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The Meaning of Sacrifice

Vayikra (Leviticus 1-5 )

by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

In discussing a man's obligation to offer sacrifices, the Torah departs from its usual expression of referring to man as "ish"; and instead uses the word "Adam." The passage also begins with the singular verb, "yakriv - [he] brings," and then continues with the plural form, "takrivu - you shall bring." There is a profound reason for these word choices, for when a person brings a sacrifice to God, he must follow the example of the very first man, Adam, whose offerings were unblemished, free of the slightest taint of dishonesty. Since he was the only person in the world, there was no one he could have deceived or taken advantage of.

There are many ways in which we attempt to rationalize deception and dishonesty. When we allow arrogance to take hold of us and we feel superior to others, we also convince ourselves that our needs are greater than theirs and, therefore, we are entitled to that which belongs to them. That is yet another reason why, when the Torah instructs us regarding sacrifices, it refers to the individual as "Adam," evoking the memory of the first man, who, by virtue of the fact that he was the first and only one, could not have been guilty of such rationalizations. Even as Adam understood that everything that he possessed came from God, so we, too, must be aware of that fact and approach Him with clean hands. As the psalmist wrote: "Who may ascend the mountain of God ...? One with clean hands and a pure heart ...."1

The word for sacrifices is "korbanos," derived from the word "karov - to come near," teaching us that if we wish to renew our relationship with our Heavenly Father, we must be prepared to sacrifice for His sake, and if we do so, we will discover that the more we give of ourselves, the closer to God we will feel.


In today's self-focused culture, we have been led to believe that our priority must be to ensure our own happiness. Sacrifice - renunciation of self - has become an alien concept. Many people live for themselves and focus on their own needs. All too often, such parents do not sacrifice for their children and such children do not sacrifice for their parents. And this holds true for all their relationships, including those between husband and wife.

It is most blatantly evident, however, in their relationship with God. People make demands upon Him, but are not prepared to give back. "Why, why?" they ask when things do not turn out as they had anticipated ... and it never occurs to them that God may also be asking Why? "Indeed, why have you failed to fulfill My commandments? Why have you abandoned My Torah?"

But they never hear the "Why" of God and hear only their own cry.

So, let us search our hearts and ask, How does God see me? How do I measure up? How much have I sacrificed for His sake? Have I made His will my own? And if you do not feel as close to Him as you would like, if you do not feel faith motivating your life, ask yourself, Have I offered Him my heart? Have I sacrificed?


The question still remains: Why is there a change from the singular to the plural when the Torah discusses bringing this offering? Here, too, is an instructive lesson for all generations. The passage starts out in the singular because, when a man sins, he believes that his transgressions impact only upon him. But the Torah teaches that that which we do as individuals impacts on everyone and everything around us. Therefore, our Sages compare our predicament as a nation to passengers on a ship. If one should bore a hole under his seat, in vain does he protest, "This is my business; the hole is under my seat!" His "personal" hole will cause the entire ship, with all its passengers, to sink. The reverse is also true. Repentance and mitzvos not only elevate us as individuals, but they also enrich our community, our nation.

Thus, the passage starts with the singular and ends with the plural, reminding us that our families and our communities are only as strong as the individuals who form them. This is a lesson that can help us in our search for meaning and can validate our lives. We all have a need to make a difference, but we often feel futile in our anonymity and wonder what possible impact we can have. Parashas Vayikra reminds us that through our every word, our every deed, we have the power to either elevate or diminish the world. If we bear that in mind, we will find it easier to meet life's challenges with honor and dignity.


The parashah opens with the words, "VAYIKRa el Moshe - "And He [God] called to Moses ...." In a Torah Scroll, the letter aleph in the word vayikra is written in a smaller size than the rest of the Torah, teaching us that Moses was keenly aware of his unworthiness in being summoned by God. The word vayikra, without the aleph, means that God chanced to speak to Moses, not that God called him lovingly. Because of his humility, Moses wrote the aleph small, to imply that he was less than worthy.

Moses was the most humble of all men, but, paradoxically, he was also the greatest. True humility does not imply lack of confidence or unawareness of our God-given talents; rather, it is an affirmation of those Divine gifts. The realization that everything that we possess was given to us by the Almighty and therefore must be wisely used and returned to Him unblemished is most humbling.

A great Sage once illustrated this concept by comparing a person to an impoverished woman who borrows a magnificent gown to wear to a wedding. She cannot be arrogant about the dress, lovely as it is, for she knows that it is not hers and she will soon have to return it in perfect condition. Similarly, the gifts with which God endows us were given to us on loan, and that realization is a very humbling experience. Moses never lost sight of that awareness and it is that which rendered him the humblest of all men. We must bear in mind that the gifts with which we were endowed were not bequeathed to us for our own self-aggrandizement, but for the benefit of mankind. If we realize that unfortunately we have misused or abused those gifts, we will also realize how misplaced and foolish are all feelings of arrogance.

  1. Psalms 24:3-4.

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