The Book of Vayikra and the Inner Meaning of Korbanot

The book of Vayikra touches on the deepest essence of avodat Hashem—our relationship to God—on the inner meaning of korbanot, sacrifices, and the Temple, the Beit Hamikdash.

The Essence of Creation

The Zohar teaches that the word korban (sacrifice) is derived from karov, closeness, because that is precisely their purpose; to draw the Jewish people into the closest relationship, with the closest connection to Hashem imaginable.

To understand the sōd, the deeper, beneath-the-surface reality of korbanot, we need to look at the underlying depths of creation itself. Our holy works teach that creation was a cascading process that flowed, level-after-level, from the heights of pure spiritual light, to a place where it finally coalesced into the physicality that surrounds us. That’s our world, pristine ohr that became physical matter. This physical creation has four general states of being; inanimate, vegetative, animal, and human, the one who speaks.

The process of creation flowed from above to below, from l’maleh to l’matah, from spiritual to physical. The purpose of creation is just the opposite. The inner purpose is to elevate the physical and reintroduce physical existence to its deepest, root essence—to its soul—its highest, holiest, spiritual light-source. Indeed, the role of Am Yisrael is, through it’s unique, holy life, to elevate and ennoble all of existence.

The Straight Light and the Returning Light

In our sefarim ha’kedoshim, our holy sources, these two directional movements, the flow from above to below, and the restorative flow from below to above, are called ohr yashar, the straight light, and ohr chozer, the returning light. God created the world with the straight light, and we elevate and complete creation with the returning light.

In the physical world, water and fire represent these two fundamental movements. Behind the veil of physicality, water is deeply connected to the straight light, while fire is connected to the returning light. The nature of water is to flow from a higher place, from hills and mountains, to the lower places of rivers and valleys. In fact, water itself can follow the pattern of creation. Water vapor condenses into clouds that produce precipitation—liquid water—and this rain water can later cool and become ice. This parallel, beneath-the-surface reality is why our sages say, “A day of rain is as significant as the day when the heavens and the earth were created.” On the other hand, fire parallels the movement from below to above. It’s as if the flames are expressing a longing to return to their highest source. And of course, fire reduces more physical substances to gas, smoke, and ash. Fire breaks down the physical dimension and virtually eliminates it.

Korbanot and the Lights of Creation

The world of korbanot is fundamentally linked to fire, to the returning light.

Korbanot undo the original flow of creation from pure spirituality to physicality. Korbanot return the physical world to it’s inner, spiritual roots. There are two dimensions to this function, this avodat ha’korbanot. First, as the Ramchal teaches, there is the inclusion of all the major representatives of the physical world. The inanimate world is represented by the pouring of the water that was part of the service in the Temple. The vegetative is present in the grain offerings (menachot), and the animal world in the various sacrifices. The human dimension is represented by the non-Jews that came to the Temple, and, in it’s highest expression, by the service of the Levites and Kohanim.

With every element of the physical world represented, the great elevation process took place within the fire on the Temple Altar. And that Temple flame was no ordinary fire, it was heaven sent, like a flaming finger reaching out to retrieve the physical world and bring it home. The truth is, it’s beyond human capability to affect this process of spiritual elevation. We can make the necessary preparations in the physical realm, and then stand back and wait for the lofty, Godly, holy flame to come from above and gather back to itself the physicality, and reinfuse it with the majesty of it’s original spiritual ohr.

This other-worldly flame teaches us that only the One, the Creator who out of nothingness brought the world into being, is capable of returning physical existence to it’s deepest spiritual source.

Transcendent Avoda

Just like our intellect can’t understand the true meaning of the spiritual source and essence of physical existence, it’s beyond human comprehension alone to grasp the sōd, the deeper, beneath-the-surface reality of korbanot. The human eye perceives what it sees on the surface of reality, not what is beneath the outer crust of our physical world. For this reason, the limitations on our perception place a true understanding of korbanot, and what they actually achieve, beyond the reach of our intellect. Nonetheless, the Jewish nation, that people with a unique relationship to the Creator, is privileged with the Torah; with access to the deepest truth, the truth through which the world was created, the lofty wisdom that guides us along a path of fulfilling the purpose of creation.

All of the dimensions of Torah, mitzvot, and our relationship to God, are the means through which we elevate creation and connect it to it’s purest, inner source. It’s this avoda of ours that brings sanctity, kedusha, and blessing, into every corner of existence. When the Beit HaMikdash stood in Jerusalem, the Shechina, the Presence of God, was powerfully manifest in the life of the Jewish people. As such, Jews were elevated, infused with remarkable spirituality, and breath-taking windows of awareness and consciousness were open before us. So much so that we could grasp what was taking place in the service of the korbanot. That profound perception and connection inspired and enlightened our hearts, refined our souls, and took our relationship to Hashem to a place of intense, intimate fusion.

This great sōd, this great inner reality, is alluded to in the very first word of this book: Vayikra, “And He called.” The only path to true, deep connection (kirva-dveikut) to Hashem is when He “calls” to us and teaches us the deep workings of the inner reality of the world, and guides us along the ways that open up the flowering potential for closeness. When our hearts are filled with emuna, with confidence in the relationship of God and the Jewish nation—the Am Segula—our doubts begin to melt, and the mitzvot shine and illuminate us, and the world, with a magnificient, holy light.


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Translated by Shimon Apisdorf