Parshat Vayikra –The Soul And The Sacrifice: From bullock to BMW

It is difficult for us today to connect to the idea of animal sacrifice. Rambam [Guide for the Perplexed 3:32] was no korbanot (sacrifices) aficionado himself, explaining that it was an accommodation to more primitive people who could only relate to their Maker by way of animal sacrifice; that the incense altar was simply a way of deodorizing the charnel house that was the outer section of the Tabernacle and later the Temple.

The very last things that were added to the Mishkan (Tabernacle) — after the mystical trio of the Ark, Showbread Table and Menorah, and after the construction and decoration of the inner and outer holies – were the sacrifice altars which were placed outside the holies; almost an afterthought, thereby supporting Rambam’s thesis.

And yet, from our daily prayer preambles to both Shaharit and Minha one would think that sacrifices were the very heart of Beit Hamikdash (Temple) ritual, with everything else running a distant second.

And no a question:

Why is it that when a korban olah (a whole burnt offering) is brought to the Temple it must be perfect, unblemished and gender-specific and yet, instead of taking this prime, perfect specimen and burning it whole it must first be hacked apart, eviscerated, dismembered and only then (with certain parts hauled out to a special dump) burned as a “fragrant offering to God”? Would it not make more sense to keep the offering absolutely perfect until the flames consume it in its entirety?

Rashi notices an anomaly: When the Torah speaks of the voluntary whole burnt offering (olah) of an animal it refers to the donor as Adam (“man”) [Leviticus 1:2]. Yet when the sacrifice is that of a vastly more modest meal offering (flour, oil, frankincense) the donor is referred to as Nefesh (“soul”) [Lev. 2:1].

Another important distinction between voluntary animal sacrifices and meal offerings is that, while the former are referred to as a “Sweet savour of the Lord (reiah nihoach la-Hashem) the seemingly miserly meal offering is described as no less than “a thing made most holy of the offerings of the Lord made by fire (kosdesh kodoshim m’ishei Hashem) [Lev. 2:3].

Rashi explains the Adam vs. Nefesh distinction as referring to the poverty of the Nefesh donor, as the poor person would bring meal offerings, and God loves the wretched. Now it is true that later in this parsha where it discusses mandatory sacrifices, actual distinctions are made between what is required of the wealthy and what is acceptable from the poor. Yet no such distinction is made here regarding voluntary offerings. On the contrary, despite what Rashi says, there appears to be a significant preference for both the humble meal offering and its donor with no reference to his socio-economic status.

To better understand what we are dealing with here – and in keeping with Rambam’s understanding of animal sacrifice – it helps to understand what these voluntary animal sacrifices meant to their donors.

The sacrifice of a prize, unblemished bullock was no minor thing. A bull back then was the mainstay of an agricultural enterprise. It was the bull that pulled the plow, threshed the wheat, and mounted the cows. To take the very best of these and bring it as a sacrifice was not an everyday occurrence.

If the Torah were to be given today, chances are that instead of sacrificing bullocks – which few of us have or need – we would perhaps be asked to sacrifice our cars, which are the closest thing in modern times to what cattle was way back when. One could imagine the Torah demanding those of us who wish to bring a voluntary offering to God to bring a perfect, unblemished, highly polished Mercedez Benz that would then, before our somewhat horrified eyes, be dismembered, with their outer panels hauled off to a trash heap, while the 450 horsepower engine would be stacked and melted down in a fiery furnace. Now this would be a site to behold – and most likely how one felt 3,000 years ago seeing a perfect young bull “flayed… cut into pieces… to be burnt as a sacrifice” [Lev. 1:6-9].

By contrast, the almost insignificant meal offering was treated far more gently, and was shared with the officiating Kohanim. And yet this was the “holy of holies” of volunteer offerings rather than the BMW of bullocks.

‘Adam’, the giver of the bullock is an ordinary, earthy and very earthbound mortal (the word Adam comes from adama, earth). Clearly he is prosperous, certainly prosperous enough to make a gift to God of his primo head of cattle. And, surely, such a gift was not made anonymously, but rather with great fanfare. One does not give God such a gift without getting a bit of kovod in return.Perhaps this is why God demands that the animal sacrifice be dismembered, eviscerated, its pieces stacked on the pyre. Seeing one’s Ferrari taken apart piece by piece and junked on a furnace might prompt a bit more humility in the donor, and make him realize that, at the end of the day – be it a prize bull or a prized sports car – it’s all ephemeral. And we all end up pretty much the same, our lives terminated, our parts consumed.

The meal offering, however, is brought by a ‘Nefesh’, a soul which, unlike ‘Adam’, is eternal. The bearer of this gift is not coming with a brass band, a hundred relatives in tow, and accompanied all his cronies from the country club. He comes alone for the sole purpose of connecting to the Almighty in private humility. His gift is truly a “holy of holies,” one fit for priestly consumption.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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