desire to Encounter God and Conclusion


Rambam, of course, is attempting to indicate a more profound truth, one that transcends a mere attempt to link historical events with the Temple Mount.  He in fact is telling us that the Temple at Jerusalem is part of a larger and more ancient idea, for it actually expresses in real terms the universal human aspiration to commune with God.  Adam, Kayin, Hevel, Noach or even, for that matter, Avraham, were not 'Jews' in the conventional sense of the term, for they lived before the Revelation at Sinai, when God's laws entered human history as formal and binding expressions of His will.  Nevertheless, they sought a relationship with their Creator, for by heaping up the mundane earth to fashion an altar grasping for the sky, they expressed an intense longing for Someone higher, the Source of all being Who transcends the terrestrial plane and its profane pursuits. 


Rambam, quoting the Sages, goes a step further, for he maintains that the earth from which Adam was fashioned had been gathered from the very place of the altar.  This is another way of saying that the desire to be close to God, to offer 'korban' and experience connectedness, is innate to the human personality.  It is not a conditioned response or some sort of learned behavior, for the desire to pray, to offer to God, to 'sacrifice' and to be connected, is part of our very makeup, constituting part and parcel of the elemental matter from which we were fashioned.  'LihaKRiV', to truly sacrifice to God, is to come close to Him and to bask in the radiance of His presence, and ultimately that is the bedrock upon which the Book of Vayikra and the sacrificial service are securely founded.


Shabbat Shalom