Vayikra: Offering

We no more offer animals
in sacrificial rites:
are spared the sudden impact

as the body hits the ground;
the view of eyes, once bright
now blind;
the limp and lifeless corpse.

We no more breathe the polar mix
of redolent and foul:
of sweetly scented incense
and incinerated flesh;

are shielded from the turmoil
of this rendezvous with death.

Divested of this ritual,
yet yearning to draw near
we learn to intermingle
both the holy and profane:

to tame the animal within
and offer it instead.

In a commentary on Parashat Vayikra,, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson suggests that the Book of Leviticus – Vayikra, is at the center of the Torah, not only because it is the third of the five books of the Torah, but also spiritually. He notes that of all these books, this is the one that establishes the cardinal themes pervading biblical and rabbinic Judaism throughout the centuries.
He notes, “The central focus of Vayikra is on establishing a sacred community – “a nation of priests” whose daily deeds perfect the world under God’s rule. By establishing an ideal community, Vayikra recognizes that deeds speak far more eloquently than words, that living in a holy community can provide a sense of God’s presence far more pervasive than more ethereal approaches.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson continues that in general terms, most modern Jews would accept this premise, but, he says, when we start to delve into the detailed rites prescribed for this sacred community, we find “a preoccupation with animal and vegetative sacrifice, which is far from the world view of most contemporary Jews (and most contemporary Americans, for that matter).
“When we think of religious devotion, we tend to picture silent meditation, appreciation of nature, perhaps even a commitment to ethical living. But the connection between killing animals and serving the Lord escapes us completely.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson proposes that an understanding of the centrality of Temple ritual and sacrifice is fundamental to an understanding of what Judaism is about.
He says, “Objections to animal sacrifice readily abound: it’s bloody, it’s barbaric, it is too physical, too particular, too ugly. Sacrifice is violent, uncontrolled, and primitive. All true. But so is life. And it is precisely in that paradox that we can first recognize the power – if not the aesthetics – of sacrifice.”
He suggests that life, too, is messy, and that each of us encompasses layers of emotions, the more superficial, and perhaps civilized ones of which we might express, but the deeper layers of which are darker and inexpressible. He says, “Each of us contains the person we were at every previous stage of development – all previous ages we have ever lived. All of those competing levels and drives require some mode of expression. If we attempt to deny them, and consequently to stifle them, they will erupt in destructive or inappropriate ways.” And so he suggests that the Torah mandated the sacrificial system in order to help us safely channel these subconscious impulses and drives.
“Sacrifice horrifies and stuns precisely because it embodies so many subconscious drives and terrors. We need not reinstitute sacrifice to be able to benefit from recalling this ancient practice in the safe context of a worship service. Are you afraid of death? Confront it by reading about sacrifice. Are you ridden with guilt? Represent and conquer your guilt in the Yom Kippur ritual of the scapegoat and sacrifice.”
He suggests that the rituals of animal sacrifice enabled our ancestors to face their own fear of death, and reflect on their own frailty and mortality.

In another commentary on Vayikra entitled “Why Do We Sacrifice?”,, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks also notes how difficult it is for the contemporary Jew to relate to the laws of sacrifices, almost 2000 years since the Temple was destroyed and the sacrificial system ended. But he adds that Jewish thinkers, particularly the mystical ones, tried to fathom the inner meaning of the sacrifices, and what they teach us about our relationship with God.
He cites the Ba’al HaTanya, Rabbi Shneor Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of Lubavitch, who noticed a linguistic anomaly in the second verse of the parasha, which is usually translated “Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock.” (Vayikra 1:2). However, in the Hebrew, the word order for “When any of you presents an offering – adam ki yakriv mikem” is unusual, and literally would translate as, “When one offers a sacrifice of you.” So Rabbi Shneor Zalman teaches that the essence of sacrifice is that we offer ourselves. Rabbi Sacks elaborates, “We bring to God our faculties, our energies, our thoughts and emotions. The physical form of sacrifice – an animal offered on the altar – is only an external manifestation of an inner act. The real sacrifice is mikem, “of you”. We give God something of ourselves.”
The mystical teachers, among them Rabbi Shneor Zalman, ascribed two souls to each human being: the animal soul (nefesh ha-behamit) and the Godly soul. We are physical beings with physical needs, and yet we have “immortal longings. We can think, speak and communicate. We can, by acts of speaking and listening, reach out to others. We are the one life form known to us in the universe that can ask the question “Why?” We can formulate ideas and be moved by high ideals. We are not governed by biological drives alone.” Rabbi Sacks quotes Psalm 8:

“When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
Yet You made him a little lower than the angels
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet … (Psalm 8: 4-7)

