Offering Worship: Did Moses Make It All Up?

Offering Worship: Did Moses Make It All Up?

Burnt Offering (Leviticus) drawing by Philip De VereOffering as a form of worship.

Take a look at Leviticus. God offers some weird instructions for worship! Like a precise system of offerings. Specifically, butchering and cooking. Such rituals seem out of place in our modern urban society. They probably weren’t relevant to the earliest human beings either. Torah itself says they were vegetarian.

Offering at the Mishkan: Moses’ Great Idea

The rituals, it seems, were designed for a particular place and time. By a shepherd, perhaps, living among cattle ranchers. Maybe by Moses himself.

“What a cynical view!” you might think. “Moses, the secret author of God’s law? Only a modern-day humanist would suggest it.” But if you thought that, you would be wrong. Because it’s an ancient view. You’ll see it in classical midrash and medieval commentary. It’s also a positive view. In fact, it showcases Moses’ skill as a spiritual teacher.

Here’s a bold claim from a medieval commentator, Rabbi Nissim. Moses designed the entire mishkan (tabernacle) himself. True, Torah says God dictated the design. But — if I may paraphrase Rabbi Nissim — that is an implausible reading. It places Moshe in a mythical, magical, fictional world.

So, here’s what really happened. Moses felt God’s spirit move inside him. God, he learned, is present when people feel the spirit within. Moses felt God say, “Let me dwell within them.” He knew how beauty awakened their hearts. So he designed a beautiful spiritual centre. Then, he devised the rituals that would take place inside.

Before the Offering: Hearing God’s Call

Where does Rabbi Nissim get such an idea about Moses’ creativity? From an early rabbinic midrash (Biblical interpretation) collection, Sifra on Leviticus. Sifra analyzes the first sentence of Leviticus: “Vayikra el moshe; vayidaber HaShem elav me’ohel moed l’eimor. God called to Moses; God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying.” (Lev. 1:1).

What a redundant sentence! It uses three synonymous verbs: call, speak and say. Why? Probably not just to be verbose. But, Sifra says, to explain how a person receives divine revelation. Reception unfolds in five stages.

(1) God calls wordlessly.

(2) You pay attention.

(3) You receive specific content.

(4) Next, you reflect on the message; internalize it; make it your own.

(5) Finally, you are changed by the process.

All five stages appear Leviticus 1:1.

(1) Vayikra el Moshe: God calls to Moses.

(2) Pause at the semicolon. Moses pays attention. He tunes his consciousness to the spiritual wavelength.

(3) Vayidaber HaShem el Moshe me’ohel moed: God speaks to Moses in the tent of meeting. Not in a literal tent. But in a metaphorical one. On the inner spiritual frequency where Moses meets God.

(4) L’eimor: saying. Moshe meditates on the meaning of the message.

(5) Pause at the period. Moses has changed. As he did at the burning bush, when God called “Moshe, Moshe!” First God reached out to the Moses of everyday consciousness. Then, God addressed a spiritually awakened Moses.

Spirituality of the Offering

What did Moses meditate on when God called to him? Why, on spiritual awakening itself. On everyday glimpses of spiritual consciousness. Moments that anyone could notice. Sunny mornings, when we feel inexplicably hopeful. Evenings, as we slip into imaginative dreamtime. Special family celebrations, when joy lifts us. Times of grief or illness, that leave us shaken, yearning to be healed. Whispers of a disturbed conscience saying,”You did wrong; fix it.”

For each of these spiritual moments, Moshe devised a ritual.

The olah, daily offering. Burned every hopeful morning and every escapist evening. So you could see a column of smoke connecting earth and heaven.

The zevach shelamim, party offering. So you could share your joy by sharing food with your guests.

The khataat, psychological purification offering. Burned to ashes, until nothing remains. Disappeared as you hope your worries will be.

And, finally, the asham, guilt offering. Releasing you from the pangs of conscience — after you’ve fixed your mistake.

Thus Moses showed his skill as a spiritual teacher. He felt his community’s spirit. Knew how to make it tangible. So they could develop it.

The Passover Offering

On the night before the Exodus, Moses organized a special ritual. A communal meal, leaving no one out. Because the Israelites were heading into unknown territory. Community would give them courage.

My late father, a retired police officer, explained how this courage works. “You can’t put one officer alone in a squad car and expect him to succeed. When one officer feels afraid, they’ll just leave the scene. But when partners work together, they want look courageous in each other’s eyes. Each one wants to show the other what it means to be brave.”

Here, Moshe’s wisdom is timeless. Every year, we sit together at the Seder. “The Exodus has happened,” we affirm. “It is happening now. And it can happen again. So let’s work together, where justice is needed.” We are inspired; we wish to inspire others. Thus, we gain courage for the journey ahead. We will need it. Especially in our changing times.

Did Moses really invent each offering?

Did Moses really invent each offering? Probably not. Still, the midrash’s teaching points stand. Ritual must be relevant. Spiritually and culturally. Also, it should bring us together. Because community gives us strength. Blessings to you for an inspirational Passover.

Originally offered as a dvar Torah at Congregation Beth Tikvah, Richmond, BC.

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