Vayikra – And God called. And so begins a lot of instructions about killing and offering up a lot of animals for all sorts of reasons, all with the purpose of getting closer to God (“korbanot”, the word for offering, comes from the word “karov” – get close to).
Placing the rules and regulations of offering animals within the context of an “am kadosh”, a holy people, beholden to God, asks us to take on the mindset of a wholly different society than the one in which we live today. But as with all Torah, there are lessons to be learned, even if the simple reading seems foreign and disturbing. One example is examining the actual animals identified for offering in this parasha.
In most cases, it’s the cattle, sheep and goat, in descending order of size, and the Commentators wondered why those particular animals. Abarbanel (15th c, Portagal/Spain) pondered the question and says that these animals symbolize the three Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Abraham took a calf from among his flock to feed the strangers who came to his tent. “Looking up , he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran to greet them… Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy who hastened to prepare it.” (Gen 18:1-7) The calf was offered up as a gesture of hospitality, and it became the model for openness, being welcoming and generous. For his efforts, Abraham was told he would have a son, to fulfill God’s plan that he would be the father of a great people. First, he had to become a father.
Isaac is associated with the sheep. When Abraham was told by God to take his son, his only son, the son he loved, Isaac and make him an offering to God, Isaac was ultimately replaced by a ram. On the walk up the mountain, Isaac asks his father, “Here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?’ (Gen 22:7) Later we read, “So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burt offering in place of his son.” (Gen 22:13) Torah is telling us, in part, that offering up a child is not the way to get closer to God.
Finally, Jacob is associated with the goat. In Chapter 27 of Genesis, we read how Jacob brought “two choice kids” to his elderly, blind father, in order to get the blessing of the first born. The young goats provided both the food and the skins Jacob needed to convince Isaac that he was Esau, the elder son. This problematic, deceitful part of the story nevertheless shows how Jacob was fulfilling the prophecy his mother Rebecca had received from God when she was pregnant, that Esau would serve Jacob. By taking the first son’s blessing, Jacob was brought closer to God, especially as he headed into the wilderness. He fled his brother’s anger and in a certain place, he stopped for the night and had a dream. In it, “Adonai was standing beside him and said, “I am Adonai, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isac.” (Gen 28:13) And later, we read that Jacob gets even closer to God through God’s angel, when they wrestle, and Jacob becomes Israel; the man becomes the people.
We don’t use animals to get closer to God anymore. We use our words, our prayer, and our actions focused on making the world a better place. But these three animals remind us of some of the important elements of how we get close to God: welcoming all into our tent with generosity of spirit and home, replacing the animals with the devotion of our words and our hearts, and the struggle we engage in every day to understand and internalize the teachings of our history.