So Rabbi Sacks suggests that in psychological terms, “what we offer God is (not just an animal but) the nefesh ha-behamit, the animal soul within us.”
He expounds: three types of animal are mentioned in the verse, animal – behemah, cattle – bakar and flock – tzon, each of which represents a different characteristic of the human personality.
Behemah, he says, “represents the animal instinct itself. The word refers to domesticated animals. It does not imply the savage instincts of the predator. What it means is something more tame. Animals spend their time searching for food. Their lives are bounded by the struggle to survive. To sacrifice the animal within us is to be moved by something more than mere survival.
Bakar – cattle, in Hebrew reminds us of the word boker – “dawn”, literally to “break through”, as the first rays of sunlight break through the darkness of night. Cattle, stampeding, break through barriers. Unless constrained by fences, cattle are no respecters of boundaries. To sacrifice the bakar is to learn to recognize and respect boundaries – between holy and profane, pure and impure, permitted and forbidden. Barriers of the mind can sometimes be stronger than walls.
“Finally tzon, flocks, represents the herd instinct – the powerful drive to move in a given direction because others are doing likewise. The great figures of Judaism – Abraham, Moses, the prophets – were distinguished precisely by their ability to stand apart from the herd; to be different, to challenge the idols of the age, to refuse to capitulate to the intellectual fashions of the moment…”
Rabbi Sacks mentions that the noun for sacrifice – KoRBan and the verb le-haKRiV, “to offer up” are actually derived from the root KaReV meaning to draw close or to bring close. So he says the idea is less about giving something up, and more about bringing something close to God. “Le-hakriv is to bring the animal element within us to be transformed through the Divine fire that once burned on the altar, and still burns at the heart of prayer if we truly seek closeness to God.”

In a further commentary on the parasha,, Rabbi Elliot Dorff points out that the various sacrifices depicted in this parasha were discontinued in 70 CE when the Temple was destroyed, so he, too, ponders their relevance to the modern Jew. He adds that already in Biblical times, as opposed to in neighboring cultures, sacrifices were not intended to feed the gods. The Torah tells us that God wants “the sweet smell” of the sacrifices (as in Vayikra 1:9) not the animal flesh.
Already by the first century C.E. the sages, quoting biblical verses, teach that other forms of worshiping God can replace and even surpass animal sacrifices. Rabbi Dorff cites such teachings:
“Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai once was walking with his student, Rabbi Joshua, near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Joshua looked at the Temple ruins and said: “Alas for us! The place that atoned for the sins of the people Israel through the ritual of animal sacrifice lies in ruins!” Then Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai spoke to him in these words of comfort: “Be not grieved, my son. There is another equally meritorious way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain atonement through deeds of loving kindness, for it is written, ‘Loving kindness I desire, not sacrifice’ (Hosea 6:6).” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 4:5)
“Rabbi Elazar said: Doing righteous deeds of charity is greater than offering all of the sacrifices, as it is written, “Doing charity and justice is more desirable to God than sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:3). ( BT Sukkah 49b)
Rabbi Dorff says that although the Rabbis presumably brought these teachings to comfort the people after the destruction of the Second Temple, nonetheless, they seem to regard animal sacrifices as a less worthy expression of Jewish piety. Furthermore, the biblical verses that they cite were written while the First Temple (in the case of Hosea) and the Second Temple (in the case of Proverbs) were still standing and fully functioning.
Rabbi Dorff notes that the Rambam suggests that God did not desire the Israelites to offer sacrifices to Him as part of their devotional service. He permitted it because that was the prevalent practice of the surrounding people in ancient times who thus worshipped their deities. God knew that the Israelites could not be detached immediately from the practice, but insisted that they worship only Him and not other gods. The Rambam teaches in his Guide for the Perplexed (Part III, Chapter 32) “Through this divine ruse it came about that the memory of idolatry was effaced and that the grandest and true foundation of our belief – namely, the existence and oneness of the deity – was firmly established, while at the same time the people had no feeling of repugnance and were not repelled because of the abolition of the modes of worship to which they were accustomed and then which no other mode of worship was known at that time.” The fact that animal sacrifices were restricted to the Temple in Jerusalem and offered only by the priestly class, in the Rambam’s view, is indicative that they were not what God ultimately desires when worshiping Him. The Rambam gives the example in Jeremiah (7:9-10) when the Israelites sacrificed to pagan deities and also committed murder, adultery and perjury, thus defeating the purpose of following God and upholding a moral life style. The Rambam concludes that chapter with some verses from Psalms (50:7-12):

Pay heed, My people, and I will speak,
O Israel, and I will arraign you.
I am God, your God.
I censure you not for sacrifices,
And your burnt offerings, made to Me daily;
I claim no bull from your estate,
No he-goats from your pens.
For mine is every animal of the forest…
Were I hungry, I would not tell you,
For Mine is the world and all that it holds.

