Vayikra Comments Off 74

Putting the self back in sacrifice

Traditionally, the first book of the Bible to be taught to Jewish children is the book of Vayikra, which we begin this week. A strange choice: rather than the colourful personalities of Bereishit, or the dramatic events of Shemot, we start with the detailed accounts of the sacrifices offered by the children of Israel. Why start our Jewish education in such an unusual way?

A clue to the answer to this question may lie in a single letter – the last letter of the first word of Vayikra. According to a masoretic tradition, the aleph at the end of the word “Vayikra” “and He called” is written especially small. Indeed, to this day, in Torah scrolls around the world, the aleph of “Vayikra” is small in size.

The Baal Haturim (Germany, 13-14thcentury) cites a Midrash explaining that the small Aleph came about as a result of Moses’ modesty.  Moses was embarrassed to write the word Vayikra, “And He called to him”, since this implied that God had specially singled him out. Instead Moses preferred to leave out the letter Aleph and write Vayikar, meaning God “happened to come across him”, the same language used in the Bible in relation to other prophets. When God insisted that Moses write the whole word, Moses wrote it with a small Aleph. God wanted to express His honour for Moses, but Moses in turn wished to forgo this honour.

It is fitting that this reminder of Moses’ humility, and his willingness to sacrifice his own personal honour should open the book of Vayikra. Any sacrifice, it seems to tell us, must begin with self-sacrifice.

Indeed, this is a message reiterated later in the portion. Of all the sacrifices described in this week’s portion, only the Korban Mincha – the simplest and lowest offering of plain flour – is described as being brought by a nefesh – “a soul”. Why should this individual be regarded so highly, when other far more lavish sacrifices are not? Explains the Talmud:

Why is the korban mincha distinguished in that its bearer is termed a ‘nefesh’ (soul)? God declares: ‘Who generally brings a korban mincha? The poor man. I will consider his act as if he sacrificed his entire soul.

Both Moses’ self-effacing shrinking of the letter aleph, and the poor man’s simple offering of flour, convey an important message at the outset of the book of Vayikra:  the heart of any offering is the offering of the heart.

The idea that every sacrifice is at root, an offering of the self, is beautifully conveyed in the song Bilvavi (“In my heart”), from Sefer Charedim (R. Eliezer Azkari, c. 1550):

 In my heart I will build a tabernacle, for the glory of GodAnd there I will build an altar for His glory to shine, And for the eternal light I will take for myself the fire  of the binding  of Isaac, And for a sacrifice I will offer up my soul, my only soul.

A poignant echo of the same idea, that we ourselves can become a sacrifice to a higher purpose, was beautifully expressed by Hannah Senesh, the young poetess and paratrooper who died trying to rescue the Jews of Hungary and bring them to Israel:

Blessed is the match that is burned up as it kindles the flame.
Blessed is the flame that flares in the heart’s hidden chambers.
Blessed are the hearts that know when to leave off with honor.
Blessed is the match that is burned up as it kindles the flame.


In others’  words

Prime Minister Sharon on the sacrifice of Israel’s fallen soldiers:

“Your loved ones who fell are the beloved of the entire nation. Devotion, valor and supreme sacrifice are not slogans or figures of speech… We will lower our flags in their honor today, and you, our sisters and brothers from the bereaved families, we embrace with love, and we will strengthen your hands to help you bear your burden of sorrow. We will work and do all we can to be worthy of the pure virtue of the sacrifice made by the fallen, in order to establish our society on the foundation of equality and justice, and so that we can imbue our homes and borders with security and peace.”

Memorial service for fallen soldiers, April 2004


On a lighter note

The tourist was invited to visit the tomb of Israel’s Unknown Soldier and was shocked when taken there. He could not believe his eyes. There in big letters was inscribed: “Here lies Hyman Goldfarb, Tailor.”

The tourist inquired of his guide, “How can this be the tomb of the Unknown Soldier with the name upon it?”

“As a tailor“, he was assured, “he was known. As a soldier? Eh!”

Told in Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yiddish

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