This week we begin reading Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, a text which challenges the contemporary faithful to find meaning and relevance in an obsessive description of a cult of worship relegated to our distant past. Yet it does not require the erudition nor the unmoored, tortured interpretation of any self-respecting rabbi to discern deeper, more incisive lessons.
While the word sacrifice has generalized to encompass many kinds exchange, from the most mundane concessions to the most noble gifts of self, its etymology is rooted in the sacred, ritual offerings delineated in this week’s portion. Yet the Hebrew word employed to describe these offerings, korban, connotes something deeper, something more individual, something more personal. The Hebrew root k-r-v conveys a drawing near to something or someone. The lesson is implicit and potent: An offering to God was a gesture of spiritual approach, a desire to get closer to God and to bring God closer to us. But the gesture itself was insufficient. As the prophets admonished, without authentic, transformative intent, the gesture is but empty choreography, the symbol robbed of its essence and effect.
The same is true of the contemporary prayers of words and heart. Perhaps there is an even greater challenge when worship transcends the material signs that root it in our more common experience. Yet the boon is even greater when true intent binds with abstract entreaties more fitting for an intangible, incorporeal, and loving God.
Rabbi Daniel Weiner