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The cheese sandwich vs. the salad

And He called to Moses, and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When a man from [among] you brings a sacrifice to the Lord; from animals, from cattle or from the flock you shall bring your sacrifice.” [Leviticus 1:1-2]

In 1899, six-year-old Merian Cooper was given a book about explorations in Africa. The little boy was fascinated by the stories of gorillas, particularly one called the “King of the African Forest.” More than 30 years later, Cooper, now a Hollywood filmmaker, drafted a tale about a fabled island ruled by a monster gorilla, “half man, half beast.” There, the natives bring a nubile girl every month as a sacrifice to the ravenous primate. It became the 1933 RKO blockbuster King Kong.

Throughout history, every nation, tribe or sect has brought sacrifices to what they regarded as a higher being. Many worshipped the sun, others man or even beast. The ancient Egyptians made the lamb their deity. The Chaldeans selected the goat. The motive was similar to that in Cooper’s story: The deity is essentially a monster who demands tribute to allow the mortals to go on with their lives.

Judaism has a different approach. The One Above is merciful and wants His creations around Him. Prayer, charity and justice are more than just service; they express love to G-d.

In our weekly Torah portion, Vayikra, the theme is animal sacrifices. The wealthy can bring cattle; the middle-income petitioners can offer a lamb; the lower class can get away with a dove. And the poor are just as welcome with a bowl of flour and oil. Some sins require offerings. In other cases, the offerings are meant to commemorate a holiday or simply to offer thanks.

In 1190, Moses Ben Maimon, known in Hebrew as the Rambam, wrote Guide to the Perplexed, an Arabic tract that was the talk of philosophers throughout the Middle Ages. One issue the Rambam sought to clarify was the concept of sacrifice. Does G-d need the very animals He created? Why are sacrifices burned on the altar? How do sacrifices atone for the sins of man?

One thing is clear: G-d does not need sacrifices. In Vayikra, there is no specific commandment to bring a sacrifice, rather the Torah cites the rules of those who do. Centuries later, the prophet Isaiah reminded an errant and cynical people that slaughtering animals in the Temple can be repulsive to the Almighty.

“To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me?” says the Lord. “I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs or of he-goats. [Isaiah 1:11]

When done properly, however, animal sacrifices in Judaism mark an appeal to G-d. As the Rambam, quoted by Moses Ben Nachman, writes, the Torah is fully aware that the animals brought to the Temple are often the same used in idolatry. But G-d wants those same offerings – goats, cows, sheep, incense or flour – to be used for divine service, whether atonement or simple love of the Almighty. The service marks the antidote to idolatry.

Because this is how evil beliefs are cured, which are harmful to the soul. For any pain and disease will not be cured except by their opposite. [Ramban on Leviticus 1:9]

At its core, the offerings brought to the Mishkan or Temple represent the revolt of a people against a world filled with idolatry. Everybody might sacrifice to a false deity; the Jews do not. Instead, the Children of Israel bring sacrifices only to G-d. Any other intention transforms that slaughtered animal into an unclean carcass rejected by the Almighty.

It certainly hasn’t made the Jews popular in history. Imagine this: Everybody in the fourth grade is told to bring a cheese sandwich for lunch. The teacher insists that cheese is nutritious and filling and now required for every student. The parents agree and send off their children with either American cheese, Swiss cheese, cheddar or simply cream cheese. And that’s what they eat.

All except one nine-year-old. He’s been given a cheese sandwich by mommy. But rather than join the class, he puts the sandwich at the edge of his desk and pulls out a container of salad. No, he tells his teacher, principal and fellow students, he won’t eat the sandwich.

By Day 3, everybody wants to kill him.

If that doesn’t explain antisemitism, nothing else will. The Midrash says that in the days before the first Passover the Israelites were commanded to take the lamb, the Egyptian god, bind it to a bed, and after three days, sacrifice the animal and wipe its blood on the doorstep. Every Egyptian wanted to kill the Jews: Their ritual marked a brutal denouncement of everything the Egyptians believed and lived for.

And that is what a Jew is all about. By following G-d’s law, he becomes the ultimate rebel. He’s not Amish, who live in a shell frozen by time. The Jew enjoys the fruits of the world yet dedicates them to the Almighty. In Persia some 2,500 years ago, the royal decree dictated that everybody bow down to Haman. Mordechai, the leader of the Jewish community, refused. Some of the onlookers were shocked; others were inspired; most seemed confused.

The sages say that in the Temple built by the Messiah sacrifices will be annulled. The sin-offerings will disappear because people will follow G-d. What will be left is the Shelamim, or peace offering, meant for anybody who wants to get close to his Maker.

Why is it called a peace offering? Shlomo Yitzhaki, who preceded both the Rambam and Ramban, says the sacrifice brings peace to the world because all parties – whether the Temple altar, priests and owners – maintain a share in the meat. Nobody goes hungry. And that’s probably the best definition of true peace – whereby everybody benefits.

And Aaron’s descendants shall cause it to [go up in] smoke on the altar, apart from the burnt offering, which is on top of the wood that is on the fire; [it is] a fire offering [with] a pleasing fragrance to the Lord. [Leviticus. 3:5]

About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.
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