B'nei Mitzvah of the Week
Nathan Cassidy & Paisley Flamenbaum
March 16, 2019
Parashat Vayikrah - Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26
The olah or "burnt offering" was a voluntary sacrifice that had a high degree of sanctity and was regarded as the "standard" offering. The entire animal, except for its hide, was burned on the altar. (1:1-17)
The minchah or "meal offering" was a sacrifice made of flour, oil, salt, and frankincense that was partly burned on the altar and partly given to the priests to eat. (2:1-16)
The zevach sh'lamim or "sacrifice of well-being" was a voluntary animal offering from one's herd, sometimes brought to fulfill a vow. (3:1-17)
The chatat or "sin offering" was an obligatory sacrifice that was offered to expiate unintentional sins. This offering differs from the others in the special treatment of the blood of the animal. (4:1-5:13)
The asham or "penalty offering" was an obligatory sacrifice of a ram that was required chiefly of one who had misappropriated property. (5:1-26)
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My Torah portion is called Vayikrah. It explains the laws of sacrifice. It takes us through the 5 different kinds of sacrifices to be offered in the sanctuary. They are the Olah or the “burnt offering,” the minchah the “meal offering”, the zevach shlamim or the “sacrifice of well-being” the chatat, the “sin offering” and the asham, the “guilt offering.” I’ll spare you all the gory details of how each animal should’ve been slaughtered and offered. Instead, I’d like to talk about the meaning behind these rather barbaric rituals. Rabbi Bradley Shavit-Artson talks about how back then, sacrifice reflected all aspects of life – the good, the bad and the ugly. It was a way to help the Jews face so many of their feelings. For example, the fear of making mistakes, the feelings of guilt, or doing the right thing when the wrong thing is sometimes easier. There were sacrifices that specifically related to each of these thoughts. Our ancestors, through sacrifice of animals, were able to more clearly see their own weaknesses, mortality and faults. It was a very humbling experience.
My Koshi, or key question is, what’s the purpose of the well-being or Zavach Shelamim offering? Why would Jews have to make a sacrifice when everything is “going great?” According to Ibn Ezra, the root of Shlamim, comes from the word “shalEM” which means “perfect” or “complete.” So why make a sacrifice if you’ve done nothing wrong? I found it interesting that this sacrifice was optional. While other sacrifices are required because of bad behavior, this one was only done if you wanted to do it. It’s also interesting that the animal, unlike other sacrifices, was shared between G-d, the Priests and the offerer. To me, this is the “Kumbayah” sacrifice… everyone got along, shared a meal and offered thanks. It’s simply saying we’re grateful because “Life is good”
I started thinking about the idea of being grateful for no other reason than being happy with what I’ve got. Not because of getting presents for Hanukkah, not because of Thanksgiving, but just… because. I think we all tend to forget how lucky we are every day. We may take for granted all the opportunities that we have when we wake up in the morning to when we go to sleep at night. We have lots of food, a comfy bed to sleep on, warm clothes, heat in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer. We forget that there are many people in this world that do not have many of the things that we may or may not take for granted every day. Zevach Shlamim, the “peace” offering reminds us to stop and embrace the world around you.
So, I’ve talked a lot about sacrifice. And how they used to use animals as part of this process… Today, prayer has taken the place of sacrifice. I’m grateful for this because I don’t like thinking about hurting animals even if it IS holy! I wonder what else we could do to help us be happy with what we have, just like the well-being offering used to do. I’ve come up with three ideas:
1) Every day, thank someone in your life for what they do.
2) Every month give something away that you know will mean a lot to somebody else.
3) Once a week, take a moment to stop what you’re doing and embrace what you have.
I’d like everyone to think about how they show their gratitude and well-being to g-d and to the world.
Nathan's Mitzvah Project
This brings me to my Bar-Mitzvah project. Since we are no longer offering animals up to G-d, I thought I’d take the opportunity to make up for the many years those cows, goats, chicken and sheep gave their lives to the greater good. I thought I’d actually SAVE the animals this time around.
