At the beginning of each book of the Torah, the Ramban (Nachmanides), in his Commentary on the Torah, suggests a name that represents the essence of the work. In our case, he calls Sefer Vayikra, “Torat Kohanim v’HaLevi’im” (“The Laws of the Priests and Levites”). He then proceeds to give us a brief synopsis of some of its essential themes:
“Herein all matters of the Ritual Offerings (Korbanot) and the proper way in which to guard the purity (taharah) of the Mishkan (Portable Desert Sanctuary) are to be found. This is the case, since we have already had one sefer [Shemot] that focused upon exile and the redemption therefrom. This work concluded with the topics of the Tent of Meeting (Ohel Moed = Mishkan) and the Glory of Hashem with which it was filled. [Thus, it is proper and fitting] that Hashem now commands us concerning the Korbanot and various modalities whereby we can guarantee the taharah of the Mishkan. [This material was presented in order] to ensure that the Ritual Offerings would provide expiation for them [i.e. the Generation of the Desert], rather than have the sins be a cause to drive away the Divine Presence from their midst.
Sadly, it has been nearly 2,000 years since the destruction of the Second Beit HaMikdash and the cessation of the Korbanot. Consequently, for many of us, the Ritual Offerings appear to be “foreign” and almost beyond understanding. As such, let us turn to the thought of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch who, in my view, provides us with one of the most profound analyses for understanding the true meaning of the Korbanot:
“A korban is never used for a present or gift; it is used exclusively with reference to a person’s relation to G-d, and can only be understood from the meaning that lies in the root “krv.” Krv means to approach, to come near, and to enter into a close relationship with someone. This, then, is the underlying idea of the object and purpose of hakravah (drawing close), namely, the attainment of a higher sphere of life. (Commentary On the Torah, Vayikra 1:2)
The concept of korban as the vehicle through which one obtains “the attainment of a higher sphere of life” is the essence of Rav Hirsch’s explanation of our term. The makriv (the one who brings the korban) has an overwhelming desire to draw near to the Creator, to communicate with Him. From this perspective, the Korbanot emerge as a symbolic fulfillment of the celebrated second verse of the Shema: “And you shall love the L-rd, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means.”
In sum, the goal of a korban is to enable “kirvat Elokim” (nearness to G-d) which, in the Torah’s purview, is “the attainment of a higher sphere of life.” Indeed, Dovid HaMelech taught us a powerful lesson when he declared: “kirvat Elokim li tov” (“Closeness to G-d is what is truly good for me”) (Tehillim 73:28).
What is kirvat Elokim? I believe we can answer this question by examining the expression “kerov Hashem” (“Hashem is close”) that appears twice in Tehillim: “The L-rd is close to the broken-hearted, and He saves those of crushed spirit. (34:19) The L-rd is close to all who call upon Him, to all who will call upon Him in truth (b’emet). (145:18)
These pasukim cite three categories of people who achieve closeness to the Almighty: the broken-hearted, those of crushed spirit, and those who call upon Him in truth. I believe these groups share at least one characteristic in common; namely, they approach Hashem with the humble recognition that they are totally dependent on Him. Any sense of arrogance is absent, including an attitude of “b’kochi v’otzem yadi” (“My strength and the might of my hand has accumulated this wealth for me”) (Devarim 8:17).
Instead, it has been replaced by this, from Modim in our siddur: “We shall thank You and relate Your praise — for our lives, which are committed to Your power and for our souls that are entrusted to You; for Your miracles that are with us every day; and for Your wonders and favors in every season — evening, morning and afternoon.”
With Hashem’s help and guidance, and our fervent desire, may we recognize our complete dependence upon Him. Then, as if we were actually able to bring Korbanot, we will be able draw close to Him by joining those “who call upon Him … who will call upon Him in truth.” V’chane yihi ratzon.