Running With the Weight of Gold — Letters to a young man

23: Offerings and Sacrifices

Jerusalem — 17 March 2019

Dear D –

This week we begin the Book of Leviticus 1:1–5:26.) As we have seen, storytelling both conveys and interrupts the flow of lawgiving. Conveys, because our human consciousness is based on narrative — we can’t make sense of the world without our stories. Interrupts, because God’s transmission of the laws is repeatedly thrown off course by human actions, forcing God to switch course. Eve and Adam eat the fruit, capsizing the project of Creation. Cain kills Abel, which boggles God’s mind; it is not until after Noah emerges from the Ark that God explicitly prohibits murder — anticipating Abraham’s argument over Sodom. How would Noah react if God first prohibited murder, then wiped out the human race? After the sin of the Golden Calf, God instructs Moses to build the Tabernacle, providing the means of atonement.

The stories also provide broad frames of reference — a “Torah’s-eye view” of history. Genesis lays out the fundamental nature of the characters whose descendants populate the Bible. As an example, Lot’s daughters (Gen. 19:30–37) have sex with their father, believing the entire world has been destroyed. The resultant pregnancies give rise to the nations of Moab and Ammon. It is admirable to wish to repopulate the world; but the foundation of sexual impropriety plagues their descendants, appearing in the story of Ruth the Moabitess, where poor women are routinely sexually molested in the fields, and wanton sexuality is the downfall of Ruth’s descendant, King David. It appears again in the Christian Bible in the story of Jesus — of the House of David — in his relationship with Mary Magdalen — viewed either as highly problematic, or redemptive.

Exodus introduces the problems of revelation. Humans need an intellectual experience of the world, as well as an emotional and imaginative one. We need both faith and science; the head, as well as the heart. Science, to describe the world; faith, to teach us how to act in the world. When God stands revealed at Sinai, the faith part of the brain is confounded: God is no longer “religious,” but “scientific,” undermining our spiritual experience. And it is emphatically not true that seeing is believing. The Israelites show a stark lack of faith, precisely in the moments when God most visibly acts in their behalf. Having seen God, they have no possibility of faith; rather, they need God to return at every moment. It is God’s own fault. Humans need a connection to the mysterious. The revelation at Sinai shreds the curtain of mystery. Where are we to seek spirituality if God is a physical reality? It is the ultimate case of the genie let out of the bottle.

We come now to the central of the five books of the Torah and find compact lists of highly specific instructions for the priestly rituals in the Tabernacle. The name Leviticus comes from the rabbinic designation of this book as the Laws of the Kohanim — the priestly clan of Aaron’s descendants. By now the reader is used to the Torah as a book of laws and doesn’t need as much storytelling to stay engaged. And it is less challenging to take in this flow of ritual laws. The moral quandary of Adam — who truthfully says, “God, you gave me the woman, and the woman gave me the fruit…” — or of Cain, who may actually be saying, “God, you never told me I am my brother’s keeper” — these do not plague the reader slogging through lists of livestock and the specifics of the sacrifices.

There are, in fact, two stories later in Leviticus, one of which is a shocking depiction of the Torah’s world view. But for the most part, the book breezes by without incident. As an (almost!) uninterrupted recital of rules, Leviticus is arguably the most “Torah-like” of the five books.

Still, humans need more than rules. We need reasons. And we do not understand reasons from explanations; rather, we internalize them through observing behavior, and through narrative. Leviticus is just short enough to hold our attention, and manages to end before we lose interest entirely. Yet, because it focuses on ritual, Leviticus goes to the pure core of our relationship with God. If organized religion is a dangerous behemoth — as we saw in the latter portions of Exodus — it is also a unique vehicle for individuals to craft an intimate personal relationship with the Divine. The harms perpetrated in the name of organized religion are legion, not least those against its own adherents, who find themselves faced with an unforgiving monolith that permits no questions, shows no compassion, and crushes personal freedom. But within the Tabernacle, we meet God in the most intimate of terms, in the void of the Sacred Space. Finally, God is invisible once again, and mystery can return.

