Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2007, originally published at Radical Torah.
The book of Vayikra (Leviticus) is the text at the center of the Torah, the kernel around which the other books form a kind of parenthesis or embrace. Now we're getting into the heart of things.
And the blood of things, and the entrails of things, the kidneys and the fat of things. In this week's portion, Vayikra, we dive straight into instructions for making korbanot, usually rendered in English as "sacrifices" though the word really means "drawings-near," as in "offerings which draw us near to God" (or maybe "draw God near to us.")
Sacrifice-as-worship is wildly foreign to us today. Burnt offerings and offerings of meal; offerings of well-being, and expiation offerings to atone for sins -- this stuff feels pretty far out. In this week's portion we read that when a person unwittingly incurs guilt with regard to any of the mitzvot, that person shall bring such-and-such an offering to be slaughtered, and the fat and blood shall be burned. Could this be further from our understanding of teshuvah as a personal (and individualized) process of soul-searching and turning-toward-God? This is a valuable reminder that avodah, service of God, was once physical and concrete.
It's easy to feel a disjunction between what we read here, and the form of worship we take for granted now. And the text doesn't acknowledge that at all. God doesn't say, "this is how you shall draw near to Me now, for the time being; later on, when humanity is maybe a little bit more evolved, you'll find other ways of approaching My presence, offering thanks, and seeking to atone for your misdeeds." It might make our lives easier now if those words were in there -- if God had given us an advance alert that someday our paradigm for relationship with God would change. That we would grow to be capable of finding connection through words, instead of bodily fluids and ashes.
But those words would have been disconcerting and painfully baffling to our ancestors. In the days of sacrifice, who could have imagined the satisfaction, joy, and genuine connection we would find in our strange modern worship -- our shelves of siddurim (prayerbooks), our minhagim (customs) and nuscha'ot (melody-systems), our piyyutim (liturgical poems) and improvisational prayers? The arrow of linear time moves us in one direction only -- which means that we always look back on what was, while our ancestors couldn't imagine what would be.
But we inhabit circular time as well as linear. Every year we return to the new moon of Nisan. Every year, just as we bid farewell to the book of Shemot, which in English we call Exodus, we prepare ourselves to relive the exodus from Mitzrayim which that book chronicles. And every year we re-enter the sacrificial space of Vayikra, this dip back into a consciousness which considered the careful sacrifice of animals to have transformational effect.
As it happens, this year I'm reading these verses with new eyes. These last few months I've had a complicated new relationship with the physical stuff inside my body: the muscles and fat, the blood and nerves and kidneys. I have a clearer understanding of just how complex the body is, and how ultimately mysterious. For all that medical science has achieved (and believe me, I value modern medicine more than words can express), there's still so much we don't understand.
So when I immerse in this week's Torah portion, that's what really moves me: the mystery of physical bodies. The clear sense that there's a direct connection between our flesh and the Holy One of Blessing, even if we can't articulate what that connection is. The sense that what we really want to offer up to God is the life that courses through our bodies -- life which ultimately comes from God, and returns to God; which can be sensed but not touched; which can be burned but not ultimately consumed.