This week we begin reading the third book of the Torah – Sefer Vayikra (The Book of Leviticus). Vayikra has very few dramatic narratives of other books of the Torah; it comprises many laws and regulations, some of which sound arcane and anachronistic to the modern ear. However, if we attune ourselves to the underlying messages of the book, we can glean many important spiritual and ethical teachings. This week, in Parshat Vayikra, we read of the many offerings Bnai Israel were instructed to bring to God. The word for offering — korban — has the same Hebrew root as the word karov, which means “close” or “near”. The purpose of bringing offerings was to create a closer, more proximal relationship with God.
The purpose of bringing offerings was to create a closer, more proximal relationship with God. In ancient times, offerings took the form of food, and very often animal sacrifice. Jewish tradition, well aware that God does not require food, has provided many explanations for this ancient practice. The most relevant in my mind is that one creates a relationship by offering one’s most valuable items. Food, particularly livestock, was for the Israelite pastoralists their most valuable commodity. In Jewish tradition, animal sacrifice has long been replaced by the words of prayer. Today, we offer words as a way of coming closer and building relationships, not only with God but with each other. With words we offer others comfort, condolence, praise, and friendship. The very first verse of Parshat Vayikra reads: And God called (Vayikra) to Moshe and God spoke (vayedaber) to him. We wonder, why are two verbs of communication – “calling,” and “speaking” required? According to the commentator Rashi, God first “called” to Moshe with a word of affection (lashon hibah), and then “spoke” to Moshe concerning a series of instructions. We learn that before we use our words to communicate information, we might use them to draw closer to others, to build relationships.
This Shabbat may we all use words as offerings that draw others close to us to others.