top of page

AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Vayikra

Parashat Vayikra

Nissan 3, 5780 – March 28, 2020

Torah Reading: Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26

Haftarah: Isaiah 43:21 – 44:23

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Vayikra, which is Hebrew for “and He called.” To be more specific, I should say: “and G-d called,” as G-d is the one who is summoning Moshe to give him the instructions which typify the nature of this third book of the Torah – the Book of Leviticus. The only other place in the Torah where G-d ‘calls’ rather than speaks to Moshe is from atop Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:16), and now that the Tabernacle is complete, the Mishkan is to symbolically replace Sinai as “the source from which divine messages come.”[1] In this way, Vayikra (“and He called”) is a keynote phrase that functions like a musical chord – “[It] reflects the perception that G-d’s created world is fundamentally harmonious, good, and orderly.” This is an excerpt from The Torah: a women's commentary which contextualizes Leviticus quite nicely, and I’ll continue the quote: “To preserve G-d’s orderly world, where everything has an assigned place, Leviticus specifies what must be done whenever boundaries are wrongfully crossed, be they boundaries of the body, time, or space – such as between sacred and non-sacred, or between life and death. In this book’s worldview, anyone who break’s G-d’s ordained harmony can – and must – repair it.”[2] Parashat Vayikra is the opening note to a long musical score that might sound a bit strange; the contents of this first portion deal with animal sacrifice, the offerings that were made in the Sanctuary, and the procedures connected to them. These can be challenging, and potentially even disturbing, topics for the modern reader. But the goal of this Torah for the Earth audio series is to address the double significance of every instruction – a past, historical reality has implications for our contemporary, spiritual life and for the ways of living that bring harmony to the ecology of the earth. There is no Mishkan, and its transfiguration into the First and Second Temples is a phenomenon that has also come and gone. So, we must ask: What does sacrifice mean to us? How does it have an immediate bearing on our present existence, and on the path that can lead us towards a greater environmentalism?

The Hebrew word used in this parashah for “sacrifice” is korban – and its root (ק-ר-ב) that forms the word – means “to come near.”[3] The implication, here, is that the root of a sacrifice carries with it an approach to the divine – for this reason korban can also be translated as “near-offering.”[4] There are five main categories of near-offerings discussed in this parashah: 1) the elevation offering or burnt offering (Heb: olah) given atop the altar; 2) the meal offering (Heb: minchah) that is prepared by mixing flour, olive oil and frankincense (of which there are five varieties discussed); 3) the peace offering (Heb: shelamim) that is brought as a tribute to express love for G-d; 4) the sin offering (Heb: chatat) that is required to atone for sins that are done inadvertently, like an error; and 5) the guilt offering (Heb: asham), which is brought by someone who either misused property of the Sanctuary, is in doubt about their violation, or by someone who attempts to defraud a fellow Jew by lying. As one reads through the different categories of sacrifices, and their various divisions, the text can feel a bit mechanical – the offerings are listed, and the details for their enactment are given. But the “why” behind the sacrifices don’t seem to be immediately evident – in other words, why bring sacrifices at all? There are a few things I will say with respect to this question. First, if you remember back to Parashat Tetzaveh, from Exodus 25:8, we read a line regarding the construction of the Tabernacle that proceeds as such: “They shall make a Sanctuary for Me – so that I may dwell among them.” A teaching from the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that this verse does not end as one would expect, which would be “so I can dwell among It [that being, the Tabernacle].” Instead we read “so that I may dwell among them,” which is to be interpreted as within each and every Jew.[5] In this way, the act of sacrifice carried out by the priests can pertain to our own personal path of religious experience, and the actions we take to maintain the sanctity of our own sanctuary – the sanctuary of the self. Next, in the opening line of the parashah, the translation reads: “When a man among you brings an offering to Hashem”[6] but the Hebrew word used here is adam, not ish – which is what we would expect, as the Hebrew word for man is ish. While Adam is the name given to the first man, it can also be used to refer to a human being (see Gen 1:26; 5:2) – the implication, here, is that commentators have used this detail to indicate that the laws of sacrifice pertain to men, women, and all people.[7] Lastly, while the verse begins by speaking of an offering to Hashem, it concludes with the phrase your offering, which has been interpreted as meaning that the offering must come from yourself, or be of yourself.[8] If we synthesize these points – 1) that there is a Sanctuary within every Jew, 2) that the laws of sacrifice pertain to all people, and 3) that the essence of the offering must stem from ourselves – then we can conclude that when we wish to draw near to G-d, we must offer something of ourselves: something that stems from our essential humanity, and from the essence behind our humanness. If we understand these three points, then we can relate the entire nature of sacrifice to our own environmentalism; there is a real connection between our present activities and the inward forms of sacrifice that occur within ourselves, and the outward forms of sacrifice that were a past, historical reality performed by the kohanim in the Mishkan.

