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Drash on Parashat Shemini 2024

Rabbi Dr Esther Jilovsky

Temple Sinai

After the thrilling story-telling of the Exodus, and the precise instructions for building the mishkan in the desert, Sefer VaYikra, the Book of Leviticus, strikes a very different tone to the previous books in the Torah. Now that the Israelites have the mishkan, a sacred place for God to dwell, Sefer VaYikra provides instructions for how to live a life of holiness, including how worship is to be undertaken. In Parashat Tzav, this includes animal sacrifice, and the parasha presents directions for how the priests must prepare each sacrifice in stomach-churningly precise details.

Reading and studying the nitty gritty of ancient Israelite sacrifice can be jarring to modern readers. Moreover, any connection to a familiar form of Judaism may seem tenuous at best. Yet the graphic descriptions of dismembering the carcass of a cow or sheep to create a sacrificial offering form a method to restore order and keep God’s world ritually pure. For example, in Parashat Tzav, the Torah states:

וְזֹ֥את תּוֹרַ֖ת זֶ֣בַח הַשְּׁלָמִ֑ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַקְרִ֖יב לַיהֹוָֽה
‘This is the ritual of the sacrifice of well-being that one may offer to the Eternal.’ (Leviticus 7:11)

While the following verses describe the oil and cakes (called challah) that comprise this offering, if we consider just this short verse, there are many teachings which make it relevant to us today.[1] The word שְּׁלָמִ֑ים sh’lamim comes from the word שלום shalom, meaning ‘peace’ or ‘wholeness.’ The verb יַקְרִ֖יב yakriv, here translated as ‘offer,’ literally means ‘get closer to’ or ‘become nearer.’ The concept of sacrifice in Biblical Hebrew is based on getting closer to God: the term קָרְבָּן korban ‘sacrifice’ comes from the same Hebrew root. So, make a peace offering and get closer to God. It sounds straightforward enough!

The ancient and medieval commentaries on this verse are not far off. An alternative translation of VaYikra 7:11 is: ‘This is the law of the sacrifice for peace offerings.’ According to midrash, this verse is connected to a verse from Proverbs: ‘The ways [of wisdom] are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.’[2]These are the very words that, in Hebrew, we sing to close the Torah service.[3] What a moment ago seemed like just a pile of bread and oil, in a long ago, faraway ritual sacrifice, suddenly becomes more intimate and familiar.

The Tosafists, the French and German medieval commentators, offer a further explanation for why this sacrifice is called a ‘peace-offering.’ According to them, ‘it is meant to restore peace between the people of Israel down here and the Eternal our Father in heaven.’[4] This offering of peace therefore connects the Jewish people with the Eternal. It’s what we pray for every time we sing Oseh Shalom to conclude the Amidah. The literal offering in the Torah has become a figurative one, a prayer that we recite in the hope for peace.

Although the ritual sacrifices of Leviticus remain far removed from the Judaism of today, there is much to learn from these passages of the Torah. They remind us that things have not always been as they are, and that Judaism is an ever-evolving tradition. While the way that we approach worship has definitely changed, the messages endure.

[1] See Leviticus 7:12-15.
[2] Midrash Tanchuma, Tzav 3:1.
[3] The original Hebrew for Proverbs 3:17 is: דְּרָכֶיהָ דַּרְכֵי נֹעַם וְכָל נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם.
[4] Da’at Z’kenim on Leviticus 7:11.

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