My baseball career ground to a sudden halt 39 years ago during spring training. It was March 1979, and I was signed up to play in the Sandy Koufax division of our town’s Little League. But that month was also my bar mitzvah, which our family marked with my first trip to Israel. I was supposed to read Vayikra at the “Wailing Wall,” and so I missed two weeks of spring training. The coach wasn’t happy: “No practice, no play.” I can’t really blame him. I was a sloppy player in right field, neglecting to cover my mitt to secure the ball (“One Hand Dan” was not meant as a compliment), though I did have a pretty good throw to make up for the dropped fly balls. Still, it is ironic that my choice to put prayer over play cost me my position, davka in the league named for a pitcher who refused to play on Yom Kippur.
What I loved about baseball, and continue to appreciate as a spectator, was what some people find oppressively tedious. It is a ritualized activity with precisely defined players, props and motions. The ball is in play for only a few minutes of the 3 hour game—one study found an average of 18 minutes of ball in play, meaning that it is 90% standing around. And yet the intense attention of participants and spectators alike infuses those moments with great drama and significance. Games that have constant motion such as hockey and basketball are lively but, to my mind, far less dramatic. As a pitcher prepares to throw, each side seeks to align intention with action; what happens next may change the course of the game, but it all begins in the mind.
It is not a far stretch to compare the slow pace and sudden activity of the baseball diamond with the rhythms of religious ritual, especially in the sacred service described by Leviticus. When we read these verses visually, trying to imagine where each party stands, then deeper layers of meaning can begin to emerge. For example, regarding the burnt offering we learn that the priest brings the animal to the entrance of the tent of meeting—this is apparently the spot between the altar and the sanctum—where he pauses, placing his hands upon the animal’s head and leaning on it. This action activates divine favor, and the subsequent slaughter delivers atonement.
In Tractate Yoma (36a) the rabbis seek to identify the precise location for this action. According to them, the animal designated for sacrifice stands to the north of the altar, facing west (toward the shrine), and the person presenting the animal stands to the east of it, also facing west. He then places his hands between the horns on the head of the animal—with no barrier between them—and confesses (the Talmud here debates what exactly is confessed, since transgressions generally require a different type of sacrifice).
Can you picture these two parties, the presenter and the animal, facing each other—one a mighty beast with dangerous horns, the other a priest armed with a sharpened knife? Each has a vitality, and it is the intimacy and danger of the face-off that gives this moment its spiritual power. The rabbis say that even before the slaughter, when the priest lays hands on the animal and establishes that bond, favor comes from heaven. And yet, if the slaughter does not follow, then the action is not completed and atonement is not attained. This is primarily a psychological ritual; it is in the moment of confrontation between the two parties that the drama escalates and the meaning emerges. The physical act reifies the spiritual intention, just as sinful acts express malign thoughts.
Moshe Al-Sheikh (16C Turkey) notices that the Torah emphasizes that the priest places his hands on ראש העולה, “the head of the burnt offering,” not the head of the “animal” or the “sacrifice.” He interprets this moment as symbolic of the purification of thought, which is “the beginning of ascent,” another plausible translation of ראש העולה. Actions express thought, whether positive or negative, and so the sacred service begins with a quiet moment of encounter before the dramatic action that will follow. It is easier to focus on action than intention, but it is intention that determines the course of events and imbues them with significance.
When the sacrifice is burned on the altar, the Torah describes the smoke as רֵֽיחַ־נִיח֖וֹחַ לַֽיקֹוָֽק, “a pleasing fragrance for the Lord.” I remember chanting that recurring line in Jerusalem in 1979. I didn’t understand much of what was occurring, but I was especially puzzled by the notion of God enjoying the smoke, like a person might enjoy a barbecue. This image of God did not inspire me, but I later discovered a line of rabbinic interpretation that emphasized the value of human intention, not of swirling smoke. The final Mishnah in Tractate Menahot (110a) notices that this phrase, “a pleasing fragrance to the Lord” is used whether the sacrifice is of a mammal, a bird or of some grain. The difference in financial value between such offerings is enormous. Think $3-$30-$300—yet all are considered pleasing to God. The sages say, “whether the [value] is great or minor it is the same—so long as his intention is for heaven.”
