Nine years ago I wrote about a bunch of things in this parasha that bugged me. Many of them still do, so I thought I’d revisit it.
Harkening back to my earlier days and my truly “random” musings, this musing is just that. Random. I call it “stuff that’s bugging me about our parasha,” which is Vayikra – the start of the priestly instruction manual that somehow found its way into the Torah. And so here we go. Stuff that’s bugging me:
Why must an animal die for the sins of a human being? Yes, if we place these rituals within their own context, we can understand why humans thought G”d would want animal sacrifices, and we can understand how the sacrifice of an animal was a meaningful act for our ancestors.
I’m such a hypocrite. I eat meat and poultry and fish. The vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is not for me. If I truly think about it, I give but a fleeting thought to the animal deaths that are required to satisfy my desire for meat, poultry, and fish meals. Yet I have cared for pets as if they were family members. I have ordered some “eco-suede” kippot made from recycled cardboard to replace some of the suede kippot that I had worn. If I had to kill me own food before eating it, I’m not sure I could. (However, that’s still not enough to make me stop eating meat.)
Clearly, Torah teaches us to have proper respect for all life, including animals. We are asked to treat them respectfully, and when we slaughter them, to do so a manner that was believed to be quick and minimize the animal’s pain. We are not to abuse or mistreat our animals, and even our work animals get off for Shabbat. Still, we eat them, as did our ancestors. And they also sacrificed them to G”d. We (currently) do not.
In our parasha, we read of the mincha sacrifice, the meal offerings – bread, griddle cakes, pancakes, matzah. Couldn’t those have been enough? Yet in this odd and ironic twist, while most of the animal sacrifices (at least the sin offerings and offerings for inadvertent transgressions) were wholly consigned to the altar, often only a portion of the mincha offerings were sacrificed and the rest eaten. (Yes, this is also true of animal sacrifices, but to a somewhat lesser degree in this particular parasha and the particular types of sacrifices it mentions.)
Well, it makes some sense. G”d provided us with the animals to eat, yet the curse of Cain is upon us and we must work hard to produce crops from the soil. Yet wouldn’t G”d prefer the toil of our own efforts be sacrificed rather than G”d’s animal creations? I guess our ancestors didn’t think that was the case. Our work is tainted from the get go. Not so the animals. And those we sacrifice must be from the choicest of our flocks and herds.
And something else that’s bugging me. The children of Israel are a stubborn lot. It seems transgression (both advertant and inadvertent) is more norm than exception. That means that either a whole lot of animals got sacrificed-did they really have that many to spare?-or most people just weren’t honest in admitting when they had committed a sin which required an atonement in the form of an animal or pancake sacrifice. Neither of those is a particularly heartening reality.
Perhaps, early on, G”d, in G”d’s innocence, didn’t realize just how troublesome this free will thing was, and how prone it made us to transgress. Yet, by the time of Sinai, it had surely become apparent to G”d that we were gonna screw up a lot. So why insist on animal sacrifices?
In fact, why this whole system of atonement at all? G”d could have kept it simple. You sin, you die. You sin inadvertently, maybe you get a second chance, but then you die if you do it again. But noooooooo. We’re stuck with this system of ritual sacrifice to atone. The Christians solved the problem by envisioning the ultimate sacrifice, permanently absolving us of our wrongs. We Jews have attacked the problem somewhat with Yom Kippur. Yet the problem remains-we screw up a lot when it comes to G”d’s laws. Sometimes without realizing it, but most of the time, quite brazenly open about it.
And you know what? This substitution of the offerings of our hearts and our lips-I don’t think it really cuts the mustard. Animal and bread sacrifice is so much more visceral (and smelly-thank goodness for frankincense and other aromatics.) I’m certainly not in favor of returning to animal sacrifice, but I’m not so sure that what we’ve substituted is truly as meaningful and efficacious, with all due respect to the prophets.
