Reading about animal sacrifice in Leviticus can be off-putting. It’s gory, and learning where to dash the blood and how to burn suet and entrails hardly seems relevant to Jewish life as we know it. Yet, if we look past the details of the rituals themselves and delve into their purpose and what they teach us, we find a compelling way to look at relationships and the rituals we build to strengthen them.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, the first few chapters in Leviticus, we read of obligatory and expiatory sacrifices. At every point, the actions necessary for the sacrifice expressed an underlying value or intention that was crucial to building a solid relationship with God. The burnt offering was offered to get God’s attention, teaching us that unless we make ourselves known in this most respectful way, there is no reason that God should pay attention to us. Thus, we have to approach our relationship with humility.
After receiving God’s attention, we come to the sacrificial offerings of grain and well-being, offered on a regular basis. This reminds us that relationships require constant care and day-to-day interaction. Because we maintain this relationship through our daily ritual, we are then able to bring special sacrifices for expiation when we inadvertently sin or fail to do something. We hope that our regular interaction gives us standing so that God will grant us expiation. The need for humility is again reinforced, for we have to admit that we are fully capable of doing things wrong, even when we are not aware of it.
This is how we were, and are, supposed to approach God: with dedication, commitment and humility. Today, we pray rather than sacrifice animals. Yet, the prayer service echoes the sacrificial ritual in that the ritual’s form and function nurture many of the same values and attempt to teach us how to interact and connect with God in positive and appropriate ways. As long as we practice the ritual, we reinforce our connection and relationship with God.
Truly, every relationship is established by and then reinforced by rituals. For instance, when we meet someone new or when we see someone we do not usually see on a regular basis, we shake hands. If someone refuses, or even politely declines, there is a moment of awkwardness. A willingness to shakes hands is symbolic of an openness to connecting with another individual. Not participating in the ritual sends the exact opposite message. While greeting rituals vary from culture to culture, the idea behind each one is the same. Participation is openness and lack of participation shuts down the possibilities.
More involved relationships, of course, have more involved rituals: tucking the kids into bed, ending a phone conversation by telling the person we love them, sending a card or a gift for a birthday, or doing the same activity year after year to mark a special date. These rituals express our love, our concern and our desire to be connected to others.
However, rituals sometimes lose their meaning. We have all had the experience of shaking hands with someone who does not demonstrate openness, but rather does so out of a sense of obligation to societal norms. When ritual becomes routine, it becomes empty. The Prophet Isaiah criticizes the Israelites for hollowing the rituals at the Temple, voiding them of meaning. Ritual sacrifice was supposed to demonstrate devotion and humility. Isaiah points out that, while they may perform the specifics of the sacrifice correctly, it doesn’t mean anything if they then abuse their power and treat others harshly. That is the dangerous side of rituals; they can make it look like we care, even when we do not.
Vayikra gives us more than instruction to perform rituals properly; it demonstrates how powerful rituals can be in conveying feeling and intent. Studying Leviticus offers us a personal opportunity to look at the rituals we create as individuals and explore what values and emotions they express. Do our rituals reflect our love and care? Have they lost their intended meaning? Can we infuse meaning by changing the ritual? Or do we need to change something else in our lives to inspire meaning once again?
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin is the senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.