Sefer Vayikra (the Book of Leviticus), which we begin this week, reads much like a pocket manual for kohanim (priests) ministering in the Mishkan: when, under what circumstances, and how each sacrifice is to be made in the minutest detail. For some, this material is fascinating. For others, it is a major yawn. For yet others, it is a major embarrassment: the image of slaughtering animals, sprinkling their blood on the altar or against the curtain to the Holy of Holies, and burning their entrails so the smoke will rise to heaven – sounds brutal, primitive, irrational, and barbaric.
How might we think about the animal sacrifices that were the cornerstone of our people’s worship from Sinai until 70 C.E., from the completion of the Mishkan until the destruction of the Second Temple?
Rambam (Moses Maimonides, 1135-1204), the consummate rationalist, makes a radical suggestion in his Moreh Nevuchim (“Guide for the Perplexed”). God ordained animal sacrifices to wean Israel off the idolatry they witnessed among the surrounding nations, and particularly to separate them from the abomination of human sacrifice:
They were used to a form of worship that included fire, and they were raised [in an environment that included] sacrificing animals on which they placed idols… It was for this reason that God preserved these kinds of worship, but transferred them from creatures and imaginary matters, and commanded us [to sacrifice] to God, may God be praised. (Moreh Nevuchim, section 3, chapter 32)Rambam is saying that God never desired sacrifice for God’s own sake, and indeed it has no intrinsic religious value. The entire sacrificial system is a concession designed to provide Israel a stepping stone along the path from primitive paganism to ideal worship, comprised of prayer, study, and deeds of kindness. Rambam further suggests that the particular animals sacrificed in the Mishkan, and later in the Temple, were chosen to correspond to the deities worshiped by ancient peoples. Sheep, he held, were worshiped in Egypt; goats were worshiped in Chaldea; and cattle were worshiped in India. Israel would thereby uproot idolatry in the very act of sacrificing sheet, goats, and cattle to God.
Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman Girondi, 1194-1270, also known as Nachmanides) claimed that the Rambam’s explanation was sheer nonsense. Torah affirms frequently that God enjoys the “sweet savor” of the sacrifices. Abel and Noah offered sacrifices yet they were not Jews and their sacrifices had nothing to do with idolatry. Rather, Ramban tells us, offering sacrifices acknowledges our subservience to God because through sacrifice, we substitute an animal life for a human life. Moreover, Israel’s sacrifices ensured that the Shechinah (God’s divine presence in our world) would remain among them and not depart.
Curiously, we find in Vayikra Rabbah a midrash that seems to span the seemingly unbridgeable abyss between Rambam (Maimonides) and Ramban (Nachmanides). The midrash addresses Leviticus 17:3 which seems to suggest that the only permissible consumption of meat is that which was slaughtered by the priests in the Tabernacle. The midrash presents an argument between R. Yishmael and R. Akiba in which the former says that Leviticus 17:3 comes to permit the non-sacred slaughter of meat, which had previously been forbidden, and the latter claims the inverse. R. Yishmael, who claims that Torah limits slaughter and consumption of meat to sacrifices, teaches:
It was taught by R. Yishmael: Owing to the fact that in the wilderness Israel were forbidden to eat flesh of desire, Scripture exhorts them that they should bring their sacrifices to the priest, and the priest would slaughter them and receive the blood. Although the owners sat and thought all day long [that they intended their offerings for idols] everything depends only on the one who slaughters [i.e. the priest, not the person who brings the sacrifice]… R. Pinchas said in the name of R. Levi: This is analogous to a king’s son who thought he could do what he liked and habitually ate the flesh of all types of carrion. The king said: “I will have him always [eat] at my own table and he will become habituated to eating [as we do at this table].” Similarly, because Israel were passionate followers after idolatry in Egypt and used to bring their sacrifices to the goat-demons, as it is written, And they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to the goat-demons (Leviticus. 17:7)… the Holy One blessed be God said: “Let them offer their sacrifices to Me at all times in the Tent of Meeting and thus they will be separated from idolatry and be saved from punishment.” (Leviticus Rabbah 22:7, 8)The king seeks to inculcate new habits in his brutish son, but as a parent he also cherishes the company of his child and the communion their time together makes possible. There is sacred meeting at the dinner table – just as there is sacred time at the family dinner table today. The king takes pleasure in his son’s company and his son’s progress.
For our ancestors, the Tabernacle was the nexus of heaven and earth. Imagine a cone (representing heaven) with the large side opening up and the small end downward, touching a second cone (representing earth) whose small end faces upward and whose bottom opens downward. What joins the realms of heaven and earth? Where do they meet? The nexus is the Mishkan, where sacrifices are offered. Torah, the Book of Leviticus especially, reflects an idyllic memory of the Mishkan – complete, perfect, ideal. Earth as a reflection of heaven; sacrifice as a conduit between heaven and earth. The ideal family dinner table at which are seated God and God’s children, loving one another talking with one another, sharing what is most precious with one another.
If we do not long for a return to sacrifices (and while some do, many of us do not), we nonetheless long for the idealized vision of connection with heaven, an open conduit for our thoughts and prayers, and God’s presence and compassion. That, our Sages have taught, comes through Torah, prayer, and gemilut chasadim (deeds of loving kindness). What have you done this week to open the conduit and keep the flow moving?
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman