The book of Leviticus – Vayiqra – begins by giving rules for the offering of sacrifices in the newly constructed sanctuary. Today we find these rules difficult to pay attention to. They seem so far from our experience. Yet, for the Torah, these sacrifices are the means by which a person might hope to draw close to God. The clear implication of this text is that it is here – in the sanctuary space and nowhere else – where sacrifices should be offered if they are to be acceptable to God. It is meaningful to follow some of the details of these instructions to see better how this concept is driven home.
After beginning with voluntary good will offerings, the Torah moves on to offerings that are obligatory, for they are necessary in order to expiate a sin that has been committed. If we pay close attention, we will notice that there some types of sacrifice that take place wholly within the sanctuary precincts, while there are others in which a key component of their ritual is the movement outside the sanctuary space.
Certain sin offerings, but not others, include a stark interplay between interior and exterior rites. The Torah imagines that the High Priest may be guilty of a sin while officiating on behalf of the people. (Lev. 4:3-12) In such a case he has betrayed the faith of the people who have depended upon him to serve God on their behalf. And the Torah also imagines that the judicial and legislative leaders of the people may err and lead the people, who look to them for guidance, astray. (Lev. 4:13-21) When the sins of the priest or the religious leaders comes to light, they become obligated to make an offering to expiate these transgressions that have been spiritual betrayals of the entire people.
Here is where the Torah establishes a unique set of rituals that differ from those of other sin offerings. For most sin offerings the sacrifice is offered on the sacrificial altar that stood in the sanctuary courtyard. As expected, the entire ceremony takes place within the sanctuary space. But the two cases of collective spiritual failure, mentioned above, include a more complex ceremony. Blood from the slaughtered animal must be brought into the interior of the sanctuary. It must be dripped onto the incense altar, an altar placed right next to the Holy of Holies, an altar not made for sacrifices at all. So, on the one hand, this sacrifice draws us much closer to the most intimate place of the sanctuary. Yet, after this happens, the entire animal is ushered out of the sanctuary and it is burnt in a pure place that is entirely outside the Israelite encampment. It is as if the ritual had become an “anti-sacrifice.” The distance from God occasioned by the transgression could not be made more palpable.
The drama enacted is one of tragic realization of our missed opportunity. We come so, so close to being with God in the inner recesses of God’s Place. But then our offering is banished, to be reduced to ashes outside the camp, where neither God nor Israel dwell. Why is this drama reserved for these sins, while others are dealt with more simply? Perhaps it is to express the anguish God feels when the gifts we have received of religious, spiritual and moral power and leadership have been squandered by us. We have been given the ability and the responsibility to serve God through a richly meaningful way of living. As we say in our daily prayers, “You have drawn us close to Your Great Name, to praise You and lovingly unite with You.” But, when we fail to draw close, we can find ourselves so far away.
Rabbi David Greenstein
Subscribe to Rabbi Greenstein’s weekly d’var Torah
Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein