When Moses first encounters the Pharaoh on behalf of the Israelite slaves, he delivers God’s iconic message to the Pharaoh: ‘’Let my people go that they may celebrate to Me in the wilderness… Let us go, pray, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God’’. In another encounter with the Pharaoh Moses even demands from him sacrificial animals for this purpose, but the Pharaoh did not sanction the furlough.
When the Israelites leave Egypt on their Exodus they depart with their numerous livestock. They do not, however, make any sacrifices, as Moses told the Pharaoh, not even after their miraculous crossing of the Red Sea that was quite reminiscent of the alighting off Noah’s Ark; Noah marked it with making homage sacrifices for God. And similarly, no animals were slain on the altar that Moses built in the aftermath of the Israelites’ military victory over Amalek a few weeks into the Exodus.
As we read in this weekly Torah portion, Jethro, the Midianite pagan priest — for whom the Rabbis dedicated the title of this iconic portion — brought his daughter Zipporah, Moses’ wife, and their two sons to Mt. Sinai some seven weeks after the Exodus for a family reunification. Though certainly a joyous event, it is rather Jethro who proceeds on to sacrifice burnt and feast offerings in gratitude to God for extricating Israel from Egypt.
Nonetheless, Moses does not avail himself to any of the charcoaled meat of Jethro’s feast offerings, nor do Aaron his brother and the Israelite elders who joined together to welcome Jethro; the Hebrews sufficed with merely breaking bread with Jethro.
The first time when Moses does offer animal sacrifices ‘’to the Lord’’ happens as he begins to ascend Mt. Sinai en route to receive the two tablets of God’s laws. Forty days later when Moses descends from the Mountain with the Tablets to deliver them to the people, a colossal disaster breaks loose when the people reneged on the prospective covenant by worshipping a golden calf that Aaron carved out for them at their behest.
In response Moses shattered to smithereens God’s carved and inscribed Tablets to prevent the covenant from becoming effective and render his people culpable of idolatry. Moses’ altar and sacrifices evidently yielded no positive or propitious outcome.
When God will summon Moses anew to the Sinai Mountaintop to attain a replacement set in lieu of the broken one, he builds no altar like he did before, neither on his way up, nor forty days later on Yom Kippur when he descended the Mountain. That might imply that Moses realized that celebrating the covenant of the Ten Words – Aseret HaDvarim — with animal offerings like he did before, did not lead to a happy end, but rather to a dismal outcome. To be sure, there is nothing in the Decalogue that might even allude to a slaughter-site and to the offering of animals.
Only after God pronounced the Decalogue from the peak of the Mt. Sinai did God address the role of a made-of-soil altar that is to be made for animal offerings in every place that God will ‘’cause My name to be recalled’’. Would God, however, do so any time soon?
Amos replies with a rhetorical question: “Did you bring sacrifices… to Me for forty years in the Wilderness, O house of Israel?” A question that Jeremiah answers: “For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.”