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We have just completed the second book of the Torah, Shemot, which the Ramban calls the Book of the Exile and Redemption, as it deals with our slavery in Egypt, the Exodus and receiving the Torah, and culminates in the building of the Mishkan. This week we begin the third of the five books, Vayikra, also called Torat Kohanim as it deals predominantly with the service of the Kohanim, the Korbanot: olah, mincha, shlamim, chatat, asham, etc., as well as the subjects of leprosy and the blemishes, which are diagnosed and remedied by the Kohen, and the subject of purity.

Many talmudei Torah begin teaching their youngest children specifically with Sefer Vayikra, based upon the premise, “Let the pure study purity.” It seems a strange choice – starting five-year-old kids with all the “blood and the guts” rather than the “bedtime stories” of Sefer Bereishit.


Forget about five-year-old kids; most adults are not overly attracted to Sefer Vayikra, with all its “gore.” Many baalei kriyah find it hard to lein the parshiyot of Vayikra because they do not easily understand and identify with the “kishke” subjects that abound in it. They also find it hard to picture a future in which the Beit HaMikdash will be rebuilt and we will again be offering korbanot. It doesn’t feel humane and “politically correct” in our day and age – slaughtering the animal, catching the blood in a vessel, spraying blood on the corners of the mizbeach, skinning the animal, slicing and dicing the limbs, washing the entrails, burning parts in the fire, decapitating birds with the fingernail. It sounds so primitive.

There is a story about HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, zt”l, one of the most prominent poskim in Vilna in the early 1900s. On one of his many fundraising drives, as he traveled around Vilna collecting tzedakah he came to the house of a wealthy man. The temperature outside was below freezing and HaRav Chaim was appropriately insulated in a thick fur coat and hat. He knocked on the door of the house and the rich man, wearing his thin “house” clothes, opened the door. The house was ornately furnished and HaRav Chaim was hit by a wave of warmth from the well-heated interior.

When the man recognized HaRav Chaim, he was overwhelmed at seeing the Gadol HaDor on his doorstep.

“Please come in” he exclaimed.

“I unfortunately cannot,” replied HaRav Chaim, “I am in a hurry and will take very little of your time.” He then began his “pitch”: divrei Torah of amazing gems and novel insights. Astounded and delighted as he was, the rich man, dressed in his thin clothes at the open door, started to feel the severe chill.

HaRav Chaim continued for another five minutes, all the while refusing repeated offers to come inside where it was warm. The wealthy man began to shiver uncontrollably when finally, HaRav Chaim got to the point.

“I am collecting tzedakah for a poor widow whose landlord has shut off the heating in her apartment as she cannot pay the bills. Are you willing to donate?”

“Of course!” replied the rich man, whose teeth were chattering, “but why did you refuse to come inside where we could have sat comfortably and discussed this?”

HaRav Chaim replied “If I had come inside and spoken with you while sitting in your warm, comfortable living room, you would not have understood how this poor woman is suffering. Only when you felt the severe cold yourself could you truly visualize this poor woman freezing in her icy apartment.”

This is the book of Vayikra in a nutshell.

When someone sins, they have no inkling of the severity of their transgression. Hashem gave us a pure neshama, and we have defiled it. By all rights, we deserve the death penalty. However, in His mercy, Hashem allowed us to substitute an animal korban – on one condition: The person bringing the korban must be present during the sacrifice. He has to physically place his hand on the animal and watch while it is being slaughtered, skinned and chopped up into pieces, its blood sprinkled on the mizbeach – all the time thinking to himself, “That should have been me!”

Our Sages say that the difference between a tzaddik and a rasha is that a tzaddik is able to visualize, while a rasha does not. A tzaddik can conjure up images in his mind beyond what his body tells him. Even though he cannot see Hashem with his eyes or touch Him with his hands, he can grasp the concept. A rasha, on the other hand, only believes what his body tells him: If you cannot see it, touch it, smell it, hear it or taste it, it doesn’t exist.

Today we live in a reality that doesn’t include the Beit HaMikdash (hopefully that will soon change). We cannot go up to Jerusalem with a sheep and offer a korban chatat if we sin. However, we still have the ability to visualize. We can still say Korbanot before Shacharit every day and picture the scene in our minds and that we are there, actually participating.

This is the way Korbanot should be said, not by rote without understanding what we are saying. If we understand and visualize it as if it is real, then the recitation achieves the purpose “u’Neshalma Parim Sefateinu,” our lips substitute for the real thing. If this is the way we daven Korbanot every day, the Sages say our sins will be forgiven, as if we were actually standing in the Beit HaMikdash offering the korban.

Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: Why is the letter “aleph” in the word vayikra small?

Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: The verse (Shemot 40:2) says that the Mishkan should be erected on the first of Nissan. When was the actual work completed? The work was finished on the 25th of Kislev (Chanukah), but all parts of the Mishkan were kept in storage until Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the birthday of Yitzchak Avinu, when Hashem wanted the Mishkan to be inaugurated.

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Eliezer Meir Saidel ([email protected]) is Managing Director of research institute Machon Lechem Hapanim and owner of the Jewish Baking Center which researches and bakes traditional Jewish historical and contemporary bread. His sefer “Meir Panim” is the first book dedicated entirely to the subject of the Lechem Hapanim.