Commanded Sacrifice

TZAV (LEVITICUS 6:1 - 8:36)
24 MARCH 2018 / 8 NISSAN 5778

Parsha Summary

God tells Moses to describe the rituals for some of the offerings to the priests; the priests then undergo the process of ordination.   

The very idea of Gremlins scared me too much, and it was years after it came out that I first saw The Search for Spock, but by the end of 1984 my friends and I were pretty much all dancing to Footloose. I was nine-years-old, I lived on a farm in rural Missouri, and over that summer I decided I would no longer eat meat. I was not a picky eater; my reasons were entirely philosophical and spiritual. You see, an only child on twenty-acres, a whippoorwill sang me to sleep. A turtle taught me about the rocks in the dry creek bed. The chickens gossipped with me when I collected eggs - each with her own voice and personality. Deep in a field of black-eyed Susans I sat three or four feet from a nursing foal and his mama. Belly to mud, tadpoles became frogs before my eyes. I’d spent my young life watching and listening to animals, and I realized that summer that I could not continue to eat them.

Ten years later, I came across the words of Mica Yosef Berdichevsky. “All things pray . . . and all things exhale their souls. Creation itself is but a sweetness and a longing, a sort of prayer to the Almighty.”  

My father had long since left, my parents had sold the farm, mom and I had moved into Saint Louis, and now I was living in a college dorm. I remember looking out the window after reading those words, missing the closeness with the world that I’d had in childhood, and thinking, “All things pray. Of course they do.”   

Tzav - command - in this week’s parsha the Israelites are commanded in the ritual of the burnt offering, meal offering, sin offering, guilt offering, and thanksgiving offering. A few of these are made with vegetation, but most are made with sacrificed animals, and animal sacrifice is necessary for ordination. There are instructions about what parts of these animals may be eaten by the priests and what is forbidden to them and everyone. No one may consume blood.

It wasn’t always this way.

And God said: "Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit -- to you it shall be for food." (Gen.1:29)

Rashi (1040-1105) explains, “God did not permit Adam and his wife to kill a creature and to eat its flesh. Only every green herb shall they all eat together.”

Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167), Maimonides (1135-1214), Nachmanides (1194-1270), Rabbi Joseph Albo (died in 1444), Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), Moses Cassuto (1883-1951), Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997) and other rabbis and commentators have all agreed with Rashi’s analysis. In his commentary From Adam to Noah (p. 58) , Cassuto wrote, “You are permitted to use the animals and employ them for work, . . . utilize their services for your subsistence, but must not hold their life cheap nor slaughter them for food.” (Quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit (Genesis) (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization (3rd Edition), 1976), p. 77.)  

Nachmanides explored why. He taught that animals possess a “moving soul and a certain spiritual superiority . . . [that] they have the power of affecting their welfare and their food and they flee from pain and death.” (Nachmanides, commentary on Genesis 1:29.) Rabbi Joseph Albo was concerned that "In the killing of animals there is cruelty, rage, and the accustoming of oneself to the bad habit of shedding innocent blood." (Joseph Albo, Sefer ha-Ikkarim, Vol. III., Chapter 15.)

Why, then, would eating meat or animal sacrifice have ever been permitted?

In 1983, I didn’t know any other children or families who didn’t eat meat. I avoided it - I would happily spend quiet hours in fishing boat with my grandpa, never once holding a pole, but I didn’t know meat was something I could give up altogether. In the summer of 1984 at camp I discovered some of the adults didn’t eat meat at all. I learned the word “vegetarian,” and I remember thinking, “that is exactly what I am.”

During the time of Tzav, in the days of Moses, it was common practice among the surrounding nations, and certainly in Egypt, to worship through animal sacrifice. Maimonides thought that God did not command the Israelites to give up all of the kinds of worship practiced by the surrounding cultures because "to obey such a commandment would have been contrary to the nature” of humanity. God understood that we are habitual creatures, so God allowed Jews to make sacrifices, but removed all elements of idolatry.

Rabbi J. H. Hertz, the late chief rabbi of England, insisted that if Moses had not instituted sacrifices, his mission would have failed and Judaism would have disappeared. But then, with the destruction of the Temple, prayer and just action took the place of sacrifice.

While some are certain that in the Messianic Era a place will be designated for animal sacrifice, and that eating kosher meat is an essential part of Jewish life, other Jewish scholars such as Rabbi Kook have believed that animal sacrifices will not be reinstated, even with the reestablishment of the Temple, but that offerings will be made of vegetation and the Messianic diet will be vegetarian.

I side with those who believe animal sacrifices have never been the primary concern of God.

As Hosea reported, “What I want is mercy, not sacrifice.” (Hos. 6:6) Or Isaiah, "I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs or of he-goats . . . when you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; when you make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. (Isa. 1:11-16) Amos, too, “though you offer me burnt-offerings and your meal offerings, I will not accept them neither will I regard the peace-offerings of your fat beasts. . . . But let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. (Amos 5:21-4)

In Proverbs we learn that, “Deeds of compassion and kindness toward all creation are of greater significance to God than sacrifices.” (Prov. 21: 3).

Rabbi Moshe Halevi Steinberg points out even in the Temple, a kohen - priest - could be vegetarian except when his turn came to eat of the sacrifices during his roughly two-week period of duty. Then he could eat just an olive size portion and fulfill the mitzvah. According to the Hatani Sofer, he could eat even less since many kohanim could join together to eat the required amount, so the vegetarian kohen could eat even less. However, R. Steinberg adds, a kohen who became a vegetarian because his soul recoiled against eating meat would not have been allowed to serve in the sanctuary since if he had to force himself to swallow meat, it would not fulfill the halachic definition of eating.

Thirty-four years ago, I could not have referenced Jewish sources. I also had no idea that in the next three decades of my life I’d use about 55,000 pounds less CO2 than I would have had I eaten the nearly 7,000 animals most Americans ate in that time. Meanwhile, I am very aware that although I don't eat meat, I do eat eggs and dairy. With both compassion for animals and concern for our planet, in our home the eggs come from a local farm. I'm not vegan. Living life intentionally and mindfully requires negotiation and balance. We are each going to understand and find that balance in our own ways. What I could have said with certainty as a kid, though, is that all things pray. Turtles as their feet scrape across rocks, horses as they nuzzle their young, chickens as they gossip with one another, tadpoles as they propel themselves through water with tails they’ll soon exchange so they can hop out of it, whippoorwills as they sing lullabies.

All things. 

And deeds of compassion and kindness toward all creation are of greater significance to God than sacrifices.