How on earth do all of the animal sacrifices detailed in this week's Torah portion mean anything to me? I don't worship God by burning animal flesh. Is there any way I can read this Torah portion as anything more than a remembrance of worship rituals that were discarded nearly 2,000 years ago and replaced by prayer and study?
Burning animals on an altar—what is that? When I think about the actual act of taking an animal that I have raised from birth and bringing it to the Temple to return it to the One who made it, only then does it hit me that there is a material reality that is missing from worshipping only with words. Life—my life, your life, and the life of the plants and animals upon which our lives depend—is a gift. It is only when we are required to give back some of that life, materially and physically, that we understand that it was never really ours to begin with. That is the insight that makes Parashat Vayikra begin to make sense to me.
No, I am not advocating the revival of ritual sacrifice. On the other hand, I don't want to denigrate it as a useless anachronism, either. I hear the words of the Torah this week describing my obligation to acknowledge the source of my life by giving some life back to my Source. Whether that life is understood as a first-born lamb, or the energy and attention that make up my life, the message is powerful: Our lives are not our own. We did not create them and, in the end, we will have no claim upon them.
The haftarah we will read this coming Shabbat strengthens the message. In poetic language, Isaiah describes the wood carver who cuts down a tree, maps out a design upon the wood, carves it with his own hands, burns part of it for fuel ... and then turns the rest into an idol to worship. The folly of idolatry is laid bare by Isaiah. Are gods the things we make, or is God that which has made us?
Can we ever find real contentment or happiness in life if all we ever worship is ourselves? Can we ever find meaning or purpose in life if our work is all that gives us meaning? Isn't that the common and contemporary form of idolatry?
Isaiah wants us to look deeper, beyond the confines of ego and selfishness, and I need that. I need to believe that my life is more than just chasing after my own desires and self-satisfaction with my own temporary accomplishments. My real and deep joy in life comes from being part of something larger—a promise that stretches across generations, keeping faith with eternal values, serving an ideal of how the world ought to be.
I revel and rejoice in a life that is more than a block of wood.