If there is one parashah which seems to run into head-on conflict with modern values, it is Vayikra, which opens the book of that same name, which deals mostly with priestly service, animal sacrifices, ritual purity, etc. This week’s title parashah presents the main types of sacrifices and their salient characteristic. Offhand, it seems difficult to imagine any modern person, unless he consciously adopts an antiquarian ideology, identifying with the notion of slaughtering animals as an act of worship of God.
In this light, I would like to address two interrelated questions: 1) What does this reveal about the modern mentality, and its salient features? 2) Is it nevertheless possible to bridge the gap between modernity and antiquity so as to understand (and perhaps reinterpret?) Parashat Vayikra in a manner that will make sense to our archetypical “modern man”?
A commonly heard objection to animal sacrifices is that it is cruel, barbaric, bloody, and generally not befitting the dignity and solemnity we associate with “sacred service.” Why should animals pay the price of human beings’ real or imagined feelings of guilt and the need to atone for their sins?
I shall bracket for the moment my many vegetarian friends and their cohorts, who can raise this objection with a clear conscience. But how can the carnivorous majority, who patronize butchers and eat animal flesh—flesh that has been killed in as cruel and bloody a fashion as the korbanot in the ancient Temple—object? Because we do not see the slaughter or hear the animals’ cries of pain— “out of sight, out of mind”? (I might add here that the Israeli public was recently treated to a graphic demonstration of the suffering of animals in the meat industry, in a TV program showing the agony of chickens at the Zoglobek meat-packing factory on their way to shehitah. Needless to say, Zoglobek is , one may be quite sure, are not unique in this respect.)
But, one might counter, the slaughter of meat for food is at least intended to serve a concrete human need, whereas this is for a “ritual” purpose. Here we come to what I suspect is the crux of the matter: the covert or implicit assumption that religious acts are somehow less ”real,” less “necessary,” than those acts performed for utilitarian, human benefit. It is this issue / argument that we must address.
How does the tradition understand animal sacrifices? What is their purpose? In many places in the Torah—Numbers 28:2 comes most readily to mind—the term קרבני לחמי לאישי, “the bread of my sacrifice upon My fires,” often followed by לריח ניחח, “as a sweet savour,” is used to describe the korbanot consumed upon the fires of the altar. It is as if to say that one is somehow “feeding” God by bringing these animal sacrifices (which were, indeed, coupled with wine and grain, together constituting a complete meal)—an anthropomorphic, “primitive” conception of God if ever there was one! But in fact such an approach is already rejected in the Tanakh itself. Thus, the Psalmist states that it is absurd to even imagine that God would ask such a thing, “For Mine are all the beasts of the forests, animals on a thousand mountains. … If I am hungry why should I tell you, for mine is the earth and its fulness” (Ps 50:10, 12). Other psalms, and such prophets as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah and others bring a similar message.
Rather, the true worship desired by God consists of a broken heart, honoring ones’ vows, justice, righteousness and compassion towards the poor and fortunate.
How then, is the entire system of sacrificial offerings understand by the classical commentators? Ramban, at Leviticus 1:9 (quoting the Talmud), says that when a person brings sacrifice, it ought to be seen as a surrogate for the person himself. אדם כי יקריב מכם(“when a person brings from yourselves…”). The sinner had performed an animal-like act, and by rights ought to have offered his own life in repentance; this being unfeasible, one sacrifices an animal (who is also, not insignificantly, especially in an agrarian, pre-commercial society, a valuable piece of property) to show that one is offering to God “the animal within oneself” (cf. Sefer ha-Hinukh at Terumah, §95).
Needless to add, there are numerous other interpretations of the meaning of the korbanot, too many to survey here. What I would like to present here is a line of thought which I developed here some years ago (see HY I: Vayikra [=Vayikra (Torah)]), in which the differing forms of sacrifice prescribed here— olah, shelamim and hatat—are explained as corresponding to three basic religious moods or emotions within man.
Thus, hatat, the sin-offering (whose variants are described here in Chapters 4–5) relates to feelings of guilt, of the inadequacies, shortcomings, and wrong-doings that inevitably blemish human life, and the concomitant wish to somehow make restitution, to gain forgiveness from a God who is at once loving but nonetheless truthful and thus objective-in-judgment. The archetype of this is of course Yom Kippur, whose ritual centered around various exculpating sacrifices.
Shelamim, the “peace-offering” (Chapter 3), expresses joy in fellowship—not only human fellowship, but a fellowship in which God Himself is, so to speak, invited to partake at our table. The model for this is the Passover meal, during which in Temple times the paschal lamb was partaken of in family and clan groups, with song and hymn and rejoicing.
Finally, the olah, “burnt-offering,” consumed entirely on the altar, signifies self-transcendence, the basic desire to go beyond the mundane, humdrum world of the everyday, to somehow reach out and touch the mysterious realm of the holy, of the ultimately incomprehensible and unknowable Divine, Otto’s “Wholly Other.” This is symbolized by the most frequent offering, the fixed daily offering, the tamid, offered morning and evening on behalf of Collective Israel.
To return to our original problem: our hypothetical modern man who cannot connect to the ritualized, symbolic world of korbanot. Indeed, this is the heart of the problem. Indeed, the mitzvot as a whole might be described as a series of symbolic actions. Perhaps the difference between us and our forebears lies in the fact that we don’t take such symbolic acts with quite the same seriousness as they did.
Many, if not most, mefarshei hamitzvot stress the simple psychological fact that, for the majority of people, thought, mind, intent, inner feeling are not enough, but one needs concrete actions. “The heart is drawn after the actions.” Hence we need symbolic actions. The sacrifices, like the mitzvot generally, through repeated actions, implant salutary attitudes, beliefs and character traits in the individual. As Hillel said, the rest is elaboration: zil gmor—There is much to be learned.
For more teachings on this parashah from previous years, see the archives to this blog.