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The Thanksgiving Offering

Leviticus is a challenging book for the modern Jew. This book, which for the most part addresses sacrifices and other priestly concerns, does not open up as easily to spiritual and moral discussion as other sections of the Torah. It is far easier to mine the well known stories in Genesis and Exodus for religious and ethical insights than it is to glean such insights from Leviticus' detailed description of sacrifices and other priestly duties.

Reading Leviticus and studying the way our ancestors worshiped God and expressed their deep religious feelings can, however, be rewarding. By looking at this book through the eyes of an anthropologist or an historian, we can obtain some understanding of the relationships between our ancestors and other ancient peoples and the way our ancestors' rituals expressed and celebrated their religious world view. We can see the evolution of the religious rituals and practices of our people, and, aided by the writings of the rabbis of the Talmud and other ancient sources, gain some insight into the way in which these traditions were expressed and reinterpreted by Jews during the Second Temple Period and later, after the fall of the Temple to Rome in 70 CE.

More importantly, however, Leviticus shows us the centrality of religious worship in the lives of our Biblical ancestors. They, like us, found great strength and comfort in worship. Their need to approach God at times of joy and sadness to confess sins, seek absolution, offer thanksgiving and praise the Source of All resonates with us because it is also our need.

Leviticus challenges us so much not because of the "why" of worship - that we understand - but because of the "how." The highly developed system of sacrificial worship, which had its origins in the period of desert wandering after the Exodus from Egypt in the 13th century B.C.E. and lasted until the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, is radically different from the style of worship that we Jews have used in our synagogues for the last two thousand years.

The rabbis of the Talmudic period clearly articulated that difference when they described the worship in the Temple as Avodat Korban (sacrificial worship led by the cohanim) and the worship in the synagogues as Avodah She-be-leiv (the worship of the heart led by Jewish laypeople). Building on the vision of the biblical prophet Hosea (14:2-3), they taught us that our prayers are as acceptable a form of worship as the sacrifices offered by the cohanim, the priests, in the Temple.

Contemporary Jews have ambivalent feelings about sacrifices. Some stress the historical reality of the ancient system of sacrifices but do not envision a restoration of sacrifices in a messianic future, while others look forward to the reestablishment of the biblical form of worship in messianic days.

Such ambivalence is not merely a product of modern Judaism. Our prophets were concerned that the dramatic, ceremonial nature of the sacrificial worship often led people to forget the deeper religious and moral imperatives that make worship truly worthwhile (Amos 5:22-25; Jeremiah 7:22). They taught us that God wanted our commitment to the ethical and spiritual aspects of the covenant more than sacrificial worship.

While never giving up the hope for a renewal of Temple worship in the messianic period, the rabbis of the Talmud and the philosophers and scholars of the middle ages believed that prayer and good deeds were, at least, on par with sacrifice. Although many teachers and thinkers sought to provide a positive valuation of the sacrificial system through mystical and spiritual interpretations, others downplayed the importance of sacrifice. For example, Moses Maimonides, the great 12th century philosopher, explained sacrifice as a concession to human weakness that was necessary to ease our ancestors' transition from pagan worship to true belief.

But whatever our personal feelings are concerning the ultimate future of sacrificial worship, Jews have generally understood that the messianic world will be different from our own and the spiritual needs of that better time will not be the same as ours. In the world as it is now, most of our worship is directed to healing the spiritual wounds brought on by our transgressions. In the messianic period, as our sages of the Talmud have taught us, when the human propensity to sin and err will have been overcome, all those prayers and sacrifices, which make up the bulk of our worship, will become irrelevant. What will remain, however, is an abiding sense of thanksgiving, and the only prayers and sacrifices that will continue beyond our age are those that express that our everlasting gratitude to God (Leviticus Rabba 9:7 on Leviticus 7:12).

With that assurance, I, for one, am content to put aside the discussion on the future of sacrifices and try to do what must be done to improve this still imperfect world. This, I believe, it just what our prophets and sages hoped that we would do.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah