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The Fat is the Lord's: A Sermon for Parashat Vayikra

This week we begin the third book of the Torah, Vayikra or Leviticus. Much of this book concerns material that seems foreign to our modern world. It is a world of sacrifices; a world of animals and blood and fire. It is a world that seems far distant from our so-called civilized 21st century practices. So why study this text at all? Well, for several reasons; it is one of the Five Books of Moses and we have been reading it for centuries. The sacrificial system and the activities in the Temple were important to our forefathers and provide much of the origin and motifs for the liturgy in the Synagogue as well as various home-based customs and ceremonies. There is a plethora of material in Vayikra to study and so I’d like to review just some of the highlights with you and also point out some interesting tidbits.

“Vayikra”, both the book and the first parashah take their name from the first word of the book, which literally means, “He called” as in “He called to Moshe.…” The “He” refers to G-d. The English name for the book is Leviticus, referring to the Levites, the tribe to which the Kohanim or Priests belong. In the Mishnah the book is referred to as the “Torat Kohanim” or “the Law of the Priests” since much of the book deals with the sacrificial system and the duties of the Priests. Vayikra is dense with laws. It contains 247 of the 613 Commandments. However, since many of the commandments involve the sacrificial system, they cannot be performed at this time since there is no Temple.

While sacrifices were common to ancient man, Vayikra demonstrates a uniquely Jewish mold. For the Jews, the sacrifices exist as a way for us to express our adoration of God. They do not exist because God needs to be fed or because God needs our sacrifices. Also, unlike with other ancient people, the description of the sacrificial system was public knowledge. By making it part of the Torah, all Israelites were to know how the system worked. Among most other peoples, the sacrificial system was part of the secret knowledge known only to the priestly and/or ruling class. The entire system of sacrifices described in Vayikra and the “Holiness Code” that comprises the last nine chapter of the book, were intended to reinforce the notion of Kedoshim, the notion of holiness. Vayikra is written to truly make us “a nation of Priests.”

The Sacrifices:

So our parashah, contains a series of commands from G-d concerning a variety of sacrifices. To begin with I must tell you that there was no offering, no sacrifice, no ritual remedy to atone for intentional or premeditated offenses. For these offenses the Law dealt directly with the offender. Using the notes from Etz Hayim, we find the following:

Olah or Burnt Offering (1:1-17). The olah or “burnt offering” was burned to ashes in its entirety (except for its hide) on the altar of burnt offerings. It was brought on various occasions, often together with other offerings. Neither the priests nor donors ate any part of it. The Olah could consist of male herd cattle, male flock animals or certain birds. This range of choices - from expensive to inexpensive - enabled Israelites of modest means to participate in religious life because they could present less costly offerings at the sanctuary.

Mincha or Grain Offering (2:1-16). Appropriate for a variety of occasions, the grain offering (mincha) often served as a less costly alternative to animal sacrifices. Both the mincha and olah were regarded as ‘a most sacred offering,’ a status that imposed special restrictions.” It would seem that the grain offering was for those who were too poor to afford any of the animals that would have been used in the olah. The Mincha sacrifice was offered after mid-day or what we call Afternoon. Mincha is now the name given to the Afternoon Service, which may not begin before 12:30 p.m. A portion of the mincha was burnt on the altar. The remainder was eaten by the priests.

Many of you know about the custom of dipping bread in salt before eating. This is a reminder that sacrifices in the Temple, including the Mincha grain offering were salted. Which brings us to another commandment.

Chapter 2 verse 13 was both a positive and negative command. It says, “Not to offer a sacrifice without salt, but to salt all offerings”. (2:13)

Another interesting connection fact of the Mincha meal offering is the prohibition against Chametz or leavened grain -- and honey. In my mind “no chametz” means Pesach (9 days from now, oy) but in Vayikra we find that no offering containing Chametz was to be brought to the Tabernacle or the Temple. “No grain offering that you offer to the Lord shall be made with leaven (Chametz), for no leaven or honey may be turned into smoke as gift to the Lord.” (2:11). One explanation for this ban is offered by the Rambam. In ancient times, idol worshippers used leaven and honey in their offerings. Since our practices were so different from those who worshipped idols, our sacrifices would not use the leaven and honey that they used. But what is the connection between the ban on Chametz in sacrificial offerings and the ban on Chametz at Pesach? Coincidence? There is no coincidence. Pesach marks the holiday of our freedom from bondage, which was the first step toward making us a holy nation, a nation of priests. With the destruction of the Temple, the liturgy in the synagogues and the ceremonies in our homes stood in place of the sacrifices. When we ban Chametz from our table for the week of Pesach, we are, in effect, elevating our table, to the level of the altar in the Temple where Chametz was banned at all times.

Zevach Sh’lamim or The Offering of Well-Being (3:1-17). “This category of offering was brought by a person who had something to celebrate.” “Some of the same animals used for the olah could also be used for the Zevach Sh’lamim. The same altar was used for both types of offerings as well as for the grain offering.” Unlike the olah or mincha, “Zevach Sh’lamim was a sacred meal shared by the priests and by the donors of the offerings. Only certain fatty portions of the animal were burned on the altar as God’s share. Thus Zevach represents a distinctive mode of sacrifice, affording worshipers the experience of sharing a sacred meal with G-d and the priests.”

The three sacrifices just described, the Olah (burnt offering), the Mincha (meal offering), and the Zevach Sh’lamim (well-being offering) were of a voluntary nature. The next series of sacrifices - Chatat and Asham - are obligatory. For us today, the reasons for bringing these sacrifices are probably more meaningful than the actual rituals themselves. The reasons for bringing these sacrifices provide us with a guide as to what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the sight of God.

