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Israel-Gaza War 5784: Vayikra – How We Connect to G-d Matters

The last few portions of the book of Exodus dealt with constructing the mishkan. They dictate where the children of Israel could encounter Hashem. The next book, Leviticus, describes the how of encountering Hashem. Leviticus’ first portion, Vayikra, opens with the word Vayikra, “And He called…” Whereas previously Hashem just spoke to Moses (vaydaber Adonai el Mosheh lemor is repeated dozens of times in the Torah), He now calls to him before speaking instruction—something done only one other time, at Sinai—and speaks to him inside the mishkan. “And he called to Moses and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying…” (Leviticus 1:1) A call is more than everyday speech. It is a summons to pay attention. What is about to be said, and where it is being said, are important.

And then the Torah goes into long, detailed descriptions of how to slaughter, skin, dissect, and roast animals on an open fire, along with sprinkling or pouring their blood in various places. Was this really what Hashem felt was so important and holy that He called to Moses from their shared sacred space? Animal sacrifice?

Modern humans cannot relate to animal sacrifice as a way to connect with G-d. Moreover, it seems primitive, even barbaric. But it is an improvement over what went before. Human sacrifice dates back at least 5,000 years as a way to appease the gods and thus avert disaster. There is archaeological evidence of it in Turkey in 3000 BCE. It was performed in Ur, home to the patriarch Abraham, in 2500 BCE.

When Hashem tested Abraham by commanding him to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice, it must have seemed like a normal request from a deity. And the substitution of a ram for Isaac was the first recorded instance of replacing human sacrifice with animal sacrifice.

Hashem made plain that human sacrifice was not pleasing to Him. Instead of appeasement, He wanted humans to feel reverently connected to Him, to express gratitude, and to atone for both mistaken and deliberate infractions that interfered with that pure connection.

So, why didn’t the Torah simply legislate prayer, used both today and in ancient times—King David’s psalms are beautiful examples—to meet these needs?

Tzvi Freeman of Chabad provides an answer while addressing a different question: why didn’t the Torah outlaw slavery? After all, one of the most dramatic events in the Torah is G-d’s liberation of the Jews from slavery.

Freeman points out that the Torah both describes an ideal society and deals with the world as it is. While pointing the way to the former by legislating compassionate treatment of slaves, the Torah does not attempt to upend the entire social and economic order by ending slavery outright. Doing so would have led to chaos, bloodshed, and a return to slavery. (Indeed, Jeremiah chastised the Israelites for returning slaves to servitude after King Zedekiah ordered them freed.) Instead, the Torah strives to inculcate compassion and kindness, which, when practiced and internalized, will eventually lead people to evolve and end practices such as slavery.

So, too, with sacrifices. In a world where it was the accepted order of things to worship with sacrifices, abolition would not have worked. Instead, animal sacrifice was instituted as a substitute. (Child sacrifice is forbidden in a later Torah portion.)

Animal sacrifice was not a violent free-for-all. It was highly regulated. The olah sacrifice was burned in its entirety on the altar; neither priest nor offeror ate or derived benefit from it. In a society where domestic animals were wealth, giving up one’s best specimen was a real sacrifice, showing devotion to Hashem. (People were allowed to bring what they could afford, from a bull to doves to meal offerings, but the sacrifice had to be of stellar quality.)

In contrast, part of the sacrifice of peace/wholeness (zevach sh’lamim) was eaten by the priests along with the offeror and his family and friends in a joyful communal gathering. And sin and guilt sacrifices, meant to bring atonement for mistaken infractions, were burned outside the camp after part had been offered on the altar. People were not to purchase forgiveness from the priest, nor get a reward of food after sinning. Sacrifices also could serve as a purifying mechanism when people came into contact with another person who was ritually impure, or with an impure animal carcass.

The mechanics of animal slaughter were also regulated. The animal’s throat was slit in such a way that unconsciousness was immediate, minimizing suffering, a practice known as shechita and continued in kosher slaughter today. The blood was not eaten but drained from the animal and dashed on the altar or on the curtain veiling the inner Sanctuary. Blood, because its life force belonged to Hashem, was symbolically returned to Him. The fat and other parts of the animal considered choice were not eaten but offered to Hashem.

