Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2March 9, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Posted in Tzav, Vayikra | 4 Comments
Making a fire-offering in front of the Israelite sanctuary was nothing like lighting a candle at a pretty home altar. For every type of fire-offering except the grain-based minchah, according to the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, the donor must bring an animal, lay hands on its head, then watch the priests slaughter and butcher it, sprinkle the blood, and burn all or part of it on the communal altar to generate smoke for God’s pleasure.
Killing and burning animals may have been spiritually moving to the ancient Israelites, but today we can apply their categories of offerings to a more ethical set of procedures. Last week I suggested new meanings for fire-offerings in general, as well as for the first kind of fire-offering in Leviticus, the olah or rising-offering. (See last week’s post, Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1.)
In the order of their appearance in the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, the other five types of fire-offerings are:
2) minchah (מִנחָה) = allegiance-offering; a gift to a king as a sign of homage or respect. (Minchah offerings are made out of grain.)
A person who offers a minchah for God, he shall offer fine flour, and he shall pour oil over it and place frankincense upon it …and the priest shall make a memorial portion go up in smoke on the altar, a fire-offering of soothing fragrance for God. (Leviticus 2:1-2)
When I burn part of my toast, it only sets off the smoke alarm. But before I eat bread, or any other food, I say a blessing to give thanks for it. The blessing is my gift of allegiance to the source of all life.
3) shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = wholeness-offering. (From the same root as shaleim (שָׁלֵם) = complete, safe and sound, at peace.)
If he offers it as thanks … then he shall offer from each one, out of the whole offering, a gift to God; it shall belong to the priest who sprinkles the blood of the shelamim. And if the slaughtered animal of his offering is for a pledge or a donation … (Leviticus 7:12-16)
The animals and grain products in the shelamim were divided into three portions: one to be turned into smoke for God, one for the priest to eat, and one for the donor and his guests to eat in God’s presence.
When we give thanks today, we often thank the people who helped us (even though they did not sprinkle blood). We add a tangible gift or a donation for more generous thanks. And every time we make a donation, we add to the world’s supply of generosity—which brings more wholeness and holiness into the world.
4) chataat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering. (From the root chata (חָטָא) = miss the mark, commit an offense against God; make amends for doing wrong.)
If one person from among the people of the land should chata unintentionally, by doing one of the commandments of God that should not be done, and he incurs guilt—if the offense that he committed becomes known to him, then he shall bring his offering … and the priest shall make reconciliation for him and he shall be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:27-31)
What can we do today when we realize, after the fact, that we did something wrong? When I inadvertently violate a practice I have set for myself (for example, when I bite into what I thought was a vegetarian omelet and discover bacon in my mouth), I rectify the error to the extent that I can, and say a short prayer for discernment. For me, that is sufficient reconciliation with the divine inside me.
But when I realize I did something that hurt another person, I have to do something harder in order to reconcile both my conscience and the person I wronged. I have to find a calm time to talk with the person, then say what I think I did wrong and apologize. Next I give the other person a chance to say how the offense looked to them. If I need to explain anything, I try to do it humbly, without defending my ego. Then I ask what I can do to make up for what I did. If the other person says “nothing”, but still seems hurt, I make a suggestion. When we have agreed on reparations, I perform them. Only then can I be forgiven, both by the other person and by myself.
5) asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering. (From the root asham (אָשַׁם) = incur guilt.)
If a person offends and betrays God’s trust and lies to his fellow about a pledge, or a loan, or a theft, or fraud; or he finds a lost item and lies about it, and he swears falsely … he shall return the stolen item that he stole or the fraud that he committed or the pledge that was left with him or the lost item he found … and he shall pay back the principal and add a fifth … And he shall bring his asham to God … And the priest shall make reconciliation for him before God, and he shall be forgiven for anything that he does to become guilty. (Leviticus 5:21-26)
Today we have many reasons to pass a guilty verdict on ourselves, including the reasons listed above. The Torah says that when we become guilty, in order to be forgiven we must make reparations to the person we have wronged, and also bring an asham, a guilt-offering, to God.
I think we need an updated version of the asham in order to forgive ourselves. When you have made reparations, and you still feel guilty, what ritual can you perform to clear yourself? For some people, the answer is to give a large donation to charity, in money or labor. For others, the answer might be to conduct a ritual that includes washing with water and saying prayers borrowed from the Yom Kippur repentance liturgy.
6) milu-im (מִלֻּאִים) = ordination-offering. (From the root mala (מָלַא) = fill, fulfill. Filling someone’s hands meant ordaining someone as a priest.)
Then [Moses] offered the second ram, the ram of milu-im, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on the head of the ram. (Leviticus 8:22)
The milu-im appears to apply only to people ordained as clergy. But if our goal is to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6), then we need to give ordination-offerings whenever our hands are filled up—whenever we receive authority to act in the public sphere.
What can we give today in return for this authority? Humble service, regular prayers that we might be worthy, and the grace to step down again at the right time.
When the ancient Israelites wanted to give God fire-offerings, offerings of the heart, they could come to the altar and follow the established rituals. They knew what to do, and probably the death, blood, and smoke made the rituals more impressive for them.
Today we have to think harder about our practices. Yet we can still give six kinds of offerings to the divine, with the fire of our hearts. We can rise higher (olah), give allegiance (minchah), cultivate wholeness through thanks and generosity (shelamim), repair mistakes (chataat), undo guilt (asham), and turn our positions of authority into holy ordinations (milu-im).
Let’s keep on giving our own offerings! And may the whole world someday become a holy nation.