June 20, 2024
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Searching for God in All the Wrong Places

Parshat Vayikra

This week we begin the third book of the Torah with the reading of Parashat Vayikra, and with it, we open up a new world in the service to Hashem: the world of korbanot, ritual sacrifices. Having completed the second book of the Torah, Sefer Shemot, with the construction and the purpose of the Mishkan, the Torah now explains the precise details of how the sacrificial rite must be observed. And, although sacrifice was known in the ancient word—the Torah records that Noach, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov offered korbanot to Hashem—no specific laws had yet been set up regarding the exact formal procedure that was to be followed. Sefer Vayikra does just that.

Given this background, we understand Chazal’s choice of the 43rd and 44th perakim of Sefer Yeshayahu as the haftarah for this parsha. These chapters focus upon the sacrificial rite that was observed—or not observed—by the nation during the prophet’s lifetime. Indeed, the bulk of the selection depicts the glory of the future epoch when even idolaters will turn to sacrifice to Hashem upon realizing the emptiness of pagan worship.

Nonetheless, the haftarah begins with Yeshayahu’s criticism of Israel for having turned away from God. The navi’s condemnation of Israel for not having sacrificed to Him is a source of disagreement between the parshanim. Rashi explains that God condemned the people for sacrificing to the false gods rather than to the true One. The Radak supports that view by quoting the episode found in Divrei HaYamim II that describes how King Ahaz locked the gates of the Beit Hamikdash and built altars throughout the land, leading the nation to idolatry. The Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, suggests that the navi was referring to the behavior of Israel in the Diaspora of Bavel where they did not observe the sacrificial rite at all.

The different approaches suggested by these commentators reflect two possible sins that Yeshayahu condemns: either the people’s cessation of worshipping God or their active involvement in actual idolatry. We would imagine that the second sin is far worse than the first. But perhaps we can understand both approaches as actually being part of a process—a process in which one sin of omission leads to the more serious sin of commission.

As mortal beings, whose time on this earth is limited, we seek to cling to the Unlimited. Blessed with an immortal soul that seeks to reunite to its source, we naturally thirst for spirituality, for immortality, for Hashem, as the Psalmist wrote: “Tzam’ah nafshi lEilokim” (Tehillim 43:3). In today’s parsha, the Torah provides us with a way to do just that, a way to reach out and to connect to God. And, when followed as prescribed, that way quenches the soul and satisfies our longing for the Immortal One

But when, for whatever reason, people cease reaching out, when they stop searching or stop thirsting, they seek other paths. Often they find material success as satisfying that need. Or, perhaps, it can be intellectual achievement or technological advance that calms that yearning. They begin to see their progress as the accomplishment of man alone and begin to believe, as the Torah puts it: (Devarim 8:17) “Kochi v’otzem yadi asa li et hachayil hazeh,” that all this success that I have achieved has come through my own efforts. They replace “Him’ with “I.” And yet, often enough, even one’s great accomplishments fill the void only temporarily. That thirst and that longing still remains. And so they continue to search. And eventually they return to worship. But not the worship of the Al-mighty but the worship of false powers, of nature, of philosophies, of “isms”—of idols. Simply, the abandonment of service of the Divine Being can lead to the service of a non-being.

The laws of korbanot, like the laws of tefillah, may appear to many as irrelevant or, perhaps, concerned with details far too picayune to be of real significance. But it is this body of laws that paves for us our way to draw nearer to God, to our true Source. It quenches our thirst, it soothes our longing and it elevates us beyond the world of the mortal to that of the Divine.


Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.

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