The second portion in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) finds us discussing the minute details of the rituals of sacrifice in the ancient temple. These are broken up into two main categories, kodesh kodashim, the most sacred offerings, and kodashim kallim, offerings of lesser sanctity. Among the kodesh kodashim are four offerings, two of which were offered publicly, and two which were done privately and related more closely to people’s own private transgressions.
There has been many a time that I have described the activities of the ancient temple to one of my younger students to a response of disgust and rejection at the seeming inhumanity of these actions of our ancestors. It is hard for really any of us to connect with these rituals and they aren’t clearly ones we would want to resume and practice today. It can be a challenge for us to find our connection to these descriptions when we study these passages and glean something from them. This, in fact, has been a struggle for much longer than just modern times. It began in the aftermath of the destruction of the second temple, where the community had to readjust and re-envision its ritual in the wake of the, now, inexistent temple. In Midrash Vayikra Rabbah, Rabbi Hanina Bar Papa is quoted asking, “In the past we used to offer up sacrifices and engage in the study of them; now that there are no sacrifices, is it necessary to engage in the study of them? The Holy Blessing One said to Israel, ‘If you engage in the study of them, I account it to you as if you had offered them up.’” From this time on, it was determined that there was still a value in studying this part of the Torah. While we do not necessarily connect with the physical actions taken in the ritual themselves, we can connect with the meaning behind them.
When I teach the history of our liturgy (prayer), I always talk about how prayer took the place of the ritual sacrifices. Today, our Amidah is found in all three of the daily services—morning, afternoon, and evening. In fact, the name of the afternoon service (minchah) is the very name of the afternoon offering—an offering of grain. So, when we offer these prayers on their various themes, we are thinking the same things our ancestors were as they practiced the ritual of sacrifice. However, we give even more of ourselves, and prayer is also often called ha’avodah she’balev, the offering of our hearts. It is always so important to me that I connect with the theme of every prayer I intone, and is just the same with my students. I want them to at least know what a prayer is about, even if it would be a challenge to understand the meaning of every word. So, I encourage you to find and make this connection and make your prayer even more meaningful and connected.