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Where Does the Spirit of Sacrifice Take Us?

As we now begin our study of the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), we start with two observations:

Even some fairly dedicated Torah learners find this the most difficult book of the Hamisha Humshei Torah (Five Books of Moses). As anyone who has worked with b’nai mitzvah students on writing divrei Torah (explanations of Torah) can attest, the focus of Vayikra on the sacrificial system leads to some quite canned and predictable b’nai mitzvah sermons in March and April. Typically they begin: “Our ancestors used to sacrifice their animals. We are not farmers or herdsman. Still everyone is called upon to sacrifice in their life…”

Me’am Loez (an encyclopedic commentary on the Torah, written in Ladino in the 17th century in an easy style for the common person) suggests that there is at least something more profound to study and learn about the function of animal sacrifice in Jewish tradition. Begin with the recognition that the laws of korbanot (sacrifice) function under the conceptual umbrella of hukkim (laws for which there is no adequate rational understanding), rather than mishpatim (laws for which there is such a rational understanding). Rabbi Yitzhak Magriso then suggests four different functions of these laws for Jews:

  1. They provided gainful employment to the Cohanim (priestly class). (No kidding; public-works projects evidently predate the WPA)
  2. The very act of studying these laws is accounted by God as the equivalent of “l’hakriv,” the “drawing nea”r to God attributed to the sacrifices in their original context;
  3. People, by their very nature, will commit sins. A system of forgiveness and expiation needs to be in place;
  4. The vividness of the “death” of the animals (sheep, cattle, etc.) with its accompanying gore remind us of our own mortality; hence the need to vigilantly monitor our own values and behavior.

The last function has some parallels to a more contemporary understanding of the value of biblical sacrifice elucidated by Rabbi Richard Rubenstein. Working from a Freudian paradigm, Rubenstein suggests that we at least needed the functional equivalent of biblical sacrifice to help individuals sublimate their most violent tendencies. Stripped of more controlled conventional outlets for blood lust, institutionalized in something like biblical sacrifice, 20th-century man created horrifying substitutes in terms of nationalism, war, and (in the extreme) the Holocaust.

I can’t help but think of the contemporary reality. We Americans are on the verge of war. As a people blessed with relative security, and insulated from war on our soil, many of us have never seen the ravaging of human flesh that inevitably comes with war.

In a poem about the Akeda – the supreme sacrifice in Jewish tradition that Abraham began to make in the person of his son Isaac, the Canadian Jewish poet Leonard Cohen asks, “You who sacrifice our children today: Have you ever had a vision? Watched the angel tremble before your hand?”

Without pretending to know the answer to my own question, I wonder if some practice in “taking life” would change our thinking about the possibility of war and military conflict.

Reprinted by permission of the Cleveland Jewish News.

This dvar Torah is one of a series influenced by the Me’am Loez Sephardic Torah commentary.

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