03/12/2013 04:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Leviticus 1:1-5:26: How Do We Come Closer to God?

So often "moderns" deride the Temple cult as primitive. After all, animal sacrifices are so passé. Those of us who are still carnivores prefer our meat wrapped in plastic on supermarket shelves.

But let us take a closer look at the function of the ancient Temple (Beit Ha-Mikdash) and the sacrificial system.

The Beit Ha-Mikdash was the central operating system of the Jewish people. It was booted up through a series of elaborate rituals designed to create channels of connection between the people of Israel and God. At the heart of the Temple service were the korbanot, coming-closer offerings (commonly translated as "sacrifices"). These offerings existed along a sliding scale from bullocks to fistfuls of flour. The ceremonies accompanying these offerings were standardized and made no distinctions among those bringing them. The system was not whimsical and, like our computers, our ancestors hoped that there would always be a standardized operating system. No one wants a whimsical computer system or a whimsical Temple ceremony.

But exactly how did the korbanot help our ancestors feel more closely connected with God?

We are regularly involved in making offerings that bring us closer to others. For example, when we are invited to dinner we often bring flowers, a bottle of wine or sweets. I recall that in my youth in Brooklyn it was common to bring a New York-style cheesecake from a great local bakery when we visited the homes of friends or relatives. It was placed in a white box and tied up with rainbow-colored string. It was an offering for our hosts.

I also remember the great temptation I felt as a boy to eat the cake on the subway ride to our hosts' home! But as my parents reminded me, the cake was destined to serve a higher purpose than my instant gratification. The simple ritual of offering a gift to our hosts and having them accept it helped create a caring bond that strengthened our relationship with our hosts.

So, too, in the Temple of old, our ancestors came before the Host of Hosts, with gifts in hand, to help strengthen their relationship with God. For the most part, the coming-closer offerings were shared by those bringing them and with the priests serving in the Temple.

We have lost many of the tangible and visceral manifestations of our Temple rituals. We have lost the pageantry of Levitical processions accompanied by song, music and dance. We have lost the smell of incense. And we have lost the sensual aspects of our connection to the Divine, some of which are still enshrined in Church rituals.

While we Jews have benefited greatly from creating a portable Judaism that we could take with us in our wanderings throughout the world, we are challenged today to consider how best to renew a sense of closeness to our Source, both cerebral and embodied. Temple sacrifice underplayed the intellectual elements of worship, while much of our current worship provides too little sensory engagement. How do we create a better balance of head, heart and body?

The book of Leviticus takes us deeply into the intricacies of coming-closer offerings. As we progress into the Levitical lectionary, we encounter the Holiness Code (Ch. 19). It is there that we discover the ultimate goal of these ceremonial details and intricacies. All of these ritual efforts are made in service of establishing a sacred relationship with God and with one another.

While we are not going to return to animal sacrifice in our synagogues any time soon, we continue to long to come closer -- to God, to community and to ourselves. We have to open the doors of our houses of worship -- and of our hearts and minds -- to create vital and engaging ritual experiences for all those who yearn to connect.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.