It is to this aspect of religion that Leviticus speaks. It opens with a highly detailed list of sacrifices and offerings and begs the question of why we engage in such practices at all. It is to this fundamental question that we now turn: if we can begin to formulate an understanding of the sacrificial offerings, we will find within them the key that unlocks the door to a direct intimacy with God. Who knew that organized religion could provide such a thing? Obviously, the Torah does know, and it is bursting with the desire to teach us.

Let’s look again at those first stories. Starting with Eve and Adam.

From an archetypal mythic perspective, the Garden represents perfection and order, which Eve upends, consistent with mythic tropes of Female = Chaos, Male = Order. God restores Order, but the process is painful and the result is the emergence of Death, the ultimate source of Chaos. Eve gives the first gift, and she gives it to her husband. This is the reverse of the traditional Kabbalistic structure in which the masculine aspect is the giver, the feminine the recipient. It also rhymes with the ancient conflict between goddess worship and the worship of a masculine god — a conflict ultimately won by the male god, at least in Western society.

Cain gives the first gift to God, bringing his offering “at the end of the season,” (Gen. 4:3.) Cain is copying from his mother: Eve first ate of the fruit, then shared it with Adam. Cain similarly eats his produce, then offers what remains to God. But Abel’s offering reverses the order — bringing from the firstlings of his flocks — a lucky coincidence of the calendar, as the end of the harvest season coincides with the birthing season. God prefers the first bite, and the Torah enshrines that as law.

The human need to share lies at the basis of relationships, of society and all its institutions. It lies at the heart of art and invention — and certainly at the heart of organized religion. It is by no means the only component of these social structures, but it is an indispensable driving force in all of them. A famous Talmudic passage says the most important verse in the Torah is (Ex. 29:39 and also Num. 28:4) “The first sheep you shall offer in the morning, and the second sheep you shall offer in the afternoon,” elevating the routine daily ritual of giving to God to the status of a be-all of Jewish practice. Similarly, the Hebrew word , meaning the giving of charity, is referred to in many places as the single most all-encompassing religious commandment.

What purpose do the sacrifices serve? Benjamin Franklin wrote that whenever he came to a new place, he would seek out the most important and influential man in the community and ask him for a favor. Franklin understood the profound and counter-intuitive psychological truth that people would rather give to others, than take from them. We would rather have others in our debt, than be in debt to others. The moment we contemplate giving a gift or providing assistance, our emotional engines kick in. We begin formulating an emotional attachment to the person — even a complete stranger — building a positive opinion of them, such that we actually to do the favor, give the gift, offer the charity, and such that we feel good about it afterwards.

Offerings to God may be the ultimate example of “What do you give to the man who has everything?” The answer is that our offerings are not for God. They are our training in gratitude, in opening ourselves to the relationship that our own soul desires. A visible God is spiritually problematic, but our own need to give remains a mystery, enabling us to ground our spiritual work in the exercise of freely giving. In our own practice of compassion and generosity, we find the source of our own gratitude, our personal connection to the Eternal. Today the rituals of the Tabernacle and the Temple are replaced by daily prayer; by the daily giving of charity; by the weekly observance of the Sabbath and by the seasonal and annual round of the holidays. Through joining together in ritual, and through selflessly giving to the stranger, we devote our time, our energy and our money to our relationship with God, thereby creating within ourselves a sense of attachment. It is a way of opening our own hearts.

Just as a world-class athlete must train each day, a spiritual practitioner must engage in daily observances. This is why it is called religious “practice.” The Talmud teaches that, through constantly performing religious observances even by rote, over time one internalizes the values and the message and ultimately comes to observe the practices for their own sake. We connect to our own unique relationship to God.

Leviticus is an instruction manual. If the Torah is the User’s Manual for the human soul, Leviticus is the guide to installation and maintenance. In our daily search for spiritual connection, we need all the help we can get, and ritual, well applied, is an important tool. Each action taken in isolation seems weary and stale. Flat and unprofitable. But taken together and repeated over time, our constant offering of ourselves to God strengthens the soul within us, teaching us to discover new depths within, and enabling us to reach out to support others and to fully contribute to the world.

Let us make of ourselves an offering — every day. Each morning and each afternoon. Constantly.

Yours for a better world –




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moshe silver

Writer, rabbi, teacher, thinker based in Jerusalem. Partner at Hedgeye Risk Management, LLC.