I’m not sure what a meaningful sacrifice would be anymore. Words are cheap. Actions speak louder than words, and I suppose I can accept the idea that not doing something sinful the next time the situation arises is a meaningful act. But is it a sacrifice? Are words of prayer, heartfelt or not, a sacrifice? (Well, the way some people feel toward prayer these days, and in particular toward learning the Hebrew to pray without the influence of the subtle interpretations that result from translation, some might consider it a sacrifice. No comment.)
Since this is Shabbat Zakhor this year, here’s another thing that’s bugging me. why is G”d so upset with Saul for not killing all the animals of the Amalekites. (It’s bad enough he killed all of the Amelikate people, but it’s for not killing All the Amalekite’s animals, and keeping the best of them as spoils of war, that Saul is taken to taks by Samuel (and G”d.) Putting aside the fact that G”d just commanded the death of innocent civilians along with warriors (and believe me, it’s not that easy to put it aside) why would G”d want to see all these animals wasted? Yes, Saul and his troops did not follow G”ds instructions to the letter. Since when is it a crime to argue with G”d? Is that not something that Abraham (and others after him) did? Ah, but there are more levels here, are there not? The heart of the issue might be that Saul states that they did proscribe all the Amelikte animals except for the best of them, which they brought back to sacrifice to G”d. So I guess we have a sort of Nadav and Avihu situation here. G”d said kill all the animals, G”d didn’t ask for an extra sacrifice. So Saul screwed up.
Samuel says to Saul:
“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the Lord’s command? Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice, compliance than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, Defiance, like the iniquity of teraphim. Because you rejected the Lord’s command, He (sic) has rejected you as king.” (Samuel 15:22, JPS)
Really, G”d? That’s a pretty odd standard. Borderline hypocritical. Especially when your command is to commit genocide. Now, Saul did not fail to carry out G”d’s command for any altruistic cause, or because he thought it wrong to slaughter innocents – I’d feel a lot better if Saul had objected on humaitarian grounds. Is it entirely objectionable that Saul’s concern was (theoretically) to offer thanks to G”d? (The reality of what was in Saul’s mind may have been different – it may ultimately have been truly selfish.) The Saul wavers, and blames it on the troops, saying he did it for them, because he feared his own troops. Oh, please.
G’d was not always equally insistent for blind obedience from every King who reigned after Saul. A lot of them got away with quite a bit. I suppose on G”d’s time scale they paid for their disobedience, but from a human perspective, it’s a shaky proposition.
Another, thing that bigs me is, of course, that little additional reading from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 that we read on Shabbat Zakhor right before Purim. It’s that insane remember to not forget to forget commandment.
Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deut. 25:17-19, JPS)
[Shock alert for those who revere sacred text] If there was ever a candidate in the Torah for a “wtf?” this one is right up there. Actually, there’s no shortage of “wtf?” moments in Torah. This is just a particularly egregious example.
Loose ends. I’ve left a lot. Some of these meanderings start nowhere and end up nowhere, or are off in Yennensvelt. Why should what I write be any different than what we often encounter in our sacred texts? You don’t like loose ends, fell free to fritter away your Shabbat trying to make sense of it all. Me-I think I’ll try and spend Shabbat not thinking about things, and giving not just my body, but my brain, a rest. Yeah, right. As if that’s gonna happen…
©2016 (portions ©2007) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Vayikra 5775 – Meaningful Gifts II
Vayikra 5773 (Redux 5761) – Mambo #613: A Little Bit Of Alef In My Torah
Vayikra 5772 – Confession: Not Just for Catholics
Vayikra 5771 – I’d Like To Bring To Your Attention…
Vayikra 5770 – You Can Fool Most of the People Most of the Time
Vayikra 5768 – Redux 5763 – Kol Kheilev
Vayikra 5766 – Osymandias
Vayikra-Shabbat Zachor 5765-Chatati
Vayikra 5763 – Kol Cheilev
Vayikra 5759 & 5762-Salvation?
Vayikra 5760-Meaningful Gifts
Vayikra 5764 and 5761-Mambo #613: A Little Bit of Alef in My Torah…