A relative recently asked me to assist in preparing a D’var Torah, a teaching from Judaism’s sacred texts. She had been asked to by her synagogue to prepare remarks to be delivered at a morning service during the interim days of the Passover holiday. The text she was to discuss prescribes the kinds of animal sacrifices offered at the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This is not an easy assignment for anyone, regardless of background and familiarity with the sacrificial-cult. Below are some reflections I shared on Numbers 28:19-25.
Like much of the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar) these verses prescribe specific animal sacrifices for weekdays, Shabbat and holy-days. I think we’d lose our minds trying to speculate on why a goat, lamb or bullock were chosen for this this or that day in particular, though I have no doubt that subject has been given exhaustive attention.
In the ancient world, most if not all religious traditions revolved around offering animal and in some cases, human sacrifices to their respective deities. A sacrifice was intended to serve two purposes: It was an affirmation of love and faith:
- We offer to you our god this valuable animal as a sign of our fidelity to you.
- Sacrifices were transactional; we offer you this animal in the hope you will bless our crops, make our women fertile, give us rain, protect us from our enemies, etc.
Mosaic Judaism was no different in that regard. Where I think Judaism was unique was that we said no human to sacrifices; we had countless prescriptions for sacrifices that could be offered up on behalf of the nation and the individual. EG there were multiple sacrifices offered up daily during Passover on behalf of Klal Yisroal (the people of Israel), but each family was obligated to bring a paschal offering to the Temple on the first day. BTW, Jewish animal sacrifices were unique from pagan sacrifices in the way the animals were slaughtered. To insure a painless death the priests were required to quickly cut into the jugular vein to cut off blood to the brain. That practice is maintained to this day in kosher slaughtering houses.
How could a religion that places so much emphasis on protecting, promoting and promulgating the sanctity of life use death to relate to its God? Would a strictly intellectual religious tradition have survived and prospered in a predominantly agricultural society where most people could not read or write? The sacrificial cult engaged the ancient Hebrews with ritual and props that they understood and could contribute to.
A personal story that makes this point: When I was first becoming religious and trying to be more observant, I limited my choices in restaurants to kosher fish, eggs, salad, vegis. Once, when eating in a Chinese restaurant with my parents, I order a vegetable dish. Half way through the meal I came across a piece of pork. OY VAIS! I flew out of the restaurant hysterical. The next day I called a rabbi I was studying with at the time. He responded in the most sarcastic voice he could muster: Thank you for your confession. Say thirty-three hail Moses’ and swing a challah over your head while facing East.
Message received. The Rabbinic Judaism we practice today is about thought, intention and good deeds. Our God is not demanding to be placated with dead animals or meaningless chants. When we sin, we acknowledge it and promise ourselves to do better. Had I committed a sin in ancient Israel, I could have brought an animal to the Temple in Jerusalem in the hope that my sin would be erased from HaShem’s ledger book. Let’s be honest, only a primitive, simple-minded am-haaretz would believe such a formula for engaging with God is appropriate today. If anything, I suspect HaShem is less worried about what I eat than what I have or have not done on behalf of people in need.
For the modern Jew, Passover is rich in teachings and values that have shaped our lives, values and culture: There is a living a God who cares about the plight of the oppressed; every human being is entitled to freedom; every person in every generation is in need of redemption from a Mizraim, a narrow-place; to be a Jew is to be a member of a holy-nation of freed slaves commanded on a desert mountain top to be ethical role models to humanity. Reading about bloody alters, bullocks, lambs and grain offerings may seem pointless in our times. But can one fully appreciate a living, breathing, continually blossoming tree and be indifferent to its roots?