In T'tzaveh we read the commandment, "Now this is what you shall offer upon the altar: two yearling lambs each day, regularly" (Exodus 29:38). This was later called the tamid offering (daily burnt offering). The bulk of our Torah portion is devoted to rituals concerning sacrifice. In fact, a vast number of the 613 mitzvot are devoted to sacrifice, yet we rarely devote time to thinking about them today. Instead, many of our liturgies have taken out any mention of them.
But for nearly six centuries the altar of the Second Temple burned like a small sun. And just as the rays of an extinct star persist-coursing ever more distant galaxies-so too, the influence of that extinguished fire continues to evolve into the religious consciousness of ever more distant generations. That altar was a theological singularity into which our concept of holiness, ethics, and understanding of God were compressed and out of which world religions were forged. It is important that we encounter these portions of our history, for through them we encounter many deep truths about ourselves.
In the ancient world, many cultures offered sacrifices to their gods. Two of the things that differentiated the Israelite cult from any other can be found when we look carefully at this week's portion: the mysteries of the burnt offering and the blood.
The text reads, "Turn all of the ram into smoke upon the altar. It is a burnt offering . . . " (Exodus 29:18). But in other cultures, the sacrifices were often considered actual meals for the gods.
It is believed that the deep-rooted instinct to sacrifice in so many cultures grew out of basic archaic taboos against eating flesh. It is only after Noah's sacrificial offerings that God says, "Any small animal that is alive shall be food for you, like green grasses" (Genesis 9:3). The sanction on eating meat is given the moment after God realizes that "the human mind inclines to evil from youth onward" (Genesis 8:21). The taboo on killing animals required that meat consumption be legitimized by turning the animal into an offering. God, apologetically, is invited to the table.
However, in Psalm 50:12-14, God says, "Were I hungry, I would not tell you, for Mine is the world and all it holds. Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of he-goats? Sacrifice a thank offering to God, and pay your vows to the Most High." In Jewish tradition, sacrifices were not food for God. God does not eat flesh or drink blood, and even if God did hunger for anything at all, it is arrogant for humans to presume the power to slake it. In I Chronicles 29:14?15, we read, "For all is from You, and it is Your gift that we have given to You. For we are sojourners with You, mere transients. . . ." Even that which human beings give is taken from God's world in order to give, the same way a child borrows money from his or her mother to buy her a present. It is not the gift that God demands, for everything is God's, but rather it is the honor humans give through loving obedience.
"It is a burnt offering to the Eternal . . ." (Exodus 29:18). The burning of the sacrifice was wholly unique to Israelite culture. There was no idol in the sanctuary to which to offer a meal. It was taken out of man's world and irrevocably offered into God's world. Through the act of burning offerings, the Israelite conception of God moved away from corporeality and toward a sophisticated sense of a multidimensional universe being with less tangible realities. The act of burning transferred the offering to the realm of the ethereal, transitioning the God-concept from concrete to abstract.
Along with the uniqueness of the burnt offering was the Israelite preoccupation with the blood offering. In our Torah portion, it is written, "Take its blood and dash it against all sides of the altar" (Exodus 29:16) and "Take some of the blood that is on the altar . . . and sprinkle upon Aaron and his vestments . . ." (Exodus 29:21). In Leviticus 17:11-14, we read, "The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making expiation for your lives upon the altar; it is the blood, as life, that effects expiation."
The very life-principle, according to Israelite thought, is contained in the blood. It is the very elixir of being. Therefore, it is considered repulsive to eat it and of the highest crime to shed it. It is the miraculous ingredient that enables life to open its eyes and interact with the world, and so it is given special attention in the sacrificial system. It is dashed on the altar, rubbed on the sides, speckled on the curtains, sprinkled on the priests. It is the essence of the sacrifices. The God of Life is not honored with the death of an animal, but rather, with the offering up of its life-principle. In prayer, we offer up our awe-filled appreciation for the miraculous gift of life, for the secret of life that courses through us in our blood. I believe all that dashing, rubbing, speckling, and sprinkling, though gruesome to think about, was actually an attempt to break open the blood and release the life-principle. Just as we rub a sprig of mint to release a fragrance, so too the ancient Israelites rubbed and dashed the blood, to express their desire to reconnect that life-principle with its eternal source.
In Studies in Cultic Theology and Terminology ([ Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1983], p. 112), Jacob Milgrom wrote :
To this day, for the observant Jew, the act of eating is a divine service: a benediction is recited before the meal and grace is said after it as reminders of the source of our food. The benediction is preceded by a ritual washing of the hands, reminiscent of the ritual of the Temple priests before they offered sacrifices. Salt is sprinkled on the bread to be eaten, just as it was poured on the sacrifice; the knife is covered during the recitation of the grace since it is a weapon of death and was not allowed upon the altar. And during the meal, conversation must include words of Torah in keeping with a divine service. As Rabbi Simeon said, "If three have eaten at a table and have spoken no words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten sacrifices to dead idols." Thus, the daily meal was transformed into a sacred ritual; the ordinary into the extraordinary; the profane sanctified; the animal appetite sublimated into an ethical discipline.
Sacrifice was an essential step toward the establishment of a refined ethical-spiritual Judaism whose worship, study, and deeds have the profundity of several thousand years of striving toward godliness.
Rabbi Zoë Klein is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah, Los Angeles, California. A book of her poetry, House Plant Meadow, will be published this year by David R. Godine, and she is the author of a chapter in The Women's Haftarah Commentary (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004).