Some things really hit close to home.
As we begin the chumash [VaYikra] largely about korbanos, it is surprising that none of our typical translations for that word do it justice. “Sacrifice” implies that we are giving away something which rightfully belongs to us; this is an inappropriate description of giving something to the Creator and Owner of everything. “Offering” and “present” are similarly problematic, as they imply that we are giving something to Hashem that He does not already have. So then what does “korban” mean?
Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch zt”l explained that the root of the word korban is karav, which means to come close. A person inspired to deepen his connection with Hashem would travel to the Beis HaMikdash with a korban olah, which ascended in its entirety to heaven. A person who had distanced himself from Hashem with sin would demonstrate contrition with a korban chatas in an effort to repair the relationship. And every day, there were communal korbanos that signified the ongoing close relationship between Hashem and His nation.
The tragic loss of the Beis HaMikdash accurately reflects the level of disconnect between us and our Creator. The discontinuation of korbanos bemoans the lack of closeness, the spiritual distance that we feel deep down. In the absence of korbanos, prayer has stepped up to become the main avodah, our avenue for developing and rebuilding our relationship with Hashem – both as individuals, and as a nation. The shul was designed to serve as a mikdash m’at (mini-sanctuary), a place to maintain a measure of closeness with the Divine. It is the temple where we offer our verbal korbanos to Hashem.
Exactly one year ago, we suffered a terrible blow with not just the mandate of social distancing but, further, spiritual distancing. We were, once again, forced out of our sanctuaries, our synagogues, our places of closeness to Hashem. But it was precisely at this challenging time that we seized the opportunity to improve our t’filos. No longer bound by the schedule of a minyan, many were able to pray with better concentration – and some even made time to recite korbanos every day! We recognized that davening at home did not spell the end to our relationship with Hashem; it presented an opening to bring Him even closer – into our living rooms and kitchens. We turned our homes into mini-sanctuaries!
Now, a full year later, many (but not all) have gratefully been able to return to shul. We made the best of our time quarantined at home, and it has helped us renew our excitement for the chance to daven in the structures built specifically for t’filah. As we begin Sefer VaYikra, we have an opportunity to reinforce our desire for closeness with Hashem. Let us use this time to enhance our appreciation for our mikdash m’at and create the decorum it deserves. And in whatever location we pray, let us remember that davening is not lip service, but a service of the heart where we strive to build a relationship with Hashem.
May Hashem reciprocate our sincere yearning for closeness by allowing the safe, complete reopening of our shuls, and the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash where we can once again offer korbanos.