For my Bar Mitzvah project, I volunteered at the Westchester Humane Society. This organization houses and cares for animals in need. Some of my responsibilities as a volunteer were to play with, feed and train the animals, do their laundry and clean their cages. The most important job however, was socializing with the animals. Many of the animals at the shelter are there because they’ve been abused or homeless. They tend to be frightened and may act out in fear when handled by people. By socializing them, I taught them how to interact with people. The better they behave with people, the more likely they are to be adopted. The more animals adopted, the fewer will suffer.
I’ve always loved animals. Caring for them was a win-win. I had the chance to spend time with cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds and yes mom, even mice - and at the same time, the animals received the help they needed. To me, this brings my Torah portion full circle. In Vayikra, animals were being sacrificed to help people feel closer to god and I’m helping animals get better lives which helps me feel closer to god.
The torah portion, Vayikra, is about five different kinds of sacrifices to be offered in the sanctuary, and it goes into great detail about how each sacrifice is completed. The word korban, or sacrifice, literally means, “draw near.” This shows how the purpose of the Temple offerings was to become closer to God. By offering sacrifices, a person could say thank you to God, or sought forgiveness for sins. Today, we can be drawn closer to God by prayer.
The line that stood out to me most in this portion was: “when any person brings an offering it must be mi-kem, part of you.” After reading this I wondered: what does this mean for a sacrifice to be part of you? I never pictured an offering as a piece of who I am as a person.
This Koshi is answered by our commentators in a number of ways. Sfas Emes teaches that this means a person needs to offer God his or her innermost desire. I think Sfas Emes means that when we offer something to God, it needs to mean something special to us. Maybe even something that you will feel, and miss, when sacrificed. As Rabbi Sirkman once said to me, you’re not going to sacrifice to God your favorite stuffed animal that you cherish and sleep with every night, but you need to offer something that is deeply meaningful to you, almost like you are delivering a piece of yourself to God.
Rabbi Larry Kushner explains, “When we bring sacrifices, we are also presenting ourselves before God. This is why we do not send them with anyone else.” This interpretation explains how, of course, we need to sacrifice something that we own. A person cannot take someone else's belonging to sacrifice to God. If we did, we would not be presenting our full selves to God. On top of offering our own valuable, we also need to be the one delivering it. This helps us draw near to God because we’re really there, present, and sharing a moment with God.
I agree with both Sfas Emes and Rabbi Larry Kushner because I feel when you want to connect with someone else, or express gratitude towards another person, you want it to be special, like you are representing your best self to them. You are giving something true to your heart. You wouldn’t want to give something else that isn’t yours, because then, it wouldn’t feel like it's from you. Similarly, you wouldn’t want to send a messenger to apologize for you. Even though it may be the easiest choice, it is definitely not the most meaningful.
I think that this portion and the phrase” mi-kem” -from you- really teaches us about ourselves, and “drawing near” to the people we care about most. Going back to what Sfas Emes said about sharing your innermost desire, it can be a very hard task. Comparing this to my life, whenever I give a present for a special occasion, the impact it has on the other person is important and can make our relationship feel stronger.
Presenting your best self to new people is vital when you want to build a strong connection. You want to express your true self, and you don’t want to change for anyone else. This is similar to offering what's yours and no one else’s, because it allows you to give a piece of you to someone else.
All of this teaches us that our closest relationships in life are strengthened by the importance of being thoughtful, being genuine, and of course being present. You want to keep drawing near to the ones you love; making your bonds grow stronger.
Paisley's Mitzvah Project
For my mitzvah project I decided to take part in Special Olympics. At Special Olympics, I help to teach kids with disabilities how to play different sports. Bonding with these kids is definitely a challenge, but the connection we have through our love of sports, makes this task a lot easier. Helping kids with challenges by sharing an important part of who I am made this mitzvah project especially meaningful to me.
After studying my Torah portion I am more aware of the connections I have, and how to make them grow stronger. I also learned that no matter who you are talking to, you can draw closer to them in some way. A quote from Rabbi Shoshana Gelfand that really stuck with me is, “The purpose of VaYikra is not to overwhelm us with rules of how to offer sacrifice properly, rather its ultimate intention is to underscore the importance of relationships... Being close to others brings us closer to God, and closer to the self we need to see...”