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We Owe Our Very Lives to God

  • We Owe Our Very Lives to God

    Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1−5:26
D'var Torah By: 

Focal Point

  • The bull shall be slaughtered before the Eternal; and Aaron's sons, the priests, shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar which is at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The burnt offering shall be flayed and cut up into sections. (Leviticus 1:5-6)
  • Its entrails and legs shall be washed with water, and the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Eternal. (Leviticus 1:9)

D'var Torah

The Reform temple of my childhood was one of many that did not read the portion Vayikra. Its content—the ritual offerings and animal sacrifices of ancient Israel—was considered antiquated and unedifying, incompatible with our modern sensibilities that emphasized the great moral teachings and universal ethics of the Bible. So it was omitted from our cycle of Torah readings, along with most of the Book of Leviticus.

Today, most Reform synagogues read all of the Five Books of Moses. But it is not uncommon for rabbis to hear displeasure from parents whose child has been assigned Vayikra for the bar/bat mitzvah portion. And who can blame them? After all, who wants to be regaled with graphic descriptions of dismembered bulls, splattered blood, and burning flesh before adjourning to the social hall for canapés and cocktails?

We know from the records of other ancient peoples that animal sacrifice has its origins in pagan rites intended to appease the gods and win their favor. Vestiges of such ancient superstitions are found in the Torah. In Leviticus 21:21-22, the sacrificial offerings are called "the food of . . . God," and this week's portion notes that the smoke rising from the burnt offerings provides a "pleasing odor to the Eternal One" (Leviticus 1:13, 3:5, 4:31).

It would be a mistake, however, to identify the sacrificial rites of ancient Israel with such pagan practices. From numerous citations in the Bible, it is clear that God does not need our offerings and abhors pagan rites (see Jeremiah 7). God neither eats the food nor imbibes the blood of sacrifices (see Psalm 50). The prophets, especially, emphasized that ritual offerings alone were insufficient to attain God's favor and therefore must be accompanied by deeds of righteousness and justice. The prophet Micah conveyed this message poignantly when he declared the following in Micah 6:6-8:

With what shall I approach the Eternal, do homage to God on high? Shall I approach God with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Would the Eternal be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriads of streams of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for my sins? It has been told you, O man, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you: only to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

Similar messages appear in Amos 5:21-24 and Isaiah 1:10-17. If the sacrificial offerings were not for God, insofar as God didn't need them, what then was their purpose? Did our Reform forebears fail to appreciate something of the meaning and essence of the sacrificial service? I believe they did.

The missing piece is revealed in Deuteronomy 12:13-28. There we learn that sacrifices, once offered at shrines throughout the Land of Israel, may now be brought to one place only, "the place that the Eternal will choose" (Deuteronomy 12:14). That place was the Temple in Jerusalem. The text goes on to note, however, that if you wish to eat meat and the Temple is too distant, "you may slaughter any of the cattle or sheep that the Eternal gives you, as I have instructed you; and you may eat to your heart's content in your settlements" (Deuteronomy 12:21).

There is good reason to conclude from this text that prior to the centralization of the cult in Jerusalem (dated by scholars to the reign of King Josiah in 621 B.C.E.) there was no non-sacrificial consumption of meat. Sacrifice, then, was the sanctification of meat for consumption. It reflected deep reverence and respect for the life of the animal and for God's gift of life and sustenance for us.

We who harvest our crops from supermarkets, who live where there are no droughts or famines, have lost touch (at our peril) with the truth our ancestors knew day by day: food is life! Today we worry about calories and cholesterol and seek out gourmet recipes and restaurants with little or no thought to how the animals we consume live or die. When our ancestors ate meat, the likelihood is that they themselves raised the animal and brought it to the altar with reverence and respect for its life. They slaughtered it as kosher meat is still prepared, as quickly and painlessly as possible. The blood was removed because, as the Torah teaches in Deuteronomy 12:23, "the blood is the life," and the life belongs to the animal and to God, not to us. The sacrifice was placed on the altar by the priest, who in sacred ceremony symbolically burned the inedible parts, before the family members gathered to eat their meat in fullness of joy and gratitude.

When the cult was centralized in Jerusalem, the sacrifices became a symbolic act on behalf of the entire nation, with individual offerings reserved for personal spiritual needs, as described in Vayikra. Destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and rebuilt in the fourth century B.C.E., the Temple was, by the time of its final destruction, the focal point of the entire Jewish world. Making pilgrimage to Jerusalem to witness the sacrifices was an awe-inspiring opportunity. The physical stature of the Temple Mount, the Levitical singers and musicians, the priests in their magnificent garments, the altar, the incense, the prayers, and the sacrifices all made for a total sensory and spiritual experience.

And then, in one day, on the ninth of Av in 70 C.E., it was gone. So devastating was the loss that in the immediate aftermath many refused to eat meat or drink wine. Our people grieved and mourned, but our sages were determined to go on. The Mishnah and the Talmud reflect their efforts to create new means for Jews to experience the spiritual fire of the sacrificial altar. The Jewish home would become a miniature Temple, ourmikdash m'at, and the table our sacrificial altar on which we would transform our meal into an act of sacred service by reciting blessings. The framework of the Temple service was maintained in a new institution known as the synagogue, where Jews would gather three times a day, corresponding to the thrice-daily offerings in the Temple to offer t'filot, "prayers," the offering of our hearts.

Our ancestors who offered sacrifice understood the great spiritual truths that we need to remember: that we are utterly dependent upon the gifts of sustenance that God gives us, that we owe our very lives to God. Our faith teaches us to discharge that debt by performing acts of service, praying with all our hearts, and living reverently, so that we may do justly, with love and mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

By the Way

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. When you offer Me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. I will pay no heed to your offerings of fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the sound of your lutes. But let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. (Amos 5:21-24)

      Your Guide

      1. What can we offer to God to express our gratitude for the gifts of our lives and the food that sustains us?

      2. What acts of justice and righteousness might we be inspired to perform by our understanding of the sacrifices offered by our ancestors?

      3. Our ancestors expressed reverence and respect for life by the way they prepared and ate their food. Should we do likewise? How can we do this?

      Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck is the rabbi at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey.

      Reference Materials: 

      Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1–5:26 
      The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 757–778; Revised Edition, pp. 658–681; 
      The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 569–592