This, then, begs the question: What are we offering of ourselves and how does it relate to environmentalism? If you look in the Sefer Torah, at the opening word of this parashah – Vayikra – you will notice that the word is spelled (vetyudkufreishaleph), and the aleph, the last letter, is smaller than the other letters. The Torah is written with three different sized letters – small, medium, and large – and most of the Torah is written with the medium sized letters. But this is an instance where we see a small letter, and commentators note that “the smallness is meant to give prominence to the letter, as if it were a separate word.”[9] The small aleph is said to represent Moshe’s humility, and is connected to the significance of the word aleph (אלף) which means “to teach” – “thus implying that one should learn to always be small and humble.”[10] While this is a well-known point, the Lubavitcher Rebbe gives a sicha explaining that we can contrast this small aleph found in vayikra with the large aleph with which the name Adam is written in the Book of Chronicles (1:1).[11] The Rebbe explains that this exemplifies the awareness Adam had of his own greatness, which eventually led to his sin with the tree of knowledge. While large letters do not always have negative connotations – in fact, there are aspects of the large letters that make them superior over the other sizes (the same logic applies for small letters, which can represent the confines of the material world, and the limits of G-d’s presence). But the Rebbe contrasts the small aleph of Vayikra with the large aleph of Adam to teach us that we must always maintain a balance between our good qualities and a proper sense of humility. In terms of our environmentalism, and the nature of sacrifice, the small aleph of Vayikra is teaching us that we need to sacrifice our pride. What led to Adam’s downfall is that he recognized his singular uniqueness; we too must embrace a humility, rather than superiority – over other people and over other creatures – if we are to change the way we interact with the natural world. Sacrificing our pride is relevant to an environmental consciousness, because there are many instances when our pride can lead us to engage with careless and destructive behavior. When we are too preoccupied with our own uniqueness, pride can sometimes blind us from seeing the impacts of our own behavior and the degree to which we are affecting other creatures. The very message of Vayikra, and the significance of G-d’s calling, is that sacrifice must occur if we are to maintain balance in this world and draw nearer to G-d. Sacrifice of pride, in the interest of maintaining a productive sense of humility, can be a quality that relates to our stewardship of the earth. Sacrifice is about the sanctification of creation, because it is essential for maintaining the balance and harmony of the material world.

There is no doubting that if things are going to change, we must all learn to make sacrifices. And in keeping with the theme of this week’s parashah, maybe this means changing your habits to alter where you’re sourcing your meat, or how you’re sourcing your meat – maybe this means eating much less, or avoiding it altogether. Whatever that may be, or whatever form that sacrifice may come in, the various offerings discussed this week in Parashat Vayikra all have a relevance for the transgressions we have committed against the earth – knowingly or unknowingly. Sacrifice is about redirecting our intentions, and seeing physical change as a spiritual act that brings us closer to G-d. The message of Parashat Vayikra is about embracing humility as a guiding principle and viewing sacrifice as a moral act – an offering – that serves all of creation. Thank you listening. That’s all for now and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: The universal nature of sacrifice, humility and the small aleph in Vayikra, and sacrifice as a moral principle


Chasidic Perspectives: a festival anthology, Discourses by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Translated and Adapted by Rabbi Alter B. Metzger (Audio Book)

Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, ed. The Torah: a women's commentary. CCAR Press, 2017.

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

Torah Studies: a parsha anthology, Discourses by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Adapted by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Audio Book)

[1] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.573 [2] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.567 [3] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.569 [4] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.569 [5] As sourced from Torah Studies: a parsha anthology, Discourses by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Adapted by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Audio Book, Chapter 28) [6] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.545 [7] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.572 [8] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.545 [9] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.544 [10] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.545 [11] As sourced from Chasidic Perspectives: a festival anthology, Discourses by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Translated and Adapted by Rabbi Alter B. Metzger (Audio Book, Chapter 13)

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

15 views0 comments


bottom of page