Rabbi Dorff says “Although Maimonides does not say so specifically, he clearly does not wish the reinstitution of the sacrificial service, for that was only a temporary “ruse” that God used to placate the desires of the ancient Israelites as God was training them to see the real goals of worship, and that method all too easily falls prey to idolatrous misuse.”
Rabbi Dorff then addresses the Musaf service in which, traditionally, the restoration of Temple services is besought. In 1945, the Conservative Movement in the US changed the liturgy from a prayer to God for the restoration of Temple rites with concomitant sacrifices, to a “recalling of the devotion that our ancestors had when they worshiped in that way.” Rabbi Dorff says “…deleting the entirety of Musaf, which traditionally asks for the restoration of the Temple and animal sacrifices, would detach our modern prayers from their ancient roots, but retaining those prayers would belie what we really hope for. It is one thing to remember the past, which we should do, and hence we do not eliminate Musaf and its mention of the sacrifices in times of yore entirely; it is quite another, though, to say that we hope for the restoration of an institution of the past that raises major moral problems vis-à-vis our treatment of animals and no longer functions as our path to God. The change of the verbs to past tense enables it to say what we really mean – that we want to be as devoted in our worship as our ancestors were in theirs – while not eliminating this important link to our past.”
Rabbi Dorff notes that he personally prays Musaf using the above formula. As a vegetarian, he is even less keen on the restoration of animal sacrifices than other Jews might be. But then he adds a very interesting anecdote:
“And yet. I vividly remember a lecture given by Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, z”l, to a group of USY Pilgrimage teens that my wife and I were accompanying on their trip to Israel in 1969. Rabbi Milgrom served for many years as Professor of Bible at the University of California in Berkeley, and as his prolific writings demonstrate, it is no exaggeration to say that he knew more about the ancient sacrificial system of the Temple than the ancient priests did! He made it clear that day that he was not interested in the restoration of the cult of animal sacrifices, but he graphically pointed out how strong the impact must have been on our ancestors to witness life and death taking place right in front of them, punctuated with the slaughter of the animal and the sprinkling of its blood on the altar, and with incense all around, undoubtedly to relieve some of the odious stench of it all. I remember his pointing out that that kind of drama and the intense feelings it must have aroused in our ancestors are simply not captured by our prayers. Again, he did not see this as an argument for restoring the Temple cult or even to hope for that, but he was showing us just how much we must focus in order to give our prayers anywhere near the emotional, moral, communal, and theological impact that the ancient animal sacrifices had for our ancestors.”

In a further commentary on Vayikra,, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo also ponders the place of animal sacrifices in Judaism. He asks, “Does Judaism really need animal sacrifices? Would it not be better off without them? After all, the sacrificial cult seems to compromise Judaism. What does a highly ethical religion have to do with the collecting of blood in vessels and the burning of animal limbs on an altar?” And he answers, “No doubt Judaism should be sacrifice-free. Yet it is not. So, is the offering of sacrifices Jewish, or not? The answer is an unequivocal yes. It is Jewish, but it doesn’t really belong to Judaism.”
So he wonders what the sacrifices are doing in the Torah.
Rabbi Lopes Cardozo suggests, “The Torah doesn’t really represent Judaism. Not in its ideal form. Not in all its glory. There are actually two kinds of Judaism. There is the Judaism of today and the Judaism of tomorrow. There is realistic Judaism and idyllic Judaism. What fills the gap between them is the world of Halacha. Halacha is the balancing act between the doable and the ideal; between approximate means and absolute ends; between what is and what ought to be. It is a great mediator, and a call for hope.
“The Judaism of today is a concession to human weakness, but at the same time a belief in the greatness and strength of man. It calls upon man to do whatever is in his power to climb as high as possible, but warns him not to overstep and fall into the abyss…But Judaism also believes that man may one day reach the point where what is impossible today may be possible tomorrow. What ought to be may someday become reality. It is that gap that Halacha tries to fill…”
Rabbi Lopes Cardozo suggests that God allows for human imperfections, and “Judaism teaches that if the perfect is unattainable, one should at least try to reach the possible; the manageable; that which can be achieved. If we can’t have it all, let us attempt to make some improvement. If you must wage war, do it as ethically as possible. If universal vegetarianism is inconceivable, try to treat animals more humanely and slaughter them painlessly. That is doable Judaism…
“Sacrifices are not part of the ought-to-be Judaism…But they are a realistic representation of the doable with an eye toward the ought-to-be.”
So Rabbi Lopes Cardozo too wonders how we should relate to sacrifices today. He wonders, since the Temple services are no longer extant, is that progression or regression? When religious Jews today pray for the restoration of sacrifices, “are they asking to return to the road between the is and the ought-to-be; between the dream and its realization? Or, are they praying to reinstate sacrifices as a middle stage, only to eventually get rid of them forever?”
He concludes, “We need to ask ourselves a pertinent question: Is our aversion to sacrifices the result of our supreme spiritual sophistication, through which we left the world of sacrifices behind us? Or, have we sunk so low that we aren’t even able to reach the level of idol worshipers who, however primitive we believe them to have been, possessed a higher spiritual level than some of us who call ourselves monotheists?
“This question is of great urgency in a modern world that slaughtered six million Jews and continues to slaughter millions of other people. Have we surpassed the state of is and are we on our way to the ought-to-be Judaism? Or, are we on the brink of a Judaism that is not even at the stage of is but rather in a state of regression, while we convince ourselves that it is in a state of progression? This is a haunting question; one that we cannot escape.”


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