Our Lives as Offerings: A Shabbat Message from Rabbi Berkman

March 29, 2024


What does it mean to be called to serve? The book of Leviticus tells us unequivocally that this covenantal relationship to which we entered at Mount Sinai is one in which we have a profound responsibility. We were freed from Egyptian slavery to live in the world not for ourselves alone, but to partner with the divine in service of bringing the world into healing and wholeness; to bring more justice, love, and compassion through the way we bring ourselves to our lives; to offer the gifts of our unique selves, each infinitely precious, each infinitely necessary. On the surface, the book of Leviticus, with its detailed descriptions of the ancient priesthood and ritual sacrifice, can seem irrelevant. But our sacred obligation as Jews is to make meaning of Torah – of the texts and the interpretations handed down to us – and to bring our own experiences and questions into dialogue with those of our ancestors. This in itself is a kind of offering, a kind of service.

This week’s Torah portion, Tzav (the root of “mitzvah” – meaning a command, a sacred obligation – not “good deed” as often translated), describes five types of sacrifices – offerings – which the Israelites are to bring. In ancient times, sacrifice/offerings were the “spiritual technology” of connecting to God. The root of the Hebrew word for sacrifice or offering, “korban” means “close.” To bring offerings was a way for the ancient Israelites to feel close to the divine. And as they sojourned through the wilderness, this must have been very grounding and centering and important for them. 

Rabbi Yael Levy, who interprets the Torah text through the lens of mindfulness practice, offers the following poetic interpretation of Tzav (excerpted below):
A fire shall continuously burn on the altar. (Leviticus 6:6)


We have been called into holy service:
Keep the fires burning.


Every evening,
Lay on the altar the offerings of the day
And keep the fires burning.
Every morning,
Renew the commitment
To tend the flames
And keep the fires burning.


Tend the fire that appeared in the burning bush.
We were in the wilderness,
On our way,
When, out of a bush filled with flames,
The Holy One called and said,
I need you.  (Exodus 3:2-4)


I need you as my partner.
I need you to turn toward your passion and your courage
So I can come into the world through your words,
Your deeds,
And the work of your hands.


I need you.
And I have great faith in you.
I see who you are,
I know your capacities.


Take this fire
And tend these flames.
I need you. (Directing the Heart…)


This Shabbat, I encourage you to consider this question: What is the fire that is yours to tend? What are your offerings — your words, your deeds, the work of your hands? Imagine God as a force that needs you as a partner in this world; that the way you live is itself an offering to God. When my childhood rabbi whispered a blessing to me at the ark when I became Bat Mitzvah in 1986, his words have stayed with me like a continuously burning fire, and I turn to them when I need a reminder when I’m tired or feeling insecure or anxious or just sad: that I must offer my life in service of this sacred partnership. The rabbi whispered – “God has given you many gifts. Be sure to give them back someday.” This is true for each and every one of us. What is your offering?


Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman