Korban: The Thing-Which-Brings-Closeness

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Avishai Gebler

Sefer Vayikra as a whole attempts to address the question of how to serve God. Parshat Vayikra begins this undertaking by spending several chapters going through laws of korbanot. In a bold shift, Parshat Tzav also deals with more details about korbanot. However, far from being a repeat of Vayikra, the different perspective in Tzav helps deepen our understanding of what role korban played, as well as offering a model for how we think about religious ritual.

Vayikra opens not with a conversation, but with calling out. As opposed to the usual model of God speaking to Moshe, here God calls out to Moshe from the ohel moed. Something is different. The Rashbam points out that once the mishkan was finished, the cloud settled over the ohel moed and Moshe could no longer enter. Now, Hashem must call from inside to Moshe who is outside. As it were, God is now locked in the ohel moed, and Moshe can’t enter.

The deep irony of the mishkan is that the very place meant to be a dwelling place for the Divine Presence also creates a barrier between people and God. The structures in place enable individual and communal growth, but the intimate and unstructured closeness that was once natural now needs a new avenue. This holds true for all our religious institutions.

The Torah offers the model of korban as an avenue for this closeness. Korban is not sacrifice, nor offering, but rather a thing-which-brings-closeness. It is framed as a universal impulse to come close: אדם כי יקריב – a human who wants to draw close (Vayikra 1:2). The rest of the parasha proceeds to detail different modes and times where someone may want to draw close – from voluntary expressions to required instances, personal and communal. The details focus on what an individual must bring, how it is brought, what the ritual act looks and feels like.

With all this as a backdrop, Tzav then shifts into procedural mode. It shifts focus from the bringer to the facilitator, the kohain. Aside from ensuring transparency as a check on potential clerical abuse, the text gives us a look behind the scenes. From the bringer’s perspective, Parashat Vayikra might have been enough. However, Tzav goes into detail about the underlying processes, how the proverbial sacrificial sausage gets made.

It is worth thinking about the roles we play with regards to religious rituals. As actors, it’s incumbent upon us to think about a notion of coming-closer. As facilitators, however, it is incumbent upon us to ensure procedures that are transparent and maximize the opportunity to bring growth and closeness. Korbanot are not about the kohanim. We should all find ourselves in both of these roles, at different times. When we have the opportunity to facilitate, our job is to be kohanim, to create experiences for those participating, not what we desire. In that way, ritual becomes korban, and becomes an avenue for deep closeness with the Divine.

Avishai Gebler (SBM 2009) is a rabbinical student at YCT, the rabbinic intern at both the Prospect Heights Shul in Brooklyn and Anshe Sholom-Bnai Israel in Chicago, and a recent Jeopardy! champion.

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