Ever wonder why the offerings in Vayikra/Leviticus are what they are? Well this episode might just answer your questions…
Welcome back to the Joseph Cox show. First off, thank you to everybody who sent their well wishes, I am doing much better. I have two working eyes and two working ears – which is a big step up from the past couple weeks.
This week is another very busy week so I’m essentially going to go through the parsha sequentially, building on what I’ve done before. I think this approach works well because we are telling a story through the offerings, a story of a developing relationship as we’ll get to at the end of the podcast.
There is a lot of symbolism here, and a few overarching concepts – but they’ll be teased out naturally.
I do want to start with one general structural placeholder. At this point in the Chumash, the Mishkan has been built. There is a physical representation of G-d dwelling within the people and Hashem’s cloud has descended onto the Mishkan. We have a static reality of our divine relationship. But we don’t have much in the way of ongoing action. The relationship isn’t a living one. To put it in accounting terms, we have a balance statement, but not a statement of cashflows or income. In terms of a relationship, it is like a legal marriage without the parties actually having ongoing interactions.
So, we need a way to relate to G-d. We need a way to use the Mishkan as more than a static demonstration of the divine relationship as it stood shortly after the Exodus. Yes, that relationship is the starting point – as we are reminded regularly – but the ongoing relationship is expressed and built through the offerings – the korbanot.
There’s a standard question people ask about these offerings. Namely, will they continue with a third Temple. For me, the answer is clear: yes. On the one hand, they aren’t barbaric. We kill roughly 77 billion animals a year for meat. We buy a burger as we’re on our way to work and eat it with one hand while steering our car with the other. And we buy meat that is half the cost – ignoring factory farming conditions in the process. We have very little appreciation of the life lived and given up to provide us with meat. I’m not suggesting we should be vegetarians or that people who benefit from meat-based protein should be priced out of the ability to get it. I’m suggesting that those who suggest an offering – in which we are aware of the sacrifice (perhaps even painfully aware of the sacrifice) is not so barbaric and antiquated. Instead of thinking of the animal as a shrink-wrapped bit of plastic on a supermarket shelf, we are actually having a relationship with the creature itself.
As painful as it is to see the animal being sacrificed it is, in its way, far more humane than distancing ourselves from the sacrifice itself.
In addition, an animal brought as an offering serves a higher purpose than one eaten simply because you preferred it to a glass of milk that day.
An offering builds a relationship with G-d. It serves the greatest possible spiritual purpose.
The very fact the animal is not completely consumed – or is not consumed at all – is an acknowledgement on our part that the animal can be something more than just physical. It can do more than just feed our bodies. It can build a spiritual bridge.
This is hard for us to accept. As regular people, we see loss in animal sacrifice. It is why this Torah reading, which starts with the words “When any man of you brings an offering…”, doesn’t use the word Holy for any of the animal sacrifices. It is from the everyman perspective, and the everyman sees destruction in animal sacrifice. Instead the word Holy is used only for the Mincha grain offering that is eaten by the Kohen. For the everyman, there is loss in animal sacrifice or even in a burnt grain offering. Nonetheless, the next Torah reading, which is from the Kohen’s perspective, uses the word Holy everywhere. Because rather than just being slaughtered, the animal is being dedicated to the relationship with G-d. Like G-d’s work during the six days, it is being completed and coming to holiness.
Okay, let’s jump into a step by step review of the symbolism of this reading. Let’s start with the second verse. We read “When any man of you brings an offering…” The word used for man, the one bringing the offering, is Adam. Contrast this with the start of the next Parsha: “Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the law of the burnt-offering…”
On the one hand our Adam, in this parsha, chooses to bring an offering while Aaron and his sons are commanded. As we’ve covered before, the Kohanim are supposed to lack the freedom of normal people. They are pass-throughs. On the other hand, as we discussed, this term lets us know that this Parsha is from the normal person’s perspective and not the Kohen’s.
Of course, when people read this, they make comparisons to the first Adam – Adam Harishon in the Garden of Eden. But there is really more of a contrast at play. We are told to bring our flocks and we’re forbidden from bringing fruit or honey. So what would Adam Harishon have brought? He had no domesticated animals, no grain and no oil. He had ample fruit and probably date honey – but they are forbidden. He made nothing, and thus had nothing to offer. The use of the word Adam reminds us how important it is to grow beyond the world Adam Harishon initially occupied. We might want to be in Gan Eden – but a Gan Eden in which we imitate G-d the Creator. A Gan Eden better than the one we lived in initially.
