This week, Parsha Vayikra teaches us all about the korbanot (offerings) that were offered in the Mishkan (Tabernacle).
The korbanot are a little hard for modern people to understand. A person who needed to atone for a sin he committed by accident would bring a kosher animal to the Mishkan. The person would rest his hands on the animal’s head (this act is called s’michah) and confess (vidui) the sins for which he wanted to atone. A priest would slaughter the animal. The kosher parts of the animal would be cooked and eaten by the priests and their families, and the other parts would be burned on the altar.
When people talk about the offerings in the Mishkan, or later in the Temple, the discussion is often just about the slaughter and burning of the animal, but that was not the most important part of the korbanot service. The most important part was when the person who was atoning for sins placed his hands on the animals head and confessed. The point of the ceremony was to help a person change his ways. Without the s’michah and vidui, the rest of the ceremony would be just a bar-b-que.
You actually do something similar to s’michah and vidui very often. At the start of the school day and at Scout meetings, you probably put your hand over your heart or give the Scout salute and say the Pledge of Allegiance. Just like s’michah and vidui you do something symbolic with your hand, and then make a statement about your intentions.
At your Scout meeting, in addition to the Pledge of Allegiance ceremony, you probably also say the Scout Oath or Law. Here again, you do something symbolic – raising your hand in the Scout Sign – and then make a statement about your intention to live by Scout principles.
Of course, during your opening exercises at school or the ceremonies to open and close your troop meetings, no one cooks anything.
Notice that you sometimes participate in other ceremonies where the point is for someone to change his or her behavior. When you hurt someone, you shake hands and say “I’m sorry” with the intent that you won’t hurt them again. In synagogue or temple, when the Torah comes close to you, you kiss your fingers and touch the Torah covering, to convey the idea that you respect the words of God contained in the Torah, meaning you will obey them.
So, maybe the ceremonies of the korbanot are not so strange after all.