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Drawing Close: Rabbi Ilana Foss on Parashat Vayikra

Rabbi Ilana Foss
| 12/03/2020

Parashat Vayikra, the beginning of the Book of Leviticus, arrives at a timely moment as the world continues to battle the deadly corona virus.

Rabbi Ilana Foss, Development and New Media Associate at The Schechter Institutes, discusses the Israelites’ evolution from worshipping God through animal sacrifice to communing with God through prayer.How can we draw close to one another and to God when we are socially and physically distant from one another?

Read the article below and watch the video:

Parashat Vayikra introduces us to the intricate laws of sacrifice in the tabernacle, a dizzying list of the types of offerings that are made and the sins for which they are atoning.  We translate the word korban as sacrifice which perhaps is not the most helpful translation because the actual root of korban is kuf resh vet, karev, to draw close. To us moderns the idea of korbanot being something to draw us closer to God seems quite foreign but the rituals of sacrifice that are set out in Leviticus are designed to help the Israelites transition from their lives in Egypt where  surrounding cultures engaged in different types of pagan sacrifices in pagan temples. Many commentators, among them, the Rambam, Maimonides describe the korbanot as a way to help the Israelites make the leap from living in pagan society to one which followed God and God’s laws. It helps them draw closer to God and to establish this relationship on familiar footing. In the Moreh Nevuchim, The Guide to the Perplexed Maimonides says:

By this Divine plan the Existence and Unity of God, was firmly established… without deterring or confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of the service to which they were accustomed and which alone was familiar to them. (Guide for the Perplexed, Part 3 32)Eventually even as the Israelites wandered through the desert, entered the land of Israel and had the first and second temples, animal korbanot were continued but only in very specific contexts.  They could only take place at the designated temple. Only those descended from the Kohen and Levite lines could serve in the temple. We can contrast this with the development of prayer which anyone can say alone or in community.  Prayer can be done by anyone at anytimeAs many of us find ourselves separated from family and friends, from the communities, synagogues and organizations with whom we are normally in fellowship,  it can be hard to feel the closeness of community. We are experiencing an exile from our normal way of life. At the same time we are confronting a deathly serious pandemic impacting the entire world and demanding tremendous sacrifices from people,  particularly those on the front lines in medical fields, public services and service industries, and of course rabbis and cantors and those offering spiritual and pastoral care. We don’t have temple sacrifices and right now, temporarily, we don’t have our normal in-person communities but we still have the opportunity to lekarev, to draw close through prayer to God and to one another.Maimonides continues his discussion of the transition from the rituals of sacrifice to the rituals of prayer saying:All these restrictions [on korbanot, on sacrifices] served to limit this kind of worship, and keep it within those bounds within which God did not think it necessary to abolish sacrificial service altogether.  אבל התפילה והתחינה היא מותרת בכל מקום וכל מי שיזדמן. But Prayer and supplication can be offered everywhere and by every person (Guide for the Perplexed, Part 3 32).Wherever you are  whoever you are, prayer and supplication can be offered. May God hear our cries and bring a swift resolution to this pandemic for all the world.

Ilana Foss is a development specialist in grant writing and donor relations. Ordained as a rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary, she served as a pulpit rabbi in Brockton, Massachusetts before making aliyah. Ilana has worked as an educator for the Nesiya Institute and the 92nd Street Y. She has a BA in Black Studies from Amherst College and lives with her husband and three children in Jerusalem.

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