As we step into the reading, the olah (‘elevation’) offering is the first type of offering. ‘Burnt offering’ is a standard translation. The obvious connection between the words is that smoke rises – and is thus elevated. But other offerings go up in smoke, and aren’t called olah. To understand olah, we must look at the first Olah offering. At the akeidah, Hashem commands Avraham: “Take your son… and offer him as a olah…” At the end of this episode, Hashem says “you have not withheld your son.” An olah is a gift to Hashem. It isn’t a classic conversion of the physical to the spiritual, but an actual transfer to G-d. As we’ll see shortly, this defines the animals that can be used.
Of those animals, the male cow’s procedure is distinct. It is explicitly associated with atonement, it must be given willingly and for it, Aaron ‘gives’ fire on the altar; the other offerings seem to use pre-existing fire. Why? I believe it is because a male sheep or goat (remember the Olah offerings are all male offerings) has limited future value. They might grow some wool, but their capability to sire some little sheep and goats can easily be replaced by having another sheep or goat do double duty. However, a male cow can work. Burning a perfect male cow destroys future productivity. We use them for planting. 0This destruction mandates atonement. At the same time, willingly accepting the loss of potential to enable the greater gift is a magnificent and trusting act. It merits its distinct fire. The Kohen has to kindle this fire, essentially providing a special and distinct spiritual energy just for this animal offering.
The real keys unlocked by this offering has to do with the birds. We only sacrifice doves of one stripe or another. Why doves and not chickens or ducks? Well here’s a fascinating natural-world fact. Of all birds, doves share a distinct trait for flamingos and a few types of penguins. These three kinds of birds are the only birds that they produce a form of milk for their young. It is produced by their crops and it comes out of their beaks. Doves are the only kosher birds that do this.
This is why they alone can be offered in the mishkan.
Why is milk important? We know it comes up time and again: we cannot eat a kid in its mother’s milk and Israel is the land of milk and honey. Milk represents the body’s ongoing physiological dedication to continuing generations – even after birth. It is a perfect physical creation, dedicated to timelessness. In other words, it is a physiological representation of kedusha – of holiness itse. Those who give milk have holiness built into them as they have a physiological connection to establishing the future. Remember, we’re converting the physical into the spiritual. Milk is thus the defining aspect of an animal that can be sacrificed. Using this model, mixing milk with the meat of the child is a disgusting rejection of this holy capability and a land of milk and honey is one in which we enjoy both our kedusha-enabling fuels (the milk that is long term) and Hashem’s blessings (the energy of the here and now). It is a land of awesome holy capability.
The birds reinforce another key concept. It is very hard to tell male and female doves apart. When we offer doves as an Olah offerings, we remove their milk-producing crops and their innards. Essentially, we remove their female aspects. We make them male. Generally, the text is clear, the animal olah offerings must be male (zachar). How is ‘maleness’ connected to a transfer offering? Interestingly, the root of the word for male also means memory. So why is the male connected to memory? And what does that have to do with these offerings.
If we’re looking for a memory connection, DNA wouldn’t seem to count. After all, when making children, women contribute more than half of DNA. There’s no distinct male-memory here. In addition, women can carry tradition forward just as well as men can. So, there’s no special male memory function here either. This is about cultural reality.
As I see it, the distinction has to do with procreative roles. And hold off on the offense for a few minutes while I explain. On a basic biological level, the male can make the decision to procreate – and the female can’t. zachor represents positive reproductive will. Generations continue because of zachar (‘maleness’) and that enables long-term zocher (‘remembrance’). This is why brit milah (circumcision) applies to men and first-born males are dedicated to Hashem. Women, on the other hand, can actualize the next generation. The relationship between will and actualization can be captured in two Hebrew words. Adam, the word for man, is masculine. Man can plant crops (or women in this case – this is a broad term for humankind). AdamA, the word for earth – which yields crops – is feminine. The man, or mankind, chooses to plant, but only the feminine earth can yield crops. When G-d acts willfully, He is Elokim – the male collection of physical powers of will. When G-d rests in the Mishkan She is the Shechina – actualizing the spiritual reality in response to our willful offerings.
This isn’t about personalities or people we all know plenty of willful women and actualizing men – just about biological roles. Of course, with birth control, women can take on a very strong form of negative zachor: the ability to choose not to be impregnated. Remember, when rape is considered, the woman doesn’t need to consent to procreation for it to occur (except that she can cancel it nowadays). The positive side of the equation, of choosing to be impregnated, still requires a male somewhere along the line.
Coming back to our offering, the olah is a reflection of will to connect to Hashem. So, it is male.