Not only did animal sacrifice foster reverence and connection. It was also a way to redirect the human impulse for violence.

The Torah recognizes this impulse. From Cain who murdered his brother to Noah’s fellow humans, so evil that G-d decided to destroy them and start over, it has been evident. After the flood, G-d gave humans permission to eat animal flesh in recognition of the man’s violent impulses.

The newly freed slaves from Egypt had no stable foundation, no spiritual discipline. They knew only the impulse to power, exercised over them brutally with the lash. When Moses disappeared for forty days on Sinai, they turned into a rowdy mob. They needed ways to channel aggression into holiness by sacrificing wealth, sharing food, and doing this in a sanctified space and manner. The impulse to violence, as well as the necessity to eat to survive, both primal instincts, were sublimated into life-affirming practices and connection to the Source of holiness.

Human sacrifice took a long time to die out. The ancient Romans outlawed it in 97 BCE. The Kingdom of Korea did so in 502 CE. Britain waited until 893 CE; Iceland, 1000 CE. It was not outlawed in Nepal until 1780. Even as late as the 21st century, there have been isolated instances of human sacrifice.

The Shoah in the 20th century had elements reminiscent of ancient sacrificial systems, with humans burned in furnaces. But there was an element of religious purification as well, however twisted. The Nazis believed that they were ridding humanity of contaminating elements by slaughtering Jews, homosexuals, and others considered defective. They also believed that mercy and kindness were weaknesses, that to become fully human was to not only acknowledge the impulse to exert power that afflicts all human beings, but to allow it free rein in the ultimate exercises of power: dominating, hurting, and killing other humans. They elevated slaughter to praiseworthy religious acts.

And then came October 7th. It seems undeniable that there was a distorted religious impulse behind the mass slaughter. One killer called his parents in Gaza, exclaiming excitedly, “Look how many I killed with my own hands! Your son killed Jews!” And his father responded, “May Allah protect you.” His mother said, “May Allah bless you.” The murderer claimed that he was under the protection of Allah. His siblings also got on the phone. The sacrifice was shared, vicariously, with the family. Like the Nazis, they regarded killing Jews as religious and praiseworthy.

In other respects, the slaughter of the 7th resembled what we read in Torah—but in a twisted mirror image. Piles of human beings were burnt to the point where nothing but ash was left, reminiscent of the olah—except the olah was slaughtered first, and some on October 7th were burnt alive. There seems no rational reason to have done so. It was as if a primitive impulse was at work. In a video filmed by the killers, one sees someone attempting to decapitate a Thai worker with a hoe. (Note: the link is not to the video, which has been removed from X, but to an article describing it.) This was not the quick, painless slaughter of shechita. And while sacrificial animals were only cut up after they were killed, victims on October 7th had body parts chopped off while they were still alive.

And so taking a life, even an animal life, must have guard rails around it, lest we become beasts ourselves. The killers of October 7th breached every boundary and did it while yelling Allahu akbar, “G-d is great.” In a frenzy, they offered human sacrifices to their conception of G-d. A more distorted perversion of holy connection to the divine is hard to imagine. The Torah’s boundaries around animal sacrifice sanctified life by channeling the impulse to violence and elevating it through sacrificing and sharing one’s wealth. The October 7th murderers desecrated life and elevated killing, offering it as a gift to their Lord. Instead of holiness, debauched evil reigned. Human sacrifice returned with a vengeance on October 7th.

The impulse to connect to One infinitely greater than we are is also innate to humans. But how we do it matters greatly. Do we acknowledge that greater power and serve it with reverence? Do we transform our baser instincts into something holy? Or do we give free rein to them, attempting to become gods ourselves, with the power of life and death over others?

About the Author
I was born in Washington, DC, and raised in the suburbs, but now reside in the temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest. I am a retired editor and proud Zionist. I can be found at https://kosherkitty.wordpress.com/about/ and @KosherKitty1.
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