Parsha Vayikra begins a series of ten parashiyot that most people find less than exciting. Torah, from the Creation story up to giving of the Torah or even the cheit haegel (sin of the golden calf), is an exciting source of stories. It’s easy to take the narratives and pull lessons from them. Passages like Leviticus (that are stripped of narrative and wrought with commands) do not provide opportunity of anecdotal midrash. However, there are those who can weave a life-changing story from these texts.
In the commands regarding korban (offering, from a verbal root meaning to draw near) dealing with animals, the text always uses Hashem, while non-korban-animal references use either Elohim or it has no direct reference. Today’s parsha is filled with examples of Hashem directing korbanot. The story of Noach is the best example, where we read Elohim telling Noach to gather animals two-by-two into the Ark (Genesis 6:13 and 8:15), but when seven couples of clean animals and birds are mentioned, Hashem is the speaker (Genesis 7:1 and 8:20), which indicates at least some of these animals are intended to be used as korban.
But why does G-d instruct us to give korban?
- In Exodus 32, Moshe intercedes on our behalf and asks Hashem to forgive us, but when Hashem forgives, there is no korban given.
- Psalms 32:5 states, I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to Hashem,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.‘
- 2 Samuel 12:12, in response to David immediate admission of his guilt over the murder of Uriah, Nathan the prophet said, The LORD also has put away your sin.
- Doesn’t Luke 5:21, likewise state, Who can forgive sins but God alone?
If Hashem forgives, what is the purpose of korbanot? When we fail to uphold our end of the covenant by disobeying the edicts of Torah, we are guilty of doing things our way, or doing what is right in our own eyes, and we are expected to make teshuvah. Teshuvah is the process by which we realize the error of our way and make the decision to turn from our sin. Midrash Tehillim says If judgment follows sin, let the sinner find comfort in Hashem; the Rabbis say, Let a man not say, ‘Since I’ve sinned, there’s no hope for me,’ but let him set his trust in the Holy One, blessed be He. Let him do teshuvah and He will receive him. Let him hate dignity and humble himself in teshuvah [Midrash Shocher Tov 40:3, also known as Midrash Tehillim or Midrash Psalms].
Those whose hands are dirtied by sin and live a lifestyle defined by sin, they are warned their prayers will be to no avail [Midrash Rabbah Exodus 22:3] – even on Yom Kippur. For when we string Proverbs 11:22 with Isaiah 55:11, we get a warning of how Hashem will not listen to our requests for absolution when we live a life of rebellion. While the Midrash Rabbah uses the passage in Proverbs against Torah teachers who sully the Torah with their sinful abandon, we can use the passage to show how we dishonor the grace and mercy of Hashem when we ask for Him to forgive the very sin we elevate to a lifestyle. Hashem through his prophet says, My word that goes forth from my mouth shall not return to me empty without accomplishing what I desire and without succeeding in that which I sent it. In the Declaration of the 13 Attributes [Exodus 34:5-7], Hashem says, not clearing, clearing as well as bearing iniquity, rebellion, and sin. These two statements declare that Hashem bears iniquity, rebellion, and sin when our heart convinces G-d that He sees genuine teshuvah. G-d will not clear if the condition of genuine repentance is not met. This is what I mean when I say His word will not return void.
When we desire to return to Hashem, we must do so on His terms, not ours. We cannot expect grace and mercy to shower down on us simply because we ask Him for forgiveness. Restitution, especially in the sin we commit toward each other, must be met. It’s easier to gain forgiveness for the things we commit again Hashem; forgiveness for the sins we commit against each other must be found in those whom we harmed. Theft, contributing to harming someone’s name or honor, the shame we cause another, gossip, you name it. Forgiveness will be found by going to that person and expressing sorrow for your actions; this action requires us to disband with dignity and to humble ourselves as mentioned in Midrash Psalms. Restitution can be found in doing what you can to restore the person’s goods, his name, or his dignity. In these actions, Hashem will find teshuvah, and He likewise will forgive you.
If we want to return to Hashem yet we are not willing to come back to Him on His terms, we will delude ourselves into thinking we have forgiveness. Think about it. If walking with Hashem means maintaining the mindset of obedience to His word yet we don’t want to return to him in the way be prescribes, how is this teshuva?
- I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6)
- To obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. (1 Samuel 15:22)
These verses are not saying that sacrifice is a worthless institution. It’s saying that a lifestyle of walking with Hashem is what He seeks. Teshuvah and atonement are available for those who allow their life to temporarily spiral out of control, but if you are not going to return to Him on His terms, then everything you do to walk “holy” before your G-d is dross. Your “holy deeds” will be like the sprue we used to cut off the plastic airplane models we built as kids.