The second kind of offering is a MINCHA. Yaakov offers a MINCHA to Esav and a MINCHA to the ‘man in Egypt.’ The MINCHA is a gift that aims to appease or to influence. This might be why it is exclusively grain + add-ons. There are no animals. The consumption of animal life is an inappropriate way to try to influence G-d. The desire to influence might be one reason why Hashem was dissatisfied with Cain’s MINCHA offering.
The MINCHA offering is fine flour, oil and frankincense. We grew and then processed the flour using hand mills and intense physical exertion in ancient times. The oil is extracted through crushing and then repeated processes of purification (settling and skimming). While frankincense is a natural product, as an incense it symbolizes emotion. Furthermore, we must trade to get it (it comes from trees in southern Arabia) – requiring interaction. We thus see exertion, purification and emotion as three ingredients in the offering of ‘attempted influence.’
One more fun thing about frankincense. It is called al-lubān in Arabic. This is the same Shoresh used in the Hebrew (Lavona). In Hebrew, the root means ‘that which is white’, although frankincense isn’t terribly white. In Arabic, it means ‘that which comes from milking’. This ties in again to the milk as holiness. The frankinsense, seen this way, is holy emotion.
The Torah say that mincha offerings may not be leavened or honey or fruit. Fruit, leavened breads and date honey are products completed by non-human intervention. They are not our fruits and so they can’t form our sacrifice. Salt, on the other hand, is a preservative and is required for mincha offerings – which connects nicely with the concept of offerings being far from loss and destruction. Of offerings being timeless and holy. The verse goes further and specifically says our influence offerings must contain salt because of a mysterious malach brit elohecha (salty covenant of your G-d). There is no salt covenant in the text. If we read ‘salty’ as ‘preserved’ we might read ‘the preserved covenant of your G-d.’ Our influence offerings must have salt with them to remind us that we can bring offerings in the mishkan only because our brit has been preserved. In other words, Hashem didn’t destroy us after the sin of the Calf.
We have a tiny mention of a mincha offering of first grains. These are not processed. By not processing them, they represent our recognition of Hashem’s gift of material prosperity rather than our own efforts. We see this again later with the offerings on Shavuot where we do bring leavened bread and fruit because we are recognizing His gifts to us rather than making a gift to him.
The third major category of offerings is zevach shelamim. With the idea that the mizbeach (‘altar’) is a converter – from physical to spiritual actuality – the zevach shelamim represents ‘complete conversion’. By placing ourselves in these animals (leaning our hands on them), we are, in a way, completely converted. This offering (unlike mincha and olah) didn’t exist prior to the laws of Parshat Mishpatim. It represents a very close relationship to G-d which cannot occur outside of the context of mamlechet kohanim and goi kadosh. The laws of PArshat Mishpatim show how we become a Mamlechet Kohanim and Goi Kadosh.
A zevach shelamim can be male or female. The complete conversion is not only an offering of male will (zachor). Distinction (nikeiva/female) and actualization are other paths towards this. Somehow the physiological production of the female seems to be excluded from the ‘lost potential’ associated with the external, mankind-serving labor of the male.
As part of this offering, we learn that “All chelev is to Hashem’. chelev is visceral fat – the semi-fluid fat in our abdominal cavity. We first see mention of these fats in Hevel’s (Abel’s) gift to Hashem. chelev comes from the same root as chalav (milk). chelev, like chalav, is a perfect pre-cursor to kedusha. Without chelev, an animal would die because it wouldn’t be able to get through emergency situations. chelev is the ultimate backstop against risk. The value of the timeless chalav is in the future and outside the animal. But the risk-reducing chelev is part of the animal itself and thus the core of its offering. Chalav is about the species, the Chelev is about the individual. This is why the chelev is referred to as לֶחֶם אִשֶּׁה Llechem ishe (‘fire bread’) for Hashem. The bread for a heavenly fire is what feeds it – this perfected physical product dedicated to an existence protected from risk.
With the Zevach Shlamim, the offering of a cow is once again distinct. Aaron’s descendants bring it, its male and female allowance is individually called out, its choice components are not called lechem ishe (‘fire bread’) and it is offered on top of the olah. The ultimate production of the cow is its future labor rather than its intrinsic being. Because of this, it merits sacrifice by more prominent kohanim and its internal fats aren’t as critical a product (thus no lechem ishe). This future potential can’t be completely converted because it does not yet exist. So, it is associated with the olah even when it is a Zevach Shalmim offering.
When a lamb is offered, it is not called a pleasing fragrance and the fats of its tail are singled out. Although it isn’t clear what is burned, nobody likes the smell of burning wool (hint: it stinks) which might explain the lack of pleasing fragrance. As to the tail fats, there is evidence that sheep in the ancient Middle East were quite possibly bred for extra fat tails.