Chatat or Sin Offering (4:1-35). This offering covers sins that are committed “unwittingly or unintentionally.” The miscreant may be a priest, the whole congregation, a leader or just an individual. The Chatat takes on slightly different forms depending upon who the offending party is.

The parashah then continues with four more special cases when Chatat must be offered (5:1-13).

Asham or Guilt Offering (5:14-26). Unlike with the Chatat, only a ram may be used in performing Asham. Asham was brought as part of the atonement process for a variety of transgressions, including “unintentional misuse or destruction of sanctuary property,” fraud, robbery, or lying under oath. In the case of the last three, before one could bring Asham, the transgressor had to make restitution to the victim.

Sin and Repentance

Chatat (the Sin Offering) takes its name from the verb “chata” that means, “to miss the mark.” In other words, the person who commits a sin is not necessarily evil. Rather, he or she may have tried and missed the objective. Chata is an admission of that failure along with a commitment to try and not miss the mark next time. But as we can see from the requirements surrounding Asham, bringing a sacrifice is not synonymous with atonement. In requiring the miscreant to make restitution, Vayikra drives home the very Jewish concept that forgiveness begins with apologizing to those whom we have wronged and then changing our behavior. Forgiveness is not gained through ritual alone. The Rambam, highlights three steps required in order to earn forgiveness which I’ll retranslate into parent speak.

  • Did you ya make it right?/Did you fix it?

  • Did you apologize?

  • And did you ask G-d for forgiveness?

Interestingly, stuck between the descriptions of Chatat and Asham is a commandment about justice. Once again, we are reminded that the Jewish concept of justice is higher than the one we find in civil society. As we read in 5:1, those who withhold evidence because they are not asked or who do not come forward to testify voluntarily are considered to be sinners. When they have had a change of heart and rectify their behavior they must bring then Chatat to gain expiation.

I also found it interesting here and in the Mishnah that there is both a concept that we must forgive but also only if it is deserved. We are obligated to forgive within three times of being asked for forgiveness, assuming the asker is sincere and contrite. If we harden our heart, then we are deemed to be cruel and must then make Chatat. Forgiveness must be deserved though. It is neither inevitable nor automatic. The righting of wrongs and the exacting of justice are prerequisites for achieving forgiveness.

Prayers In Place of Sacrifices

Now since the Temple has been destroyed we cannot bring sacrifices. Therefore, we offer prayers in their stead. This change is based, at least in part, on the verse “So will we render for bullocks the offering of our lips” from the Prophet Hosea chapter 14 verse 3. The word “bullocks” refers to the sacrifices. So this is taken to mean, “Let our lips substitute for the sacrificial offerings.”

  • Did you fix it?

  • Did you apologize?

  • And did you PRAY for forgiveness?

The Little Aleph

Aleph is the last letter in the Hebrew word “Vayikra.” (ETZ HAYIM, page 585) When the word Vayikra is written in the Torah at the start of this parashah, the scribe or printer always prints the letter Aleph in a smaller font size than the rest of the text. There are lots of suppositions as to why this is true. According to one, the reason for this is that the parashah concerns itself with the offerings in the Temple. “The small Aleph symbolizes that all donations, contributions or offerings, of whatever size, were acceptable.” Another explanation says that this little Aleph has no sound but yet it is vital to understand the meaning of this word. Without the Aleph, the word means “and it just happened” while with the Aleph it means, “and he called.” The small things which make no sound are sometimes the most important things. It is the little, unseen, unheralded things that make the big difference. A person who thinks that life is just a chance occurrence feels that life is going round, that it is not worth anything and is much more susceptible to drugs, alcohol, etc., but a person who knows that G-d is counting on him and that what he does is important will try to live a good and a just life and will be happier inside. That little Aleph is just a little thing. It doesn’t make a sound but how important it is!

Vayikra Moshe

According Everett Fox, the phrase “Vayikra Moshe” (And He called unto Moses) appears only twice in the Torah. The second time is in Chapter 1, verse 1 of the book of Vayikra. The first time is in Chapter 24, verse 6 of the Book of Shemot (Exodus) in the weekly reading of Mishpatim. In Shemot, the term “Vayikra Moshe” separates the end of a torrent of laws relating to personal and social behavior from the rules dealing with the building of the Mishkan, the utensils to be used by the Kohanim and the clothing to be worn by the descendants of Aaron as they perform their holy duties that make up the balance of the second book of the Torah. Since nothing is in the Torah by accident, what is the significance of this unique way of God calling out to Moses and why is it found only in these two places? Could it be that God is connecting the laws of Leviticus with the purpose of the Tabernacle? Could it be that we are reminded that by obeying the laws of Leviticus we are figuratively entering into the Mishkan, that portable symbol of the presence of God? Today we have no Mishkan or Temple in which to offer sacrifices. Our prayers serve as substitute for those sacrifices. Could it be that by offering our prayers we are building our own Tabernacle in which we can find a closer connection with the Divine?

Conclusion – Fat and Blood

So let me end with what I thought was a funny story. So I’m reading the parashah in preparation for today and I came across a verse that caught my attention. It actually made me stop and laugh. LOL. When I was little, I wouldn’t eat meat of any kind without first trimming off every trace of fat. I drove my parents nuts. I still do it to this day although not quite as bad. Interestingly, and not because I talked him into it, but Sam is the same way. Anyway, I read Vayikra chapter 3 verse 17 and it all made sense.

All fat is the Lord’s. It is a law for all time throughout the ages, in all your settlements: you must not eat any fat or blood.

כָּל-חֵלֶב לַיהוָה:

For some reason, my dad didn’t think it was as funny as I did.

Shabbat Shalom.

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