After four and a half parshas dealing with the building of the Tabernacle we now carry on to chapter after chapter dealing with the sacrifices to be offered in it. Indeed the Rabbinical name for the whole of Vayikra (Leviticus) is the ‘Torah of the Priests’. From this book, especially, we receive a vision of a society aiming for an ideal of holiness and closeness to God, with that ideal both being symbolised and actualised by sacrifice in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple.
It is interesting that the concept of sacrifice is not defined: this ancient practice of human worship is taken for granted. Common in the surrounding cultures, it is understandable that at this time in our Jewish history sacrifice cannot be abolished altogether. Maimonides (12th century codifier and commentator) writes that in the same way that God decides that the Israelites need 40 years in the wilderness to wean them from their slave mentality, so they also need the ‘kind of practices to which they were accustomed’ (Guide of the Perplexed:3:32) in order to wean them from any form of idolatry. A sort of half-way house but organised in a brand new way. All magic and incantation gone and anything unholy rigorously proscribed. Repentance and restitution of the wrong done must take place before the sacrifice. Each sacrifice inextricably linked to acknowledgement of the One God and to the denial of pagan practice.
Maimonides reasons that the animals used in pagan practice are to be strictly avoided and sacrifice to be restricted ‘in order to efface the traces of these incorrect opinions we have been ordered by the Law to offer in sacrifices only these three species of quadrupeds’ (Guide of the Perplexed:3:46) which are ‘of the cattle, even of the herd or of the flock’ (Vayikra:1:2). And why these particular animals? Maimonides says offering a domestic animal from an individual’s herd truly represents a sacrifice. As opposed to those animals that cost nothing - wild animals, stolen animals and animals that have killed a human being.
A similar state of play where food stuffs are concerned. Maimonides reasons that because ‘the idolaters offered only leavened bread…..and seasoned their sacrifices with honey….and no salt was to be found in any of their offerings’ (Guide of the Perplexed:3:46) therefore the new sacrifices forbade offering “any leaven or any honey” (Vayikra:2:11) and commanded that salt always be offered: “With all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt” (Vayikra:2:13)
I would like to suggest that although some of the sacrificial specifics are really gruesome and hard to read, huge eternal truths emerge from setting out the details so meticulously. There is a sense of both a physical and spiritual purity that we may be looking for today in these extraordinary times. Certainly, without animal sacrifice and without a shul to pray in!
Wishing everyone well and hoping everyone is taking as much care as possible.