Is there any connection between Purim and Parshat Vayikra?
Animal offerings are one of the central topics of Sefer Vayikra: “When a person from among you will bring an offering to God from his animals, cattle, or sheep, he shall bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting before God; it shall be considered pleasing for him to cleanse him.
The Kohanim shall bring the blood and throw the blood around the Alter, they shall skin the animal… and arrange the pieces, its head and its fats, on the wood that is on the fire upon the Alter… and cause it to go up in smoke… a pleasant fragrance for God…”
Many reasons have been advanced to explain the purpose of sacrifices in Judaism, why we need to slaughter an animal to atone for our sins. Some of these proposals created tremendous controversy and debate in the Jewish world (I wrote about that last year!).
However perhaps, broadly speaking, a key purpose of animal sacrifices is resoundingly clear, and is also a central message of the Purim story: that the legacy of our lives depends on what we do, our choices shape our lives and give them meaning.
Slaughtering an animal, burning it’s fat and blood, serves as a substitute for sacrificing ourselves. “Let one creature come and atone for another” quips Rashi. In the sobering reflective words of the Ramban: “A person should realize that when he commits a serious crime, his blood should really be spilled and his body burned were it not for the loving-kindness of the Creator Who took from him a substitute and a ransom, namely this animal; its life stands in place of his own.” When a person offers a sacrifice, he has to repent and regret his sins. Then he takes an animal he has cared for and raised, and slaughters it almost in his stead. Animal offerings are a way of realising the severity and weight of our actions, how sometimes our very lives can depend on whether we do the right thing or not.
Queen Esther is perhaps the personification of this idea. As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein charts, Esther began her life passive and unassertive. Later she is reluctant to intercede for the Jewish people, fearful of approaching Achashverosh. Mordechai has to push her. He rings out to her with some of the most powerful words in all of Tanach:
“Do not imagine to yourself that you will escape in the king’s palace from among all the Jews. If you remain silent at this time, relief and rescue will arise for the Jews from elsewhere, and you and your father’s household will perish; who knows whether for a time like this you reached royalty.”
Esther then became an active fearless leader, the figure who was almost single handedly responsible for Haman’s downfall. If she had not done the right thing, Mordechai warned her, her name would have perished, her life’s legacy would have been disappeared. Such is also the lesson of the korbanot. These animals’ fate shows us just how powerful our actions are, the significance of doing a transgression, one could almost perish or ruin our legacy. Esther, however, changed her actions and rose to greatness. After each sacrifice, we too are meant to make better choices. These animal offerings act like Mordechai’s desperate pleas, “change your ways, don’t perish with bad choices; perhaps to do good is the reason we are alive!”
Yet it’s not all doom and gloom.
It is the animal that is offered up, not us. By bringing korbanot, we are simply and helpfully jolted, just like Queen Esther was, to be re-empowered to do what’s right, to act only pleasantly towards God and our fellow man.