This week’s parshah reads much like an instruction manual because, in fact, it is an instruction manual for the cohanim, the priests, who offered the animal sacrifices at the ancient altar of the Israelites. For us today, it’s difficult to relate to animal sacrifice, but for our ancestors, it was the obvious way to worship God, to offer expressions of peace and thanksgiving or to purify oneself after a transgression.
Animal sacrifice had been around for a long time, according to the Torah. In Genesis, Cain, Abel, Noah, Abraham and Jacob all made offerings. But in Leviticus, the practice changes.
No longer are animals offered by individuals at isolated altars as spontaneous expressions of joy or hope or fear. Rather, sacrifice becomes institutionalized and regimented to particular times, places and people. This parshah details precise instructions for each of the offerings: what the priest should wear, when the fire should be fed, etc.
Regarding sacrifice, the Torah presents a tension between individual practice and communal practice, between spontaneous offerings and fixed offerings. Although we stopped animal sacrifice when the Temple was destroyed, this tension still exists in Jewish life.
This tension is particularly felt today in Jewish communities like ours in the Bay Area; we live in a place and time of great creativity and individuality, yet we are part of a tradition with rules, laws and structure. Some would argue that Judaism has too many rules and restrictions and that spirituality is about individual spiritual expression.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about the need to find balance between what’s called keva and kavanah, the fixed form of the ritual and the inward, heartfelt experience. Judaism, he wrote, must maintain a harmony between regularity and spontaneity, uniformity and individuality.
When Heschel wrote this in 1955, his concern was that Judaism was too much form and not enough spirit; he was concerned about observant Jews for whom prayer and ritual had become rote; he wanted to infuse kavanah, the spirit of delight, emotion and spontaneity, into highly structured, fixed practice.
We, on the other hand, live in the world of highly individualized experiences. Think of the ubiquitous iPod, which allows us to block out the world around us. All aspects of our lives have become more customized to suit our individual needs, yet, at the same time, people are isolated and yearning for community more than ever before.
This is where keva is needed. Fixed rituals like Shabbat dinners, communal prayer and Passover seders create shared identity and community.
Judaism aside, human beings need rituals, and we create them one way or another to give meaning and order to our days and seasons.
Rituals like blowing out candles at a birthday party or singing the national anthem at a sporting event mark time and turn our individual lives into shared experiences.
Within Judaism, rituals infuse our lives with connection to the Divine and to other people, past, present and future. The structure of communal practice turns one’s mundane life into shared poetry, where the deepest teachings of our tradition are acted out in the real life of community. We discover this at important moments, such as with a death in the family, when the structure of ritual gives us community, comfort and a sacred container for our loss. This is true for joyous moments, too.
In the Torah, animal sacrifice evolved from individual offerings at private altars to communal offerings at centralized altars. This suggests that as much as we need kavanah, personal meaning and intention, we need keva, fixed and shared structure.
Shared ritual provides a container and a community for personal spiritual expression. Communal ritual and individual expression go together, as Heschel said: One is the string, and the other the bow. Together they evoke the melody.
Rabbi Chai Levy is associate rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.