D’Var Torah

Tzav, 5784 (3/30/2024)

Rabbi Micah Friedman

     How do we relate to people who we just don’t understand; people who engage in behavior that frustrates, confuses and even disturbs us ?

     Judaism – and Torah – offers us an invitation that is both difficult and worthwhile – of looking towards the parts of ourselves, our people and our tradition that we just don’t understand – and that we are disturbed by. Through this, we can build the capacity to cultivate understanding of people and groups today who behave in all kinds of ways that perplex and disturb us. 

     This week – Shabbat Parah – is a time when we are particularly called to do this kind of work – to attempt to relate to an apparently inexplicable aspect of our tradition – the purification ritual of the red heifer. 

     When we engage with mitzvot – like the ancient system of sacrifices – that are so far from our cultural experience – if we want to gain insight into understanding them  – we must assume they are reflective of the human psyche or soul in a profound sense

     The 5 kinds of Korbanot should be thought of in this way – they reflect different states of mind and emotion – states of spirit and body – in which the Torah invites us to encounter the Holy – the Kodesh. 

   In the words of R’ David Kasher – “Each korban represented a unique expression of sentiment, designed to respond to some significant human experience. We can therefore come to read the offerings as we might read letters or notes, each one projecting a particular frequency, which can then be translated into a kind of prayer. Those notes might even be combined, two or three sounding at once in the form of multiple offerings, as we attempt to process the sometimes conflicting emotions that make up the content of our spiritual lives. And so, as we read through the korbanot of Parashat Vayikra, even centuries after the sacrificial system has ended, we can imagine the kinds of experiences in our own lives that each of these offerings was meant to address.”

     So, now, I will be so bold as to attempt to present the kind of experiences to which each of the 5 major categories of sacrifices corresponds: 

  • Olot – completely consumed on the altar – After passing through a near encounter with death
  • Mincha – an offering of grain and oil – bread – really Matzah – gratitude for the food that we are able to bring through the earth through dedicated cultivation – and G-d’s help
  • Hatat – When we realize after the fact that we made a mistake accidentally – b’shogeg – acknowledging that we realized after the fact 
  • Asham – When we acknowledge that we did something wrong on purpose – b’meizid
  • Shlamim – in order to be at peace with G-d and others and to spread peace in the world – in recognition and gratitude of a profound experience

     The first time that we see Shelamim explicitly invoked in the Torah is in the response of the Israelites to the revelation on Mt. Sinai. In that context which is both a profound spiritual experience and deeply terrifying – the people bring both Olot and Shlamim. They offer some animals as complete offerings in order to express gratitude for surviving such a terrifying journey up until this point and they also offer Shelamim in order to eat festively together and to foster a greater sense of communal connectedness. 

     I hope that this summary helps to make clear how even something as apparently archaic as animal sacrifice reflects timeless experiences of the human heart. 

     We all face terrifying ordeals that shake us to our core. We all experience gratitude for the regular and routine gifts of the Earth that sustain our life. We all make mistakes – sometimes we only realize we have messed up afterwards but sometimes we know that we are in the wrong even as we engage in a bad habit or do something that feels wrong. 

     And – we all want to spread peace, well-being, and wholeness in the world. This is especially the case when we have a reason to be grateful – a reason to celebrate – like a birthday – or a graduation – or a retirement – or some other milestone in our lives. This is when the Torah offers us a procedure for bringing a Korban Shelamim – that we read today. 

    Now, in a sense, we are preparing for what is an adaptation of an ancient festival of Shlamim. 

     Pesach is its own unique sacrifice – but like a Todah – you must eat it in one night and it is offered with special loaves of Matzah. The ancient Shlamim would be a single animal offered along with 3 different types of Matzah – 10 loaves of each kind – as well as 10 loaves of risen bread – or Hametz. 

     The instructions for the Pesach and the typical Shelamim both envision us making sandwiches – meat and matzah together and sharing these joyously with others. These instructions tell us to eat the entire animal in one night – and therefore to invite enough people to share in the celebratory meal with us so that there will not be leftovers,

     Nowadays, we have lost the lamb – it has been many many generations since we have offered animal sacrifices. And, we have chosen to replace it materially with Charoset and experientially with our retelling of the story of our liberation from Mitzrayim 

     On leil Pesach – the night of the Pesach, as we gather together to eat Matzah with an appetite we are, in a sense, celebrating the same mood of the Shlamim. We are expressing our profound gratitude not only for the liberation of our ancestors but also for our own freedom. And we hope that through our participating in the ancient, odd, ritual which is not fully comprehensible to us – we may increase our well-being – our wholeness – and even peace in the world. 

     Once we realize that we too engage in behavior that is hard for us to understand – and that this behavior reflects our deeply rooted human experience – we can begin to look at the behavior of others that baffles with a similar generosity of perspective – to assume that it too reflects our holy human nature.