Light from the Sidra

Vayikra (‘And he called...’). 19th March 2016. 9th Adar II 5776

Torah: Leviticus 1:1–5:26. Haftarah: 1 Samuel 15:2-34

You couldn't make it up...

Religion and politics. The two subjects everyone has an opinion about. Last Wednesday was Budget Day and, as always, the opinions of both politicians and the public were divided. You can bet your bottom shekel that in every pub around the country on Wednesday night, there were at least fifty people who knew not only where the chancellor had gone wrong but also how to get the British economy back on track.

It’s the same with ‘religion’. Everybody knows religion is a relic of mankind’s primitive fears and that all religions are basically the same. The Faiths should all set aside their differences and coexist in harmony. Or, better still, they should give up their superstitions and live in an imaginary world, a la John Lennon, where there’s no hell below us and above us only sky.

But not all religions are the same. The faith of ancient Israel poses difficult questions for those who believe religion evolved and that there is no substantial difference between the various faith groups. Take the matter of Israel’s sacrificial system. Whether you think the ritual slaughter of animals is humane or not, the regulations for the offerings in the first five chapters of Leviticus are elaborate and sophisticated.

The Olah of chapter 1 was arguably the most important of the sacrifices. Olah means ‘rising up’ and refers no doubt to the smoke that rose from the altar during the ritual to make atonement for the one who offered it (1:4). It was offered every morning and evening.

The Mincha, or ‘grain offering’ of chapter 2, appears to have been a gift to God. Although the Mincha had no apparent atoning value, it nevertheless accompanied the twice-daily Olah sacrifice that was offered to atone for sin. The Mincha reminded worshippers, in the words of the biblical scholar Walter Eichrodt, ‘God is the sole giver of life and nurture; and it is for this reason that their gifts to him take the form of the necessities of life.’

The third chapter sets out the instructions for the performance of the Shelamim, the ‘Fellowship’ offering, which was accompanied by a joyful celebration and fellowship meal in the presence of God. The Hebrew root of Shelamim is ‘shalom’, the peace and wholeness that results from being in covenant with God.

Through these three sacrifices, Israelites atoned for sin, expressed their gratitude to God and enjoyed fellowship with God and their fellow Jews.

Two final blood sacrifices are set forth in chapters 4 and 5: the Hattat and the Asham. They are distinguished from the previous three offerings by the words of introduction at the beginning of Chapter 4: ‘Then the Lord said to Moses…’ The Olah was offered to God to atone for general sins but the Hattat and Asham sacrifices were for specific sins.

Hattat is related to the Hebrew word chet, which means to ‘fall short’ or to ‘miss the mark’. When an Israelite inadvertently ‘missed the mark’ by failing to keep the requirements of the Torah, the guilty party had to take a Hattat offering to the High Priest in order to be ‘de-sinned.’

The Asham was a ‘guilt offering’ accompanied by a repayment to anyone the worshipper had wronged. Both sacrifice and repentance were part of the Asham. Without either, there could be no restoration to fellowship with God.

Who would dream up a religious system in which the central focus was the forgiveness of offences through the shedding of blood? Other nations – Israel’s neighbours included – offered sacrifices to their gods but their sacrifices were not intended to achieve atonement. Few ancient societies had a system of social ethics and personal morality that approached that of the Torah, so for them forgiveness for ‘falling short’ was a low priority. The Canaanite deities were as morally flawed as their worshippers so, as far as we can tell, the sacrifices offered by the Canaanites to their primitive deities (some of them human) were offered as bribes with a view to persuading the gods to be favourable.

Only in Israel were sin and transgression so serious that the shedding of blood could actually achieve atonement. When a worshiper placed his hands on the head of the Olah he was symbolically transferring his guilt to the sacrificial victim. And as the jugular of the animal was cut, the faithful Israelite was forcefully reminded that ‘the wages of sin is death.’

In Judaism today, sacrifice is viewed as something primitive but. as far as Israel’s God is concerned, sacrifice remains an eternal necessity. After the destruction of the second temple, the rabbis devised a new version of Judaism that circumvented the offerings and the Aaronic priesthood. It is clear from the Torah, however, that sacrifice was a necessity and in the remarkable prophecy of the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, a righteous servant of God becomes a sacrificial victim on whom God lays the guilt of Israel. The removal of Israel’s sacrificial system was not primarily an unavoidable accident of Israel’s war with Rome at the time of the second temple. It was a predetermined event, foreseen by the Hebrew prophet Daniel in Daniel 9:26.

The Sages of Israel took the view that HASHEM no longer required blood sacrifices. In this week’s Haftarah, HASHEM rejected Saul for offering sacrifices on the eve of battle. God was not rejecting the sacrificial system he had initiated; he was rejecting Saul because it was not his place as king to act as a priest. Although the destruction of the temple was determined by HASHEM, he did not intend to leave Israel in the lurch. A change had come. For the sect of the Pharisees, that change took the form of substituting repentance for sacrifice. But for the tens of thousands of Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah, the loss of the temple didn’t require them to abandon the principle of blood atonement because, some forty years previously, Jesus had offered himself to God as the ultimate atonement for sin.

The offerings prescribed in the Torah were symbolic signposts that pointed to Messiah’s atoning death. Although the followers of Jesus mourned the fall of Jerusalem and the temple, no change was required in order for them to move on. For forty years they had had an infinitely greater atonement by which they were accepted by God.

That ultimate means of atonement is available not only for all Israel but also for the world.

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