If we read the Torah as a tale of a human community's relationship with God, the answer to the first question is the entire Exodus story, all the way through Sinai and the Golden Calf. It is dramatic, romantic, full of bravery and jealousy, and "will-they-make-it?" moments that keep you on the edge of your seat.
But the answer to the second question is that notorious, boring, neurotically detailed and bloody cultic manual of Leviticus. In last week's ON Scripture - The Torah column, Rabbi Moshe Waldoks taught that the sacrificial system is essentially a set of instructions on how to maintain intimacy with God.
I'd like to expand on that teaching: In an age when maintaining long-term healthy relationships with partners and spouses seem long odds, at best, might we benefit by reading the sacrificial system of Leviticus as an ancient instruction manual on maintaining intimate human relationships?
Instruction One: The Olah
The burnt offering is the most basic gift the Israelites are asked to bring to to the Temple. It is the fuel for the sacred fire that is to never extinguish. Israelites bring an "olah" not out of guilt or sin or fear. They bring it to keep the engine of the relationship churning. Instructions to us? Say "I love you" every day. Offer small appreciations and say "thank you" often. Buy a bouquet of flowers for a loved one simply because you feel like it. Keep the fire of the every day burning.
Instruction Two: Mincha
The meal offering of grain, oil and spices was given every morning and evening to priests for food along with the regular animal offerings. Instructions to us? Cook dinner regularly for loved ones. Add salt, but no leaven. Dispense with hubris, pride and arrogance. This meal is elegantly prepared yet humbly presented. And in case you'd like more symbolism, we are instructed to add frankincense, that aromatic material that comes out of Boswellia trees so hearty it can grow on solid rock. In other words, feed your relationships with heartiness -- and heart. Offer food that comes from a soft place inside you that wants to nourish, and from a tough place inside you that knows how to endure through hard times.
Instruction Three: Shlamim
The well-being offering is given out of gratitude and abundance. Unlike some of the other offerings, the Israelite who brings this one gets to eat it and share it with their family. Instructions to us? Gather loved ones around for holidays and special occasions. Get out the camera. Eat the meal you've been craving for so long. Take the time to make it special. Bring your beloved to that favorite restaurant and order the extravagant dish you wouldn't normally dream of ordering. Try to finish it -- but if you can't, eat the leftovers at tomorrow's lunch and bask in the candlelight romance of the night before. This is the gift of well-being. Know how to celebrate special occasions. Know how to pour out the extra generosity.
Instruction Four: Hattat
We arrive at the sin-offering. Here we go, you might be thinking. Finally, we get to the good old guilt-and-punishment stuff I thought was in Leviticus. But my teacher, Rabbi Nehemia Polen, instructs that the key to the sin-offering is where it is offered. For an Israelite, it is sacrificed by the priest on the outer altar, where an Israelite does not go; but when a priest sins, he goes to the inner altar and gestures toward the Holy of Holies, where even normal priests do not go. Instructions for us? When we make mistakes in our intimate relationships, we must go to a deeper place than we normally inhabit. Perhaps an honest conversation. Or a moment of eye contact or quiet interpersonal recognition. Or perhaps we select and give a gift that shows we recognize something in our loved one that we had not seen before. Indeed, an individual's sin-offering is described as having a pleasing odor to God. When a lover buys flowers after a fight, the smell is all the more pleasing for the recognition the flowers represent. Know how to make repairs.
Instruction Five: Asham
The "asham" is like the sin-offering, but it is about realizing responsibility. Maybe we wrote the date in the calendar, but still missed the anniversary. Or we promised to pick up a child at a certain time, but circumsances conspired to make us late. "It wasn't my fault. Let me explain!" we often say. The asham is the wisdom of simply saying "I'm sorry. I take responsibility and pledge to do better next time." The Torah says the asham is the holiest of holies; it is the willingness to bring offerings of apologies, time and gifts when we've hurt another person, even when we believe we are innocent.
The replacement of sacrifice with prayer has been a vital element of our religious evolution. But it has also allowed us to relegate the laws of Leviticus to irrelevant minutia. Instead, let us recognize that the gift-giving to God described in Leviticus offers us categories for structuring and cultivating our own human intimacy. Through this process, we may continue to reach toward the Divine.
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.