Vayikra: What is so important about korbanot?

Many mitzvot, without which it would be hard to imagine life as a Jew, appear less prominently in the Torah, while korbonot are the primary focus of so much of the Torah.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

Judaism Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

Although Sefer Vayikra (the Book of Leviticus) commences with a presentation of the korbonot (sacrifices), the first verse of Sefer Vayikra, as explained by various midrashim and featured in large part by Rashi, signifies God’s loving and intimate communication with Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher), as well as the special manner by which God’ voice traveled through the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and was heard exclusively by Moshe and no one else. Rashi commits an extraordinary amount of commentary to this concept. Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah (1:7) explains that Moshe merited this special Divine communication within the Mishkan due to Moshe’s devout involvement with the creation of the Mishkan, which had just been completed (at the end of the previous parshah).

The question that arises is what is the connection between God’s loving and intimate communication with Moshe and the subsequent text of Vayikra, featuring the korbonot; why is the unique Divine communication to Moshe juxtaposed with the korbonot? In fact, when God spoke to Moshe on prior momentous occasions, such as at the S’neh (Burning Bush) and at Sinai, Rashi does not elaborate much about the exceptional character of the communication. Why is the special character of God’s communication to Moshe of import specifically here?

The answer to this all is predicated upon another question: Why do korbonot occupy such a central role in the Torah? Many other mitzvot, without which it would be hard to imagine life as a Jew, appear less prominently in the Torah, while korbonot, which are not applicable while we are in Exile, are the primary focus of so much of the Torah. Why is this?

One who offers a korban is not merely performing a mitzvah. Rather, he is undergoing a powerful and all-encompassing experience. For one who offers a korban enters the Mikdash (Temple), the locus of Hashra’at Ha-Shechinah, the Manifestation of the Divine Presence, and is enveloped in a sphere of palpable kedushah (holiness). A person who brings a korban encounters God’s Presence and is drawn near to the Divine. Confronting the Shechinah and being awed by the Mikdash are by definition part of every korban.

It is for this reason that korban service is so central to Judaism, as korbonos are a principal vehicle to encounter God and enter a new and holy realm; they are not similar to most other mitzvot.

And it is also for this reason that Moshe’s unique and intimate communication from God is juxtaposed with Sefer Vayikra’s presentation of korbonot and in fact is the introduction to korban service, for one who offers a korban becomes like Moshe, being in the Presence of God and undergoing an intimate encounter with the Shechinah. The private meetings which Moshe had with God continue throughout history and can be experienced by every person when he offers a korban.

This concept is borne out by parallel terminology: “And He called unto Moshe, and God spoke to him from the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting, in the Mishkan) saying: Speak unto the Children of Israel and say to them, ‘A person who brings a korban to God… to the entrance of the Ohel Moed shall he bring it… “(Vayikra 1:1-3) Just as God spoke with Moshe in an endearing and intimate manner at the Ohel Moed, so too must one who offers a korban bring it to the Ohel Moed, as that is where this person likewise will encounter God. Rashi (invoking Midrash Torat Kohanim) and other commentators emphasize that a person who offers a korban must bring it to the entrance of the Azarah (the area of the Beit Ha-Mikdash where korbonot are offered) - rather than asking a Kohen to instead pick up the korban at the person’s home - for korban service requires a personal encounter with God at the locus of His Presence and necessitates personal involvement in the Mikdash. A korban is not a mere technical offering.

May we soon merit to again enter the Divine palace and experience there the endearing and immanent Presence of God.