Sacrifice and Civilization: Shabbat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26)

Vayikra is the name both of this week’s portion and of the third book of the Torah; Vayikra means “called.”  The Greek-Roman name Leviticus is a reference to the priestly clan of Levites.  There are only two references to the Tribe of Levi in the entire book, but, of course, there are countless references to Aaron and his family, who are of that tribe.

The Book of Leviticus is the middle of the middle of the Torah. The middle begins toward the end of Exodus, after the volcanic revelation of the commandments, with the instructions for building the mishkon at the foot of Sinai. It then carries through Leviticus into Numbers, laying out the rules of the priesthood, the processes of the Temple, and the majority of mitzvot concerning sacrifices, sex, food, purity, and nearly every other aspect of halachic importance. This Priestly material, including the entire Holiness Code, exists independently from the rest of the Torah. (It can be pulled out and read separately.)  Notably, it makes no mention of the history and miracles that led the Israelites to Sinai. And moreover, the Book of Leviticus itself contains mainly the words of God himself, spoken through Moses.

Cultic Strangeness

When most modern Jews think of the Torah and its insights for the contemporary reader, they are NOT thinking about Leviticus.[1] I’ll never forget leaving Torah study with my good friend Marty Rodman (z”l) who was shocked, shocked to learn that Jews slaughtered living animals as part of religious ritual. Moreover, that every fire offering must be salted, that no offering may contain leavening, and that sacrificed birds must be killed by pinching their necks and never severing their heads. Further, anyone who steals Temple property must make a sacrifice that’s a fifth more than the usual sacrifice for the sin of stealing.

The most graphically described offering in the text is the olah, the burnt offering.

Leviticus 1:5-9

The bull shall be slaughtered before Adonai; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. The burnt offering shall be flayed and cut up into its parts. The sons of the priest Aaron shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the parts, with the head and the suet, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar; but its entrails and its legs shall be washed with water. Then the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Adonai.

Interestingly, the Hebrew word for the burnt offering—olah—is later translated in the Greek, Septuagint version of the Torah as holocaust. That is why many Jewish commentators (including me) prefer not to refer to the murder of European Jewry as a holocaust.  This name suggests that the disaster (shoah) had some sort of religious meaning, as though the Jews were burnt to ashes in expiation for some sin of the Jewish People. Although the term has been institutionalized now, I still prefer Shoah and will continue to use it.

The olah is different from other offerings at the Mishkon. It is entirely consumed; there is nothing left for either the Levites or the offerors to consume. In fact, it is so different, that some critics say that it is not a sacrifice at all. Part of the expiation ritual was for the penitent to eat part of the offering, and thereby participate in the repentance for the crime. Indeed, getting to eat the remnants of certain delicious offerings was a perquisite of the priesthood.

But this distinction is uninteresting to the modern reader—probably because the whole idea of winning favor from God by sacrificing animals strikes us as bizarre. Especially that God enjoys the smell of barbeque. One imagines that the Second Temple was more like an abattoir than a place of worship.

From a modern perspective, what matters about sacrifices and offerings is that they consist in giving up something of value, usually property, so as to receive something of greater value, typically at some later time.

Does Leviticus Matter?

Let’s be honest.  Much of this par’sha (and much of the entire Book of Leviticus) seems boring and irrelevant.  One Rabbi friend asks if it has any “residual relevance.” Yet, in the Haredi and Chassidic schools it is the first Torah portion taught to children. Why?

Let’s try a mystical thought experiment: namely, let’s try to hold two opposite claims in our minds at the same time:

  • First: The Book of Leviticus is the least Jewish book in the Bible
  • Second: The Book of Leviticus is the most Jewish book in the Bible.

Again, for the contemporary reader, the temptation to skip over the entire Priestly and Holiness portion of the text is almost irresistible. Only a bearded scholar wants to know why no cake can be offered as a sacrifice, or why some sacrifices call for male animals and others female. In fact, the whole notion of buying one’s Divine forgiveness with property seems altogether pagan and not in the least Jewish.

I have read, though, that the reason so many Jewish schools start with Leviticus is just that it teaches following the law: scores of arcane and seemingly arbitrary laws and rules, represented to young students as the word of God. The lesson is faith, acceptance, submission, trust in the Divine word. Since the only time Jews accept instructions without discussion is when they are very young, that’s the best time to yoke them with Vayikra.

We are, undeniably, a more sophisticated and enlightened religion for having replaced the sacrifices of the Temple with worship services based on moving and meaningful texts. It seems absurd that so many Jews still pray for the restoration of the Temple and a reversion to Bronze Age ritual.[2]  For a modern Jew, Jerusalem itself, with its remnants of the Temple, though quite dear, is really an immense museum of ancient Jewish history, a cultural treasure.

But is there a sense in which the arcana of Vayikra can be regarded as the essence of Judaism, even for the modern reader? For me, the answer is clearly Yes.

For the modern Jew, ethical conduct is among the central themes. And even though the acting of buying[3] expiation for unethical or criminal behavior may seem shallow, it is nevertheless true that sacrifice is the core idea in ethical decision-making. When, after all, do the Israelites acquire their ethical burden? After the revelation at Sinai. When are all Israelites first expected to make regular sacrifices? After Sinai.

Ethics and Sacrifice

A sacrifice is an act in which we give up something of value in exchange for something of greater value—usually later.  In chess one sacrifices a pawn on this move and captures a knight on the next move. Or one sacrifices the use of current income this week to be saved and invested for a later time when it will be needed. Or one works faithfully at a stressful job to provide for one’s family. Almost everything we call a “responsibility” entails the sacrifice of time, comfort, or money so as to meet a moral obligation.

