How sacrifice fell out of fashion, or why we can pray on the go


Leviticus 6:1-8:36

Deuteronomy 25:17-19

Jeremiah 7:21-8:3; 9:22-23

Pity the poor Book of Leviticus, the most overlooked book in the Torah. It lacks the grand, inspiring stories of our origins that fill Genesis, and it is missing the supernatural stories of how we met God at Sinai that we read about in Exodus. And what’s more, it lacks the juicy stories of rebellion that pack the Book of Numbers and the verses of high-minded mitzvahs in Deuteronomy.

But Leviticus is supremely important. In it, we learn of the importance of drawing near to God and that we are to be holy, like God. And beginning with the book’s first seven chapters, we learn that the path of the holy begins with worship, which in biblical times centered on sacrifices.

Parashat Tzav expands on the five types of sacrifices that were introduced in last week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, and we learn about the nature of the five types: the olah, or burnt offering; the minchah, or meal offering; the chatat, or sin offering; the asham, or guilt offering; and the zevach shlamim, or sacrifice of well-being.

Most of us would probably say it is for the good that we don’t offer these sacrifices anymore. Even 700 years before they were rendered obsolete, the prophet Isaiah saw the problems inherent in a sacrifice-based worship system. Isaiah castigated the people of Judea for blithely thinking they were one with God and were considered holy because they offered the right sacrifices at the right times, yet still abused their workers, scorned the vulnerable and acted heartlessly to the stranger. In other words, holy acts need to be met by holy actions.

By the third century BCE, synagogues and prayers had become enormously popular ways for people to worship — more than 480 synagogues had cropped up in Jerusalem alone. In order to see the move in worship, or in Hebrew avodah, from sacrifice to prayer, we need to look at the Hebrew word for a sacrifice: korban, which means to draw close, as in to God. For the ancient Israelites, a sacrifice or korban was how they came close to the presence of God.

It is noteworthy that the English word “sacrifice” obscures the nature of the korban. To the ancients, this was not as much a sacrifice of one thing for the sake of another thing (as in sacrificing time by studying, for the sake of a good result on a test) as it was a sacrifice of something (a prized cow, for example) to God.

Over time, the notion of a worship of God through words and feelings was seen as a deeply meaningful way of connecting to God as well. “Prayer,” the rabbis of the rabbinic age would say, “is greater than all the sacrifices” (Tanchuma, Vayera, 31b).

And when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., it would be the great Yochanan ben Zakkai who would calm his students by telling them not to weep over the fact that sacrifices could no longer be offered: “Do not grieve. We have a means of atonement that is equal to sacrifice. It is the doing of deeds. For God teaches us, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifices’ ” (Avot de Rabbi Nathan; Hosea 6:6).

And over time, our generally accepted means of drawing closer to God and worshipping evolved. No longer did we offer an animal or grain; rather we offered the prayers of our heart, specifically the prayers of the Amidah. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would write in his 1954 book “Man’s Quest for God” that “prayer is not a substitute for sacrifice. Prayer is sacrifice.” He added that through our modern worship “we try to surrender our vanities, to burn our insolence, to abandon bias, dishonesty, envy.”

And we, who come 2,000 years after the transition from one kind of worship to the other, are the beneficiaries of this supremely beautiful system called tefillat halev, the prayer of our heart. It is deeply communal yet personal, accessible and transportable. Wherever you go, the God of our people goes with us, so we can always find a means to draw near to our God. May our pursuit of the holy draw us closer to humanity, our people and our God, as we pursue a path leading to holiness.

Rabbi Daniel Feder is the spiritual leader at Reform Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. He can be reached at [email protected].