Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 17 March 2018 / 1 Nisan 5778

Parshat Vayikra

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Korban: To Draw Close

In Sefer Vayikra we are introduced to the concept of korban, generally translated as “sacrificial offering.” It is unfortunate that there is no word in Western languages that can capture the essence of what korban is, and even more unfortunate that the words used distort the concept.

Both terms commonly used, “offering” and “sacrifice,” are at odds with the meaning of korban. Sacrifice denotes destruction, annihilation and loss — a connotation antithetical to the Hebrew concept of korban. Even “offering” does not do the term justice, as “offering” implies a prior request or need on the part of the one to whom the object is offered; the purpose of the offering is to meet his request or to satisfy his need.

Korban, a word used only in the context of man’s relationship to G-d, derives from the root karev — closeness. In the verb form it means “to draw close.” It follows, then, that a korban is the means to achieve a closer relationship; a korban draws close. It is far removed from any connotation of destruction, annihilation and loss. And its object is not to appease or satisfy the Recipient, but to bring the giver closer.

The midrash notes that the name Elokim is never used in the context of korbanot — only the Divine Name, the Tetragrammaton, beginning with the letters yud and heh. The name Elokim, representing strict justice and retribution, is never associated with korban because the purpose of korban is not to appease a vengeful G-d. Rather, the Name of mercy, His essential Name, appears — a Name which hints to His past, present and future existence and involvement. Korban is associated with His liberating love, as Creator, Sustainer and Granter of future. It is brought as a means of connecting to that force, of commitment to a life more noble and worthy.

This can be sensed in the very first mention of korban in the Torah. Kayin brings his offering from the fruit of the ground, and Hevel brings his from the finest of his flock. Kayin’s is rejected and Hevel’s is accepted. But the text does not say: “G-d turned to Hevel’s offering, but to the offering of Kayin, He did not turn.” Rather, the text reads: “G-d turned to Hevel and his offering, but to Kayin and his offering He did not turn.” The difference lay in the personalities and intentions of the offerers, not the offerings themselves. The purpose of korban is to bring close, and korban is effective (in this case accepted) only when it serves that purpose by the offerer's seeking nearness and creating connection.

Careful study of the details of the various korbanot and attendant procedures reveals vast symbolic significance furthering the main goal of the korban, to bring close. See Commentary, Parshat Vayikra and Tzav, Siddur, pp. 22-36.

  • Sources: Commentary, Vayikra 1:2, Bereishet 4:3-6

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