This week’s Parsha (Torah Portion), Parshat Vayikra, opens up the third book of the Torah, which is also called Vayikra. It begins an analysis of the sacrifices that were offered in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and eventually in the Beit Hamikdash (the great Temple in Jerusalem). Sacrifices were the way we worshiped God in ancient times, before Tefilah (Prayer) existed, in the way we know it today.
For many, connecting to these portions of the Torah is difficult. As we read them, we might understandably ask: how would sacrificing an animal help us in our relationship with God? In order to answer this question, let us analyze the Hebrew word for sacrifice, Korban. Korban is from the Hebrew word L’karave, to bring close. The idea being, that the Korban would bring you closer to God. How do sacrifices bring us closer to God?
What did an animal mean to a person in those ancient times? It was everything. It was food, clothing, transportation, tools, weapons, blankets, building supplies, shelter, commerce, transportation and aid in farm work. Therefore, if you were willing to give up what was central to you, to sacrifice it, you were making a statement of priorities. Even if you could not fully grasp or connect to the meaning of the sacrifice, at the very least, you were making a statement that your relationship with God was so important to you that you were willing to give up what you valued.
Things have not radically changed today. What do we hold most valuable today? Time. Time is probably the most important commodity that exists in the world, and also the most limited one. That is what we sacrifice today when we engage in prayer. We make the statement that we are willing to give up what is central to us to become closer to God.
However, when we engage in prayer, we can do much more than sacrifice our time; we can invest it. We can invest our time in coming closer to God, but we have to make a real effort. We can not simply attend services. By the way, it has always been fascinating to me that many synagogues refer to prayer experiences as services, as apposed to simply prayer. It is as if to say that you will come to a synagogue and be serviced, much in the way I bring my car to an auto shop to be serviced. To be moved by the spirit of prayer we have to do something far deeper, something far more profound.
It would be simple, at this point, to provide a list of “tips” for “improving” how you pray. Such tips are valuable: understanding the meaning of the prayers, their history and background; slowing down when one is engaged in prayer; not worrying about keeping pace with the congregation and focusing on what you find meaningful. However, to really transform our prayer experiences, we need to open ourselves up to being moved, for our senses being stirred.
It is easy, from our modern and intellectual stance, to be critical of the sacrificial experience. We automatically assume that reciting prayers is more meaningful than offering sacrifices—and I myself would tend to agree with that. Nonetheless, I believe there was a powerful sensory element that existed in the Temple experience that we do not have today. There were sights, smells, and tastes as well as thoughts and words. Today, our senses are limited to some degree in synagogue. There is singing and intellectual engagement. However, are we truly moved?
When I think of the ancient Temple, I imagine it as a larger than life experience. When I read about the Temple I have images in my mind of a circus, a tailgate party and a Grateful Dead concert, all rolled up into one. In fact, it is interesting that the image of a Grateful Dead concert comes into my mind. Often when I am at a concert, particularly one of the Grateful Dead spinoff bands or Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, I am spiritually moved, sometimes much more than I am in Synagogue, and I am a Rabbi. If I feel this way, I wonder how your average attendee of a synagogue feels. Obviously, there are wonderful synagogues that are engaging people in meaningful prayer, but there are also many people who are not engaged in prayer. How do we deal with this challenge?
I think what synagogues sometimes lack is a rawness, an unbridled passion. We need to truly bare ourselves to God. In order to do this, our synagogues have to be more open. I am not absolutely sure what the solution is, but what I would like to do is open this discussion. If you have felt these challenges and simultaneously thought of ideas to make prayer more engaging, please share them with me. I intend on following up on this article with a piece that will incorporate your thoughts on this subject.
If we can ignite our prayer experience with vitality and substance today, we can do much more than sacrifice our time for prayer we can create holiness in time. I bless you all that together we achieve this worth endeavor.
This week’s title, “It’s A Gettin’ Closer” is taken from the song “Everyday” by Buddy Holly and Norman Petty. The song speaks of a love relationship between two people that is getting closer everyday. I chose the phrase, “It’s A Gettin’ Closer” as the title for this week’s article because the word for sacrifice as pointed out in the article is Korban which is from the Hebrew word L’karave, which means to bring close. In the same way Buddy Holly sings about everyday getting closer to someone you love, we can all get closer to God. However, just like getting closer to a person takes an effort, so it takes an effort to get closer to God. “Everyday” was recorded by Buddy Holly and the Crickets on May 29, 1957 and released on September 20, 1957. It was the B-side to “Peggy Sue” The song is number 236 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. A number of interesting and diverse artists have covered the song. John Denver recorded this song as part of his 1971 album Aerie. James Taylor released a version of the song in 1985. Pearl Jam performed it in concert in Lubbock, Texas, the birthplace of Buddy Holly.
To listen to Buddy Holly performing, “It’s A Gettin’ Closer,” click HERE.