The beginning portions of the Book of Leviticus challenge us to slog through the details of the offerings to be brought to the Mishkan and ultimately to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem– lists of burnt entrails, blood spatter and thick smoke. Not very pleasant, to be sure, and at first glance seemingly irrelevant in our time.
Ultimately, I think it is all about ritual. The purpose of any ritual is to physicalize the emotional and affective experience, which then becomes embedded in our body and our psyche. I think that this is emphasized by the language of the text: the instructions to carry out these offerings are directed to the individual using the word ‘nefesh’ to instruct the ‘soul’ of a person – rather than the use of the word ‘adam’ [individual human being] or ‘ish’ [person], which is used elsewhere in reference to the bringing of offerings. The specificity of the language here serves as a reminder and reinforcement that it is our soul that is the source of our actions, even as our body carries out the actions.
In this list of offerings to be brought, there are two offerings designated which specifically mitigate sin. The chatat, “purgation or sin offering” (Leviticus 4:1-35; 5:1-13) was given to atone for an unintentional sin (in Hebrew, the word, chet – sin, better denoted as “missing the mark”). The sin/chet involved could be individual or communal, and the offering to be brought is adjusted to the means of the individual bringing the offering and who has committed the unintentional wrongdoing. The second of these offerings, the asham, “reparation or guilt offering” (Leviticus 5:14-26) was handled in the same way as the first one, the chatat, except that the asham was specifically to be a ram, and was usually offered by someone who had stolen property or dealt deceitfully with others. The offender had to restore what was taken plus twenty percent in order to gain forgiveness from those offended, and then bring the asham to be forgiven by God.
It is the ‘unintentional’ nature of this offering that has grabbed my attention. Throughout this section of Torah, and again later, in the Book of Numbers (chapter 15) surrounding a discussion of the observance of mitzvot in Promised Land, there is repeated instruction regarding sins committed unintentionally. Does God really think that we humans are so absent-minded that this needs to be such an extensive instruction and set of rituals? Further, what does it really mean to do something unknowingly or absentmindedly? And is the crux of the issue absent-minded/mindless action or the error itself? There is a strong sense that our tradition understands human nature: we are easily distractible creatures. We have good intentions, but too often with misguided execution. Our tradition understands this and gives us credit: if we become aware of our error, we can atone. Moreover, we must atone. In addition, to really live fully, we must live mindfully. The details provided here of the ritual of bringing an offering (literally, in the Hebrew meaning ‘coming nearer to God’), indeed, the physicality of ritual all assists and supports us to be more deeply connected to the events and passage of time in our lives.
As we begin the Book of Leviticus, the detailed descriptions of the sacrificial rituals in Parashat Vayikra remind us to consider the physical actions we can take in our lives to help us be mindful of our thoughts, actions and their impact. By paying closer attention to these details, we can simultaneously be drawn closer to God, to one another, and ultimately to our best selves.