The goat, the next option, is distinct in that it is not explicitly called a complete conversion (it says ‘from it’, not ‘from the zevach shelamim’). Why isn’t the goat explicitly a complete conversion? Goats have remarkably independent intelligence. I t shows itself in the testing of enclosures. This might be a reason why they are used to represent the Children of Israel with azazael and Avraham’s dark brit. I even used a goat as my villain in one of my children’s books: Grobar and the Mind Control Potion. Their intelligence, and good nature, made one an unlikely player for the part of a villain. There is a loss – even a spiritual loss – when a goat is sacrificed. They can’t be completely converted.
The next offering type is the Chait (or sin) offering. While the Zevach Shlamim was introduced prior to the Mishkan, the sin offering only exists in the context of the Mishkan. Only with the mishkan, can sin (a destructive act, as defined in Bereshit) be repaired by giving to Hashem. The positive cycle of kedusha can be built even on sin. In that way, the sin offerings reflect the construction of the mishkan itself. We sinned against G-d with the Calf – but repaired that sin through the positive act of construction.
In the unintentional sin offerings, both the kohen’s and nation’s bull (called a par, not a bakar) represents a generic national identity. If the kohanim sin, there is a loss to Jewish distinction. The nation uses a young bull (which is less restrained) to represents a people without the stability of the kohanim. A leader uses a male goat, which consistently represents the Jewish people. The people are damaged by the leader’s sins. In a way, the leader’s sin represents a misguiding of their own will. Finally, individual people use female goats or sheep for their unintentional sins. Sheep and goats both represent a form of independence. Goats challenge enclosures and rules. And shepherds (see Yaakov) are the most mobile and independent of people. Offering these animals is offering one’s independence or rebelliousness.
A kohen or a leader or the people as a whole might willfully cover or protect against their sins through an offering. In that way their sin offering can be ‘willing’ and male. But the individual doesn’t have this option – they must bring this offering. This is not a ‘willing’ offering and I believe that is reinforced by giving only female animals.
In all the unintentional sin offerings, choice parts are burned but the rest is disposed of outside the camp.
The choice parts of kidneys, liver, and fats have distinct representation. The kidneys and liver (among other functions) protect against toxins in the blood and clean out dead cells – they ensure a physiological form of tahor (purity) in the connective life force of blood.
There is one more item listed, though. It is sometimes translated as diaphragm and sometimes as ‘lobe.’ It is described as being ‘above the liver.’ I don’t really know what it is. Some commentaries refer to a caul above the liver, some call it a diaphragm. The actual organ or piece would influence its symbolic meaning – so if anybody listening can edumate me, I can try to piece it together. The root of the word, Yoter, is used to mean left over or remaining.
If I were to reverse engineer a function, it would go like this: There is purity in the kidneys and liver. There is holiness in the fats. What is missing? An offering has to be pure and connected to timelessness. But it also has to be dedicated and made distinct. We need to make the effort. If this is a diaphragm, it separates key organs – representing distinction. And if this is just a little something extra, then it represents dedication.
These are the parts that are burned. They are offered to Hashem. But other parts are disposed of.
I think this represents the unintentional sinner who brings an offering. There is a loss – represented by the disposal of much of the body – but that spiritual core of purity, holiness and dedication (or distinction) – can still be offered up to Hashem.
Throughout all these initial offering types, each animal is kept distinct – even if the offerings are nearly identical. Each type of animal has a totally distinct kind of nefesh (animating soul). By giving each species its own ink, we represent and recognize these distinctions.
Now, we can come to the next kind of offering. The Asham. The asham brings together four situations. The last three are linked by the sin itself being caused by something being ‘hidden.’ The first case is a failure to testify due to an omerta style oath, which actively hides.
All speak to the importance of awareness – both in others and ourselves.
Earlier, Avraham hides Sarah and Avimelech says “one of my people might have lain with her and you would have brought upon us asham.”
It is a sin created through unawareness; either unawareness we enable or unawareness we suffer.
Here, the sheep and goats are mixed. The animal is called asham – it literally takes on our unawareness. Looking at these animals, we can see the goat is rambunctious and the sheep is kept by those who are rambunctious. They share rambunctiousness – but one is the actor (the goat) and one is the enabler (the sheep). The sins of being unaware and enabling unawareness are interrelated just as these offerings are.
The asham offerings are tiered by affordability. But only the middle person brings an olah (transfer) offering. The poor person lacks resources – and so they might resent the olah. The rich person can choose to bring their own olah, they are aware of their resources and capabilities. The middle person is required to bring an olah in order to remind them (or make them aware) of their spiritual capabilities.
