Real sacrifice: Trying to understand the connection between us and G-d

Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer

By Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1−5:26)

This week, we begin the holy book of Vayikra or Leviticus, which deals at length with sacrifices or offerings.  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch understands a “sacrifice” as “giving up something that is of great importance to oneself so that another can benefit.” An offering is a gift which enhances the receiver.

On the p’shat level of our scripture, Hashem does not need our offerings. He has no needs; he has no desires.  Our offerings do not make Him a better or greater G-d. The Hebrew word for “sacrifice” or “offering” is “korban,”   which can best be understood as a way of bringing oneself into a closer relationship with G-d.  The concept of offering of sacrifice or korbanot was only to benefit us; it allowed us to come close to G-d and feel one with Him.

This week’s Torah portion articulates various types of korbanot, burnt offerings, flour offerings, peace offerings, guilt offerings.  All these korbanot enhance our relationship with the Almighty. They bring us closer to Him. Indeed, the Hebrew word Korban comes from the Hebrew root word, meaning “to draw close.”

The greatest medieval Jewish thinker Maimonides embraced the Aristotelian description of G-d as “Thought Thinking Itself,” a G-d who is transcendent and completely removed from mundane changes in this world.  The Biblical act of sacrifice will unquestionably bring us closer to G-d, but it will not bring G-d into the market place of humanity. This definition of G-d allowed for the Biblical deity to be perfect; an Almighty all-loving, all-powerful G-d.

But how can we reconcile this idea of G-d with the Holocaust?  How can we reconcile an all-loving and all-powerful G-d with the ovens of Auschwitz and Trebelinka?  And where was G-d in Rwanda and in the Sudan when innocent black people were killed? And, where is this “perfect” G-d today, when the tiny state of Israel has to continually defend itself against Middle Eastern tyrants who want her destroyed.  

If G-d is “perfect,” and if we Jews have a special relationship with Her/Him, why is this relationship always so difficult to maintain?  Why is there so much suffering and pain in the world? If G-d is “perfect,” why does all this suffering continue?

The Biblical book of Leviticus saw a G-d who was there for us, and our korbanot brought us closer to this “perfect” deity.  The rabbinic G-d of Judaism allowed us to talk and walk with Him, even recognize Her Female Presence and accept the power of prayer over Biblical sacrifices. But the rabbinic G-d, even though it allowed for Hashem to walk with us and talk with us, still envisioned G-d as a “perfect” G-d.   

Maimonides created an elaborate system to maintain His perfection in “The Guide to the Perplexed.”  As I saw and experienced suffering in this world, I came to the conclusion that G-d can’t be “perfect” and “loving” at the same time.

And yet, I have seen that everything is interconnected. I have seen this in the amazing writings of our Kabbalistic writers.  G-d in not a deity that we have to placate, there is no enemy that we have to win over. There is no unique sacrifice, no korban, no prayer that we will be able to deliver to G-d. G-d is our sacrifice, our prayer. There is no separation between prayer and G-d, or sacrifice and G-d.

There is a kitten that visits my home every morning at 7.  We give him food. He is still afraid to come too near us, but I see the spark of G-d in him, and I recognize that he and I and G-d are one. Humans and the natural world are intimately connected with one another. If we look at the Biblical Book of Vayikra at a deeper level than the p’shat level, we see that the ancient priests understood this.

I believe that the ancient korbanot were not only intended to bring us near to G-d, but to remind us that we are all part of G-d, without separation. All the universe is inside each of us. Each one of us is a basic part of our surrounding world. The ancient korbanot brought us so close to G-d that those with insight recognized that we are part of G-d and G-d is part of us.  The book of Leviticus testifies to this.

I remember growing up in Montreal, and my father telling me of his many brothers being murdered during the Holocaust. When my father told me these stories,   I felt alienated from G-d. I felt disconnected. But then I studied the wonderful Kabbalistic works of Netiv Mitzvotecha, an amazing Kabbalistic guide to Jewish belief from the Komarner Reb, and I again feel the interconnections between all things.  

We are all part of something greater than ourselves, just as something great and amazing is present inside of us.  When we experience these spiritual insights, we recognize the fundamental unity of G-d, and we feel such joy that we are the sons and daughters of Moses, Jeremiah, Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Abika.  

Then, we again become confronted with a most powerful question:  if all of creation is one great unified reality, why does the world seem to be so fragmented and broken, and full of pain and suffering? Why are there homeless kittens and homeless people, if G-d is perfect?  And if G-d is One, why does G-d’s creation appear to be in disarray?

G-d is One and G-d is All. But when the vessels of creation shattered, a piece inside of G-d also shattered. G-d’s system of Sefirot was thrown off balance. G-d is not perfect, just as we are not perfect. But the more perfect we strive to be, by helping kittens and humans and the environment, the more perfect G-d will become. Yes, unlike the Aristotelian/Maimonidean G-d, G-d is not a perfect being of “Thought Thinking Itself.”  

We are all G-d. She is within each one of us, but She needs our help. She needs our help desperately. She needs us to do sacrifices or korbanot daily.  We need to fix G-d. We need to love G-d. We need to repair G-d. We need to put G-d back together again, as He was at the dawn of creation.  Baruch Hashem.  Praised be the Name of the Living G-d.          

Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer is senior rabbi at Congregation Bene Shalom, Skokie, and president and professor of Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew Seminary, Skokie.

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