Traditionally, the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus) was known as Torat Kohanim, “the Teachings of the Priests.” Its contents are about the people who would be ministering in the Mishcan (sanctuary in the wilderness) and in the Temple in Jerusalem. In this Torah portion Tzav, God describes the different laws of sacrifices. What a difficult subject for the modern Western mind to fathom! Get your head around the meticulous processes of burnt, guilt, and peace offerings - to name but a few. And top it off with the special offering the priests make that ordains themselves in their positions.
So long ago, you may be thinking – why bother with this now? Well I think it’s interesting as a historical record and as a spiritual value that transcends both time and place. The Temple encouraged a new era of civilised behaviour - animal sacrifice instead of the surrounding barbaric practices of human sacrifice. The Israelites brought korbanot (offerings) to the kohanim (priests) to offer to God on their behalf. Korban means “something which draws close.” So in essence drawing people closer to God. The korban acknowledges something exceptionally bad or exceptionally good that has happened. And surely it is at such times of heightened emotion that there is the possibility of experiencing a closeness to God. The possibility of transforming impurity to holiness.
And now to the modern equivalent, after the destruction of the Temple, the korbanot made three times daily on behalf of the people transform into the communal three times a day synagogue services. I am particularly reminded of the link between Temple and shul practice when some-one recites the Hagomel (the One who bestows) blessing. Originally a Temple thanks giving offering and now a blessing of thanks when called to read from the Torah occurring when a person has been through a life threatening experience. Rashi (1040-1105) lists the sea-voyager, the traveller in the wilderness, the prisoner and the person who has been very sick and is now healed. Tradition regards the thank-offering as a supreme type of sacrifice. It is said that in Messianic times, all sacrifices save one will have completed their educational purpose – the one that teaches the duty of gratitude. That sacrifice is to continue for ever.