An inner altar of holiness exists inside every human


Leviticus 1:1-5:26

Deuteronomy 25:17-19

I Samuel 15:2-34

My friend Professor Arnold Eisen has long said that Leviticus is his favorite biblical book. As for me, I have always found this book difficult: It seems opaque, perplexingly detailed and far-removed from spiritual concerns that I understand.

Yet recently I have had the opportunity to study Chassidic theology and commentary. I have learned that many Chassidic teachers read the laws of Temple worship as a metaphor for the inner life. Suddenly, a new world of understanding opens up. Leviticus is a manual for the spiritual life: not just once in history, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, but always, and for us.

This mode of interpretation goes something like this. There is an inner altar that lies inside each of us. On this altar, we are asked to offer gifts to God. On a daily basis, and at special moments in our year and in our lives, we are to give offerings to the Divine. We do so to express our devotion and gratitude to life, to cleanse and rededicate ourselves when, inevitably, we make mistakes, to reach out and reach up, and to bring more holiness into our lives.

This image of an inner altar suggests to me some profound truths about spiritual living.

*Within each of us there is a sacred place, a place of godliness, perfect righteousness and devotion, a place of holiness. We need only remember that this place exists inside of us, and we can touch it at any moment. Remembering that this is our core, our life is immediately suffused with holiness.

*Jewish ritual provides us with essential and powerful time-honored methods for expressing our connection to God and Spirit. Yet the core place of worship is within. There is an inner process by which to offer thanks, to reach out to the All, to express our awe, our fears, and our needs to the Divine. Whatever brachot we recite, whatever mitzvot we perform, whatever acts of righteousness we engage in, these practices are immeasurably deepened when our motivation comes from this deepest place within us.

*Inevitably, we accumulate excess baggage. On a given day, we may be carrying nasty thoughts, old psychological garbage, resentments and self-absorption, a whole host of thoughts and feelings that may derail our desire to live the best life that we can. There is a vehicle for disposing of such waste products. We need only place them on the altar and offer them up to God. We may imagine their being consumed on the altar, or simply rising, until they no longer cloud our vision or block our will to live holy lives.

*We need not wait for the prescribed times to do tshuvah/atonement. At any moment of the day, we can pause, turn inward, and offer a guilt-offering on the inner altar. We need only place an event, a mistake, a harsh word or an unnecessary hurt on the altar. A moment later, we know that our offering has been accepted, and we can begin again.

*We can imagine a ner tamid/an eternal flame burning in this inner sanctuary. This flame needs to be tended daily, lest it be weakened or even extinguished. No one can stoke this flame for us; this is our work. We must regularly tend the inner flames of passion for life and for righteousness within us. If we do, we can trust that there will always be light in that inner place. This light, deep inside, can be safe no matter what storms rage outside.

Many years ago, I learned a song, whose lyrics I am just beginning to understand. "Bilevavi mishkan evne/ In my heart I will build a sanctuary to the glory of God; in this sanctuary I will place an altar devoted to God's grandeur. For an eternal flame I will take the flame of the Akedah [Sacrifice of Isaac]; for a sacrifice I will offer my own precious soul."

This year may we hear the inner call of the Book of Leviticus, leading us to care for our own inner sanctuary, so that its holiness may reflect itself in the lives we live.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at