We all know that the immolation of a lamb or calf will not actually influence the fate of the sinner, but we do know that the quality of mind that enables one to make such a sacrifice—the ability to defer gratification–is a good predictor of ethical behavior.

My own belief is that what happened at Sinai was that the central question guiding our Jewish lives changed. Instead of: How can I get what I want right now? we have: How should I act so that the interest of the community—and my longer-term benefit—can be served?

Put another way, almost every ethical dilemma requires a choice between two courses of action; and the paradigm case is a choice between an action with a clear, immediate return or an action with mid- or long-range return. Moreover, the choice with the quick return is typically the easier of the two: that is, it requires less mental discipline and less control over one’s immediate appetites.

A healthy bit of livestock is capital (breeding), nourishment (food), and possibly revenue (meat/dairy sales); it satisfies all these immediate needs, and yet we are commanded to burn it to ashes in exchange for God’s future favor.  (An unenforceable deal, by the way.)

But the same can be said of marital fidelity. The male disciplines his attraction to females other than his mate for the sake of long-term peace and stability in his home and community. (This, claimed Freud, was the foundation of civilization among primates, paid for with problems of sexual repression.) The glutton somehow pushes himself away from the table, so as to improve his chances of better health. The parents forgo vacations and luxuries to generate college savings for their children.

Interestingly, many behavioral scientists believe that this ability to defer reward is a personality trait, evident even in young children.  Scores of research papers have examined the “marshmallow” effect, in which children, under varying experimental conditions, are placed in a room with a marshmallow.  They are told that if they can wait until a bell rings, and NOT eat the marshmallow, they’ll get two marshmallows, but if they eat it before the bell, they’ll get only the one.

One marshmallow or two is easy to discuss and measure. In life, the choices are more complicated and harder to explain. Suppose the filter in your heater is hard to get at. Would it be wise to change the filter less often, saving yourself time and trouble? Suppose there are two master’s degree programs, one from a difficult, prestigious school while the other from an easier, hardly-known school—which is also cheaper. Should you choose the one with the larger sacrifice, causing yourself additional stress and expense in the present?

The examples are countless.  In almost every case, the better choice is the one with the higher current pain, exchanged for the later pleasure. That’s why Aristotle observed that most people are not virtuous or honorable because it does not satisfy their human needs. Only rationalist philosophers, like Plato and Spinoza, believe that virtuous acts are inherently pleasurable, whatever the apparent sacrifice.

In other words, the ethos of sacrifice argues that the dictates of the emotions and appetites, for a person who wishes to be virtuous, are untrustworthy or sinful. The fringes of the tallith are to remind us of the commandments when the urgings of our “eyes and heart” tempt us to debauchery.

The Inclinations

Another key ethical construct in Judaism is the notion of the two inclinations: the yetzer ha-ra and the yetzer ha-tov. Although these are usually described as the evil inclination and the good inclination, this can lead to an oversimplification of the idea. It is NOT the case that human beings have a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other competing for their decisions. The only inclination on one’s shoulder is the evil one because, in fact, the so-called evil inclination is the influence of your bodily appetites for pleasure and self-indulgence.

Rabbi Nathan, in his famous commentary on Avoth, proposed that the yetzer hara develops in a human being in the womb. One could even argue that it is the inclination that feeds human nature in its pursuit of pleasure. But, Nathan continues, on a child’s bar mitzvah he receives the yetzer ha-tov, the desire to temper his impulses to accord with the laws of Moses. This is a hard-fought struggle because, after all, the yetzer hara has a thirteen-year head start.

The age of thirteen is not insignificant in this story.  In the ancient world, boys of thirteen were very nearly adults, on the verge of marriage and career. And, like all thirteen-year-old boys, gripped in throes of adolescence. Thus, Rashi observes that the battle between the inclinations in the young man is really about the control of his sexual appetites. He also says that, given its head start, the yetzer hara often overpowers the yetzer ha-tov, so that boys will be boys, bar mitzvah or no.[4]

So, from this perspective, the endlessly detailed sacrifices and inconvenient regulations of Vayikra are the essence of Judaism, or at least the part called ethical monotheism. Civilization progresses (moves closer to God’s conception of humankind) by squelching most of the appetites of the flesh. The struggle, in the individual or community, is endless, and the rewards are elusive. Indeed, Avoth also reminds us that it is not a true sacrifice if we follow the commandments just for the sake of the reward.

I have reached an age when most of my long-term returns have returned. My yetzer ha-ra is still willing but weakened by years—so that it is more easily pinned by my yetzer ha-tov. At this point, I suppose, the long-term extends beyond my own lifespan to that of my family, my country, and the Jewish people. Now I can hear quite clearly the words of the sages: It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.

[1] The largest exception is persons preoccupied with the Biblical position on male homosexuality.

[2] Right now, there is a committee at work in Jerusalem to develop a method for identifying a new High Priest when the time comes.

[3] Martin Luther’s main objection to Roman Catholicism was the selling of expiation. And the extent of this practice of selling salvation can be seen in places like Istanbul where the huge number of mosques may be attributed to the policy in which building a mosque guarantees the Muslim builder’s afterlife in heaven.

[4] It is interesting how close Rashi’s position is to Freud’s.

About Rabbi Edmond Weiss, Ph.D.
Dr. Weiss is a writer, lecturer and retired professor, who received his rabbinical ordination in 2018 at the age of 75. He develops courses, workshops, and seminars for adult Jewish education. You can email him at

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