The last set of offerings have a variety of infractions all linked by the offering of a ram. The infractions involve betraying responsibilities to G-d, committing fraud or being unaware of the commandments. The ram is brought because it is a symbol of heavenly fear – as captured in the offering of Yitzchak and reflected on in the consecration of the kohanim. Fear of Heaven – not terror, but realization that we don’t understand everything but we should do it anyway – is the backstop that prevents us from these sins.
Rather than being a let-down, these offerings reflect a type of perfection in the Jewish people that mirrors that of Avraham – who was perfected by the akeidah. On one end of the Parsha, they bring a willing Olah offering because they love heaven and on the other, they bring a ram because they have learned fear as well.
A few years ago, I wrote up a summary of the sacrifices in terms of a relationship. I think it makes things clearer by being a little more compact. Here goes:
Let’s say we’ve got a guy named Benei Yisrael. We’ll call him Benny Israel. So, he lays eyes on a truly singular shechina. It’s gotta happen some time, right? Or at least once?
Bear with me.
Well, he’ll buy that shechina flowers. It isn’t exclusive or nothin’, it is just an expression of his will. The point isn’t that he’s rich – the singular shechina is loaded. It’s that he’s investing in what he hopes will be a beautiful relationship. It’s an offering of will, a transfer. That’s an olah offering, an elevation offering to Hashem. It is male animal because the male represents will: in a reproductive sense, the male has the unique power of positive will.
Now, Benny Israel might buy this unique Shechina a drink, but he’s not alone. olah offerings didn’t require an exclusive relationship. But let’s say things get more serious. Now, he wants to demonstrate not just will, but a level of dedication, refinement and emotional involvement in their growing relationship. He’s laying it on thick. This is a mincha offering, which is meant to influence. How do you show dedication, refinement and emotion? Flour, which required a lot of work to make, showed dedication. Oil, which required multiple rounds of purification, showed refinement. And incense, which touches our emotional nerves, demonstrated emotional involvement. Voila’
Next thing you know, Benny Israel and the unique Shechina are getting engaged. He wants to show he’s all in. He is totally dedicated. This is the zevach shelamim. The mizbeach converts the physical into the spiritual. It represents a sort of flowing change. And Shalom doesn’t only mean ‘hi’, it can also mean ‘complete.’ zevach shelamim shows Benny is completely into this relationship.
As part of the animal offeiring, he burns up the kidneys, the liver and the Yoter representing purification and dedication or distinction. Finally, he burns up the chelev – the fats that sustain the animal in dire emergencies and thus represent its core investment in survival over time. He’s really making his connection to the shechina clear.
By the way, this offering doesn’t appear until the end of Parshat Mishpatim. It is unique to the Jewish people and their relationship to G-d. But it does appear before the Mishkan.
Okay, so now Benny Israel and the Shechina move in together. They build a nice little Mishkan in the desert. But then Benny screws up. So, he gets the shechina a gift – a chatat offering. Somehow, through the mystery of relationships, that makes it all better. This kind of thing can only happen when the couple is together.
The level of the mess up really demonstrates which gift he gets. Sheep and goats represent rambunctiousness. They’re a good choice for individuals. Females are offered because the female represents actualization, not will. Basically, you screwed up, you were rambunctious – I love that word! – but you didn’t mean to do it. Not really. It’s all better, now. Which is pretty cool.
But when a leader of the nation (or the nation as a whole) screws up, they bring a bull – representing the nation’s will. The whole ‘didn’t mean to’, thing doesn’t apply when dealing with the big stuff. A leader has no excuse.
Then, one time, Benny Israel gets confused, or confuses others – well, that can cause problems. Relationships rely on honesty and clarity. So, if you get confused or confuse others, you bring an Asham offering. You commit to paying attention because the relationship is worth it.
Finally, Benny Israel pawns some of the shechina’s jewelry to buy himself a watch. Which is not a good thing! In return, he has to buy the jewelry back and bring a ram as an offering of fear and submission.
He won’t do that again, am I right!
Looked at in this light, the offerings, from the olah to the mincha to the asham, give us the tools to both build and repair our relationship to G-d. Remarkably, in the chatat offerings, both can be accomplished at once.
I know this was a long podcast, but I hope it was informative. Next week’s, due to Pesach preparations, will be much shorter. As Pesach is coming, I want to remind everybody of my extended commentary on the nature of the Exodus available on my website – josephcox.com. I’m particularly proud of the analysis of the 10 plagues.
As always, feel free to use these ideas as you see fit. There is no need to give credit.
Have a great Shabbat!