Just as the high holiday season is a time for introspection, so too are the weeks leading to Passover and on to Shavuot. Egyptian enslavement caused spiritual damage, and our ancestors needed to purify their minds before they could receive the Torah and begin to serve God in purity. We also benefit from slowing down the action of our busy lives to confront the ultimate issues—slavery and freedom, virtue and vice, death and life. As we enter the month of Nisan, enjoying the start of spring and all of its promise, we pause to purify our thoughts. May all of our actions, great or small, be for the sake of heaven, showing gratitude and generosity, kindness and compassion, responsibility and love.
(ג) אִם־עֹלָ֤ה קָרְבָּנוֹ֙ מִן־הַבָּקָ֔ר זָכָ֥ר תָּמִ֖ים יַקְרִיבֶ֑נּוּ אֶל־פֶּ֜תַח אֹ֤הֶל מוֹעֵד֙ יַקְרִ֣יב אֹת֔וֹ לִרְצֹנ֖וֹ לִפְנֵ֥י יְקֹוָֽק: (ד) וְסָמַ֣ךְ יָד֔וֹ עַ֖ל רֹ֣אשׁ הָעֹלָ֑ה וְנִרְצָ֥ה ל֖וֹ לְכַפֵּ֥ר עָלָֽיו: (ה) וְשָׁחַ֛ט אֶת־בֶּ֥ן הַבָּקָ֖ר לִפְנֵ֣י יְקֹוָ֑ק וְ֠הִקְרִיבוּ בְּנֵ֨י אַהֲרֹ֤ן הַֽכֹּֽהֲנִים֙ אֶת־הַדָּ֔ם וְזָרְק֨וּ אֶת־הַדָּ֤ם עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ סָבִ֔יב אֲשֶׁר־ פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד: (ו) וְהִפְשִׁ֖יט אֶת־הָעֹלָ֑ה וְנִתַּ֥ח אֹתָ֖הּ לִנְתָחֶֽיהָ: (ז) וְ֠נָתְנוּ בְּנֵ֨י אַהֲרֹ֧ן הַכֹּהֵ֛ן אֵ֖שׁ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֑חַ וְעָרְכ֥וּ עֵצִ֖ים עַל־ הָאֵֽשׁ: (ח) וְעָרְכ֗וּ בְּנֵ֤י אַהֲרֹן֙ הַכֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים אֵ֚ת הַנְּתָחִ֔ים אֶת־הָרֹ֖אשׁ וְאֶת־ הַפָּ֑דֶר עַל־הָעֵצִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עַל־הָאֵ֔שׁ אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ: (ט) וְקִרְבּ֥וֹ וּכְרָעָ֖יו יִרְחַ֣ץ בַּמָּ֑יִם וְהִקְטִ֨יר הַכֹּהֵ֤ן אֶת־הַכֹּל֙ הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חָה עֹלָ֛ה אִשֵּׁ֥ה רֵֽיחַ־נִיח֖וֹחַ לַֽיקֹוָֽק:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף לו עמוד א
תנו רבנן: כיצד סומך? הזבח עומד בצפון ופניו למערב, והסומך עומד במזרח ופניו למערב, ומניח שתי ידיו בין שתי קרנות של זבח, ובלבד שלא יהא דבר חוצץ בינו לבין הזבח ומתודה;
אלשיך ויקרא פרשת ויקרא פרק א ד”ה דבר אל
(ד) ועל כן וסמך ידו על ראש העולה, הוא על כח טומאה הנעשה ממחשבה, שהוא ראש העולה על רוחו, שעל כן לא אמר על ראש הקרבן או הבקר. ואז על ידי סמיכה זו ונרצה לו אותו ראש הנזכר לכפר עליו, ואז אותו ראש עצמו יהפך לו לזכות, וזהו אומרו ונרצה לו לכפר עליו, ולא אמר ונרצית לו לשון נקבה. והוא כי על ידי וידוי והכנעה, עד יחול כח חטא הרהורו בו, ונרצה לו בשבילו לכפר עליו:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת מנחות דף קי עמוד א
מתני’. נאמר בעולת בהמה אשה ריח ניחוח, ובעולת עוף אשה ריח ניחוח, ובמנחה אשה ריח ניחוח, לומר לך: אחד המרבה ואחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמים.