J.J Gross

Vayikra –The Soul And The Sacrifice: A bullock back then, a BMW today

It is difficult for us today to connect to the idea of animal sacrifice. Rambam [Moreh Nevokhim/Guide for the Perplexed 3:32] manifests his distaste for no korbanot (sacrifices) himself, explaining that it was an accommodation to a more primitive society which could only relate to their Maker by way of animal sacrifice. He explained that the incense altar (mizbeah haketoret) was simply a way of deodorizing the slaughter house that was the outer section of the Mishkan and later the Beit Hamikdash.

The very last things that were added to the Mishkan— after the mystical trio of the Aron, Shulhan Lehem Hapanim and Menorah, and after the construction and decoration of the inner and outer holies – was the sacrifice altar (:mizbeah) which was 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 korbanot were the very heart of Beit Hamikdash ritual, with everything else running a distant second.

And now a question:

Why is it that when a whole burnt offering (korban olah ) is brought to the Beit Hamikdash 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” (reiah nihoah leHashem)? Would it not make more sense to keep the offering absolutely perfect until the flames consume it in its entirety?

Rashi takes note of an obvious anomaly: When the Torah speaks of the voluntary whole burnt offering (olah) of an animal it refers to the donor as Adam (“man”) [Vayikra 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”) [Vayikra. 2:1].

Another important distinction between voluntary animal sacrifices and meal offerings is that, while the former are referred to as a “Sweet savor of the Lord (reiah nihoch 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) [Vayikra. 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, with regard to voluntary offerings 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 respective donors.

The sacrifice of a prize, unblemished bullock was no minor thing. Back then, a bull was the mainstay of an agricultural enterprise. It was the bull that pulled the plow, threshed the wheat, and impregnated the cows. To take the very best of these and bring it as a sacrifice was hardly 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 Hummer or BMW that would then, before our somewhat horrified eyes, be dismembered, with their outer panels hauled off to a trash heap, while the 450 horsepower engines 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].

And he shall skin the burnt offering, and cut it into its [prescribed] sections. ווְהִפְשִׁ֖יט אֶת־הָֽעֹלָ֑ה וְנִתַּ֥ח אֹתָ֖הּ לִנְתָחֶֽיהָ:7And the descendants of Aaron the kohen shall place fire on the altar, and arrange wood on the fire. זוְ֠נָֽתְנ֠וּ בְּנֵ֨י אַֽהֲרֹ֧ן הַכֹּהֵ֛ן אֵ֖שׁ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֑חַ וְעָֽרְכ֥וּ עֵצִ֖ים עַל־הָאֵֽשׁ:8And Aaron’s descendants, the kohanim, shall then arrange the pieces, the head and the fat, on top of the wood which is on the fire that is on the altar. חוְעָֽרְכ֗וּ בְּנֵ֤י אַֽהֲרֹן֙ הַכֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים אֵ֚ת הַנְּתָחִ֔ים אֶת־הָרֹ֖אשׁ וְאֶת־הַפָּ֑דֶר עַל־הָֽעֵצִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עַל־הָאֵ֔שׁ אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ:9And its innards and its legs, he shall wash with water. Then, the kohen shall cause to [go up in] smoke all [of the animal] on the altar, as a burnt offering, a fire offering, [with] a pleasing fragrance to the Lord. טוְקִרְבּ֥וֹ וּכְרָעָ֖יו יִרְחַ֣ץ בַּמָּ֑יִם וְהִקְטִ֨יר הַכֹּהֵ֤ן אֶת־הַכֹּל֙ הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חָה עֹלָ֛ה אִשֵּׁ֥ה רֵֽיחַ־נִיח֖וֹחַ לַֽיהֹוָֽה:

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. 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.

To see one’s Lamborghini 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.

By contrast, the meal offering 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 yacht 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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