Then and Now: Connecting to God and Seeking Forgiveness
By Raizel Small
Vayikra starts the third book of the Torah. In it, we learn of the five sacrificial offerings performed by the priests in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The word vayikra literally translates to, “and He called.” This refers to God calling upon Moses from the Mishkan and telling Moses of the laws of korbanot, sacrifices. There are five korbanot that are detailed in this portion. The first three were done at the will of individual Israelites.
First is the Olah, or burnt offering. It was a bull, ram, goat, turtledove, or pigeon that was completely burned on the altar. The Olah korban was used for removing the guilt of having sinful thoughts and intentions even if they aren’t carried out. Second, the Minchah, or meal offering, was flour mixed with oil and salt. It held the same purposes as the Olah korban, but took its place if one could not afford the animal. After three handfuls were measured and burned, the remainder of the offering would be eaten by the priests performing the rituals. The Shelamim, or peace offering, was not brought to atone for sin, but rather to express happiness and gratitude to God. For example, it was offered whenever God rescued you from a dangerous situation including recovering from a serious illness, crossing the desert safely, returning safely from an ocean voyage, or freed from prison. An ox or cow, ram or female sheep were used as an offering. Part of the animal was burned on the altar while the owner and the Cohanim (priests) ate the rest.
The last two korbanot were required for the people of Israel. The Chatah, or sin offering, was required to atone for sins committed unintentionally by the High Priest or the community. If such sins were executed, the person had to confess and sacrifice a bull. The last offering was the Asham, or guilt offering. It was required as part of the penitence for certain improper acts such as when a person was remiss about any sacred thing. The person had to sacrifice a ram and make restitution plus 20% to the priest. This korban was also required when a person dealt deceitfully in the matter of a deposit or a pledge, through robbery, by fraud, or by finding something lost and lying about it. In such cases, the person had to sacrifice a ram and make restitution plus 20% to the victim.
At first glance, this seems incredibly irrelevant to today, especially if we limit our understanding to the basics of the korbanot. So here’s my question. What more is there to learn from Vayikra than just the offerings?
The portion starts out, “Vayikra el-Moshe vayedaber Adonai elav me’Ohel Moed leimor. Daber el-b’nei Yisrael. . .” “And God called to Moses, and spoke to him out of the Tent of Meeting, saying, ‘Speak to the Children of Israel’…” (Leviticus 1:1-2) The letter alef at the end of the word Vayikra is smaller than all of the others. The following story explains why this is so.
Many years ago, a zeyde was taking care of his grandson. One Shabbat they were studying the third book of the Torah, specifically the portion of Vayikra. Just as they began to read the portion, the child asked, “Why is the letter alef of the word Vayikra written so small?” For a moment, his zeyde concentrated deeply, and then he opened his eyes and said, “Adam was God’s handiwork. However, Adam was smitten by the knowledge of his good qualities and therefore sinned. Moses, though he was aware of the qualities God had given him, did not become conceited. On the contrary, he humbly said to himself, ‘Another person, given the opportunity to ascend to heaven and talk to God personally or given a soul such as mine, would have accomplished much more.'” Since Moses was not impressed with his own greatness, but contrastingly he was humbled by it, the alef in Vayikra is written small for him.
This small alef represents the virtuous quality that Moses carried. It teaches such an essential life lesson: the importance of being modest on regularly. Being modest includes anything from admitting you’re wrong and asking for help to being a good team member or putting others before yourself. Moses was incredibly humble. If we as Jews and as humans could learn to be even half as humble as he, our characters would speak volumes. If the Torah or history can teach us anything, it is that acting in a humble way will take you much farther in life that if you act in a narcissistic way.
The whole point of having the sacrificial offerings was to mainly ask for forgiveness for wrongdoings. This is another hugely relevant topic in today’s world. Though rather than sacrificing animals, saying I’m sorry is a much more common and widely accepted response. Asking for forgiveness is how we can move forward with our lives emotionally. We are able to grow as individuals and as a community by taking part in these simple actions.
- Without the Mishkan or sacrificial offerings how can we connect with God today?
Prayer is the one of the best ways to feel that connection. In fact, the Amidah was written to be said in place of sacrificial offerings. But simply repeating the prayers you may have had memorized for years will not do. For, it is the sincere prayer that stirs compassion and brings you closer to God. The art of prayer of learning to reflect, meditate, and look inward while praying is just as important. Prayer is truly worthwhile when one focuses one’s emotion and intention, kavanah , to the words of the prayers. One way to start might be to read the English translation of the prayer. Learn what you’re praying about instead of mindless repetition.
- Does this mean that Moses was perfect?
No he wasn’t perfect. No one is perfect. However, biblically, he is considered by many to be the greatest prophet. He had humility, was an exceptional leader leading the Jews out of exile for 40 years in the desert, showed personal care and concern, was intelligent, righteous, and much more. You’ve probably heard the saying, “May you live to be 120.” This relates to Moses, as it is said, he was 120 years old when he died. Contrary to his righteousness, he wasn’t allowed in to the land of Israel after wandering the desert as a punishment for hitting a rock rather than speaking to it to retrieve water from the rock, as commanded by God.
- Get your daily helping of humble pie:
Follow Moses’ lead: be humble and it will improve your character even more. Realize that everyone has unique talents, gifts and good qualities. Acknowledging them in your friends, family, neighbors, or even strangers can make a positive, lasting difference in their lives. Here’s an activity my Hebrew/Jewish Studies teacher in middle school had us do. Try it with your Temple Youth Group, board, network, etc. He’d have us write down everyone’s name on a paper. Then write one honest, kind comment about everyone in the class next to his/her name and he’d gather the papers. The next day he’d have a note card for everyone with all of the compliments about them written on it. I still have that note card today.
- Seek forgiveness today:
The holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are typically the busiest time of year for Jews to go seeking forgiveness. When I was younger, my friends and I would go around with a box of band-aids asking each other for forgiveness. We’d say, “If I have hurt you this past year, I’m sorry; I hope you forgive me.” We would then wear the band-aid in a visible spot to acknowledge that our “wound” was healing. Instead, try calling, writing, or talking to a friend or family member and ask for their forgiveness from fights or disagreements, big or small, recent or from your past, and finally clear the air between you and your loved one so that you both can move on with your lives.
Food For Thought
Have we as a society forgotten about being humble? Are we too self-involved the majority of the time? If so, what has taken humility’s place in being so important?