The concept of animal sacrifice can be very difficult for us. How can we relate to this animal bloodbath which occurred on the altar as “a sweet savor for God?” Many have interpreted the word “l’karev,” to sacrifice, by its other meaning, to draw near. Through this lens, sacrifice is viewed as our ancestors’ opportunity to draw close to God, much like how we view prayer in the synagogue. Others view sacrifice in the sense of “giving up,” as the animals sacrificed were given from the Israelite flock unto God. Through this the question is asked “what are you willing to sacrifice?” Not to invalidate either of these approaches, but I think there is merit at examining sacrifice as the slaughter of animals, observing how the prophets and some rabbis grappled with this and finally seeing if we can connect to this topic.
First of all, the act of animal slaughter detailed in VaYikra is a ritual that when acted out enabled the Israelites to find holiness in their relationship with God. As former JTS Chancellor Ismar Schorsch said, “Ritual is a way of giving voice to ultimate values. Each of us needs a sense of holiness to navigate the relentless secularity of our lives.” While Chancellor Schorsch was not arguing for a return to the sacrificial ritual, he (as well as I) finds value in being able to demonstrate our faith in God through the active performance of rituals.
An example of this that is dear to me is doing birkat kohanim, the priestly blessing, on Yom Tov. I remember being wrapped in my father’s tallit as a child and listening to words of the kohanim, reveling in the holiness of the moment. Similarly, when we act out the sacrificial service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur (the Avodah Service), I feel sanctity in saying the words of the High Priest and in prostrating myself on the ground. Perhaps if we had a way to ritually remember the sacrificial service without arguing for its return it could be something to which we would more easily connect to rather than a foreign act from another time period.
That being said, I feel it is totally legitimate to have discomfort with sacrifice, and this discomfort goes back to prophetic times. In Isaiah 1:11, the prophet says in the name of God, “What need have I of all your sacrifices? … I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.” Instead of sacrifice, Isaiah asks the Israelites to “learn to do good, devote yourselves to justice, aid the wronged, uphold the rights of the orphan, and defend the cause of the widow.” Similarly, in 1 Samuel 15, Samuel admonishes Saul, saying “Does God delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to God’s command? Surely obedience is better than sacrifice, compliance than the fat of rams.” While these quotations do not deny the importance of sacrifice, they make it secondary to doing the other things that God wants us to do. Both Isaiah and Samuel are calling into question the sacrificial rite’s being of primary importance, demonstrating that even in the biblical age there was a lack of comfort with sacrifice as the main act of Judaism.
Two medieval rabbis also struggled with the notion of sacrifice. Maimonides, who lived from 1135 to 1204 in Spain and Egypt, was uncomfortable with the people offering a sacrifice “of sweet savor” to God, as this makes it seem like the Israelites were feeding God, who would go hungry without their gifts. Abravanel, a 15th century Portuguese and Italian commentator, said that God never intended for the Israelites to give sacrifices but after the sin of the Golden Calf, God realized they needed to connect with something tangible instead of an abstract, transcendent deity, so the sacrificial system was formulated. Abravanel is demonstrating that God does not need our sacrifices but we need to sacrifice in order to feel God’s nearness. Similarly, one could argue, as Abraham Joshua Heschel did, that in our age, God does not need our prayers but we need to pray in order to connect to God.
I like Abravanel’s point because he shows how sacrifice was giving something of yourself (i.e. one of your animals) so that you could form a closer relationship with God. Sacrifice was undertaken by humans in order to make God more imminent and personable in a world where God is often felt to be remote and aloof. I am not in favor of a return to animal sacrifices, yet I find comfort in the fact that our ancestors created a ritual to enable them to reach out to God through doing what they felt was pleasing to God.
A lesson sacrifice can teach us is to continue to develop our own rituals to create meaningful connections to God. For some of us that ritual could be attending the weekly Shabbat service at the Jericho Jewish Center. Some might create a ritual of daily mediation, reflection and relaxation, yet a significant ritual for others might be doing regular community service and social justice to make the world a better place. While reading the descriptions of all the different guilt, thanksgiving, well-being and sin offerings, let us think about what we can do to actively pursue a stronger relationship with the Almighty. If you do not believe in God, I would urge you to ponder how you can create stronger relationships with those around you in building community, as sacrifices were also meaningful in bringing our ancestors closer together during their holiday pilgrimages to Jerusalem. May we read the Book of VaYikra with thoughts of developing rituals that will enhance our connections both to God and to those around us.