Welcome to the Book of Leviticus! We start reading the third and shortest book of the Torah this week. After the narrative journey of Genesis and the story of redemption in Exodus, Leviticus deals primarily with law. While we learn laws about charity, loving your neighbor as yourself, and administration of justice throughout the book, the main concerns of Leviticus are ritual sacrifice of animals and ritual purification. You might be able to picture my reaction as a 12-year-old boy to reading my bar mitzvah Torah portion in Leviticus for the first time —perhaps some of your own children (or you yourself!) had a similar experience. Even as an adult, the detailed, and sometimes gruesome, laws of Ancient Israel’s sacrificial cult can be difficult for the modern reader.
Professor Nahum Sarna wrote, “God desires sacrifices not out of the need for sustenance but out of a longing for the devotion and fellowship of worshippers.” The laws of sacrifice, including which animals to sacrifice for what purpose and what to do with their blood, make up the entirety of this week’s Torah portion. According to Sarna’s view, these laws serve as an ancient manual for spiritual connection. These laws, however, haven’t been practical instructions for the Jewish people for close to 2000 years. When Romans besieged and captured Jerusalem in 70 CE, they destroyed the Second Temple where these sacrifices took place. Without their designated place to offer sacrifices, Ancient Israel began to evolve into Judaism as we know it. Animal sacrifice was no longer the only form of spiritual connection.
As the Rabbis in the first centuries of the common era began to adapt Judaism to fit their new context outside of Jerusalem and the Second Temple, they reimagined how we pursue the spiritual connection that ritual sacrifice once brought to our people. In response to the instruction “to love the Eternal your God and serve God with all your heart” in the Torah (Deuteronomy 11:13), these innovative rabbis ask, “What service is that with the heart?” Without the option for ritual sacrifice that they once had, they emphatically answer their own question by saying, “it is prayer” (Ta’anit 2a). The opinion of another rabbi elsewhere in the Talmud expresses this development even more clearly: “Prayer was instituted to replace the daily sacrifices” (Berakhot 26b).
While Professor Sarna explained why God wanted sacrifices, there were also critical human benefits as well. The sacrificial system gave the ancient Israelites a structure to connect with the divine. Further, each category of sacrifice touched on an important human yearning. There were offerings of gratitude, offerings to alleviate guilt, offerings for well-being, and more. These natural human yearnings are also found in our contemporary prayers. We might have prayer instead of sacrifice, but much of the original psychological and emotional underpinnings have remained. When we have the urge to connect with ourselves, each other, and the world, to offer thanks, and hope for peace, we can turn to prayer.
Without the same enforcement that the sacrificial cult or earlier iterations of Judaism had, we must actively choose to make prayer a meaningful force in our lives. There are a number of approaches to consider. Many Jews rely on the structure of the established Jewish prayer book. Some consider the established prayer book more of a coloring book, and we can color it in with the context of our lived experiences. Others don’t require a prayer book at all, like Rabbi Danya Ruttenburg, who wrote that prayer “flows naturally from an open heart reaching. It’s about connecting, about tuning into that which interlinks us all, that which is present within and between us.” Others take a human-centered approach, like Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan who wrote that prayer is an attempt to “strengthen the forces and relationships by which we fulfill ourselves as people.” And yet others, like Kaplan’s contemporary Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, orient prayer around gratitude and wonder, believing prayer is gratitude for the inconceivable awe of life. Prayer can come from a place of doubt, a place of expression, or a place to feel seen. Within this variety of approaches and beyond, there might be a meeting point where we can each find out what prayer means to us.
Amidst all of these ideas about prayer, we at JCP would love to hear from you about your understanding of prayer and what kind of prayer is most meaningful to you. We are currently thinking about our understanding of prayer as a community and how we pray together, a project that has developed over thousands of years beginning in the Book of Leviticus. I am grateful for this progression over time from animal sacrifice to beautiful prayer services. At the same time, I recognize the profound human desire for spiritual connection that originated with sacrificial offerings and has transcended time and place for close to 3000 years. I hope we all have a moment to offer our prayers this Shabbat, in any form, as we participate in this generational chain of finding gratitude and meaning in our lives.