THE BOOK OF LEVITICUS
Give it up!
This week Lauviticus does Leviticus – the third book of the five opens with a divine call to worship, followed by endless instructions and recipes for specifics of this complex worship – the appropriate operational maintenance of the holy tent. Other than serving as the resting place for God’s presence on earth, the tabernacle functioned as the nerve center of the newly formed Hebraic Cult – focusing on the ongoing exchange of human gifts and Divine favor. The technical term for this exchange system is known in English as ‘sacrifice’ derived from the Latin word for ‘sacred’. Throughout the ancient world, sacrifices (mostly of animals and vegetation, though is some cases of humans) were the primal and primary method of celebrating the connection between earth and heaven, life and death. The food would be most often divided between the people present, the rest would burn on the altar as the smoke would rise vertically and reach heaven, and a visceral, sensory experience offered divine consolations, expiation, and healing to the person in need.
What of this ancient technology lingers today? And what of the semantics of this discontinued praxis continues to play a role in our contemporary forms of worship and social interaction? As usual, we find that some of the intricate meaning of this concept is lost in translation, and in this case the word in question is the very root of the matter. The word ‘Korban’ – most often translated as ‘offering’, appears at the very top of the book, Chapter 1, verse 2:
Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When any of you bring an offering of livestock to the LORD, you shall bring your offering from the herd or from the flock. (JPS)
‘Offering’ is the most popular way of translating ‘Korban’, followed by ‘sacrifice’. The Targum, gives us the old fashioned “oblation,” and Everett Fox gives us “near-offering,” which captures the root meaning in the word korban, which means, “to come near.”
Clearly all this offering of grain and animal was in part the practical means by which the priests, who did not work otherwise, were fed, and the God they served was propitiated. But it was also the means by which the common person experienced some connection to the sacrificial cult, some drawing near. The offering was a sacrifice in part because it meant giving up some part of your capital, maybe even a part of your very being – a substitution for self.
What might be the equivalent for us in the modern world of the act of korban? What might we do that could cost us something and bring us closer to the mystery of life, death, past and future? What other words may best address this system of spiritual intimacy – succeeding where ‘offering’ or ‘sacrifice’ simply seem too archaic and bloody?
In the last 19th century, a German Jewish scholar by the name of Samson Raphael Hirsch wrestled with the German translation of the sacrificial concept, concluding that ‘ It is most regrettable that we have no word which really reproduces the idea which lies in the expression Korban… this term is used exclusively with reference to man’s relation to God and can only be understood from the meaning which lies in its root, KRV: to approach, to come near, and so to get into close relationship with the Divine.’
So what do you call the act of meditation, or a gym work out, or a fundraising campaign, or volunteering at a soup kitchen – all valid ways of dealing with one’s issues and coming closer to one’s self, and one’s community, via an active performance of sorts. Maybe the key here is the word ‘give’, in all its ramifications. And so Lauviticus would like to suggest: ‘You shall bring your Giving’.