This week's Parsha presents a lengthy, detailed description of animal offerings in the Holy Temple – burning of limbs, sprinkling of blood, flaying of flesh. Modern man may at first find this notion pagan and primitive. It sure sounds quite different from the warm spirituality we imagine our ancestors practicing!
The question becomes increasingly difficult as one considers Judaism's position on care and concern toward animals. Besides the general Biblical prohibition against causing pain to animals ("Tzar Baalei Chaim"), there is also a whole list of separate mitzvot designed for the protection of animals, including: to unload a donkey whose load is too heavy, to give your animal a day off of work on Shabbat, not to muzzle an animal when working in the field (i.e. don't prevent it from eating what it sees), and many, many others.
So why animal offerings? Let's address some basic misconceptions.
Misconception #1: Isn't it cruel to kill an animal?
Why should this bother us? We eat hamburgers and wear leather shoes. We throw footballs and eat Kentucky Fried Chicken (you can even get it kosher in Jerusalem).
So if using animals is justified for physical benefit, then all the more so for spiritual benefit!
(For the record, all offerings had a practical, physical benefit as well. The vast majority were eaten by human beings – e.g. the Passover offering was roasted and eaten at every Seder table! Even with the "all burned offering," the animal's leather was used by the Kohanim.)
Misconception #2: These offerings are a "sacrifice."
The Hebrew word korbon, which the Torah uses to describe animal offerings, is not a sacrifice (as in, giving something up), and it is not an offering (as in, bringing a gift to the gods). Rather, korbon means "to come near." These help a person get closer to God.
In the Temple, we take the animal parts and elevate them onto the altar of God. This is a personal declaration of intent to elevate our material resources to a higher level – to direct it toward the service of God.
For Whose Benefit?
Which leads us to:
Misconception #3: We think, "What kind of god needs offerings from us? Is this some kind of bribe so he won't be angry with us?"
We have to differentiate between Greek mythology and Judaism. The pagan sacrifices were to appease finite gods who had control over a limited aspect of existence. Every god needed something else and the humans could avoid the wrath of the gods by giving them what they needed.
Jewish offerings are not for God. He doesn't need them. God is All Powerful and has everything already. Rather, the offerings are for us. They teach us to take the physical – the body – and sanctify it.
One of the 613 mitzvot is that the Kohen Gadol must keep the Ephod (breastplate) constantly attached. Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch points out that in idolatry, the ceremonial breastplate was typically tied onto the idol. The philosophy was to control the idol and "get it on your side." But in Judaism, the Kohen Gadol ties the breastplate to himself – because it is ourselves that we want to control.
Every human being is comprised of two components – the physical body and the spiritual soul. Each part wants to be nourished and sustained, yet each achieves this in very different ways. The body seeks comfort and immediate gratification: food, sleep, power, wealth. The soul seeks longer-lasting, eternal pleasures: meaning, love, good deeds, connection to God.
The mitzvot of the Torah are designed to guide us toward "soul pleasures." However, when the body exerts dominance, the consequence is a transgression of these mitzvot.
The way to repair that mistake is to bring an offering. The transgressor steps forward and declares: "I have made a mistake and regret the damage it caused my soul. My animal side got the best of me. I don't want to repeat that mistake again. I hereby pledge to slaughter animalism as the dominant force in my life."
Why the Blood and Guts?
When a person sees the animal slaughtered before his eyes, he thinks, "Really I deserve this, but God is merciful and sparing." That's a powerful spiritual experience. Blood is real. It shakes a person. You see the heaviness of life.
Kirk Douglas, the legendary film star, was involved in a serious helicopter crash in 1991. The pilot and co-pilot were killed, but Kirk got out alive.
The event shook him as much spiritually as it did physically. Lying in the hospital bed, he asked himself over and over again: Why was I the one who survived?
Kirk eventually answered his question thusly: I survived because there is something important I have yet to accomplish in this world, a crucial contribution to make. Up until now I have been playing games. Now I see that life is more serious.
Kirk embarked on a program of regular Torah study and began to re-institute the Jewish traditions he'd remembered from his youth. And he began a search for ways to utilize his material wealth to impact the world. It was a transformation back to himself – despite the peer pressure of secular Hollywood fighting against him.
Today, he's more committed than ever. He recently took on the responsibility of building a multi-media theater across from the Western Wall – in order to give tourists an authentic, inspiring Jewish experience. Kirk is driven to make up for lost time.
Just as in the Temple ... the scene of blood, the proximity to death ... thinking "this could have been me." It changes one's life forever.
Will the Parsha inspire us to change, too?
Rabbi Shraga Simmons