The Book of Leviticus contains detailed information pertaining to the sacrificial system that was the core of ancient Israelite worship.
When the ancient system of offerings ceased to be a part of the Jewish religion with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, prayer and study of Torah replaced the ritual altar.
Nonetheless, Leviticus remains a fascinating document of the earliest layer of Jewish spirituality. Just under the surface of the archaic articulations regarding flock and food offerings, we find important evidence about how biblical religion viewed God and man and their interrelationship.
The biblical writers reflected the belief that between the transcendent God who created the world and the human beings who lived in that world there would always remain a separation. It was the task of human beings to draw themselves closer to God through fulfillment of the moral and ritual obligations of the Torah. Acts that increased the distance between God and human beings through disregard of the commandments were considered sinful.
Thus, we can better understand the meaning of the word for offerings, “korbanot,” which derives from a Hebrew root meaning “draw close, approach.” The offerings of the ancient Temple system were indeed “korbanot” — their purpose was to draw human beings closer to God.
Sin offerings were designed to expiate wrongdoing and give the participant the sense of purification needed in order to feel oneself in right relationship with God. These were perhaps the most effective, and the most necessary, parts of the sacrificial system, because the tendency to sin was, and remains, so prevalent.
The seat of sin was, for the rabbis of the talmudic period, a source of debate. The Greek-inspired Roman culture of the early centuries of the Common Era, as well as the emerging faith known as Christianity, showed a marked tendency to regard the body as evil and the soul or spirit as pure. Opinions ranged from the acceptance and tolerance of the body as a necessary carrier of the soul, to vehement denunciations of the body as a subversive and betraying prison of the spirit.
Commenting on a verse from this week’s portion regarding sin, the midrash relates this parable: A king placed two watchmen, one blind and one lame, to guard his orchard. Said the lame to the blind: “I see fine figs for us to eat.” Said the blind to the lame: “Let us go get them for ourselves.” “Can I go?” said the lame; “Can I see?” said the blind. Then the lame man climbed on the shoulders of the blind man and together they were able to eat the figs.
When the king returned and saw the figs were gone, he accused the watchmen, each of whom pointed in defense to his disability. The king then took the lame man and put him on the shoulders of the blind man and said, “Thus have you done.”
Rabbi Ishmael interprets: So, too, will God one day accuse the soul of sinning, and the soul will reply, “It was the body, now that I am free [i.e., after death], see how pure I am!” And God will also accuse the body, which will reply, “It was the soul; since it left me, do you see me commit any sin?” God will then fuse body and soul together and judge them as one. (Vayikra Rabba 4:5)
In contrast to the philosophical tendencies of the time, this midrash exemplifies the rabbinic resistance to separating body and soul. For Judaism, there is no resort to a false dichotomy between who we are and what we do. Both are inextricably linked.
Leviticus understood that part of being human is failing. Some failures are inadvertent and unintentional; others are deliberate. All failures constitute a form of sin, meaning they distance us from God. We may no longer offer sacrifices or bring offerings as did our ancestors, but we remain in need of “korbanot” — acts of heart, spirit, and body that help bring us closer to God.