This week’s parshah primarily deals with the different categories of sacrifices, who is to offer them up, and the laws surrounding each of these sacrifices. Rabbi Gunther Plaut, in an article entitled “Steak and Sacrifices” discusses the meaning of sacrifices in ancient times and how our thought processes have evolved since then. He explains that being civilized, modern people, we are likely to shudder at the idea of slicing up animals to express our devotion to God. Of course, we see nothing wrong with a good steak for dinner, unless perhaps the cardiologist advises against it. But we leave the killing of animals to others and are not inclined to improve our children’s education or our own by visiting a slaughterhouse. Whole chapters in the Torah, however, are devoted to animal sacrifices; the portion of Tzav consists of little else. What are we to make of the instructions elaborating how the animal is to be slaughtered, who may eat of it, what disposition shall be made of the fat, and who shall keep the skin? What about the rule that the elders of the community will expiate an unwitting error made by the people through laying their hands on a bull and slaughtering it? The whole notion that the merciful Creator demands the killing of innocent creatures as a sign of human obeisance seems at first glance to be an obvious contradiction. Yet, Plaut explains, it would do well to look a little further. First, he explains, one should consider the times and circumstances to which this legislation addressed itself. The Israelites in the Promised Land were almost all farmers, and therefore had a special relationship to their animals and often would know them by name. They were not accustomed to a daily diet of meat, and in that respect were no different from the vast masses of humanity then or now. Animals were domesticated for sale or for their milk or wool they produced. They represented capital that one did not eat up lightly. Consuming meat was reserved for special occasions. Chief among these were visits to the nearest shrine, and later, to the central sanctuary in Jerusalem. These pilgrimages were acts of festive celebration, expressed as thanksgiving or expiation for sins committed, and marked major events in life. The pilgrim would take an animal along and slaughter it in the holy precincts. As an act of worship, sacrifice had two important side effects. For one, it served to lessen the guilt a farmer felt (and feels) when he killed a creature he had known from it’s birth. This guilt was attenuated when the killing was done to honor God and when the meal was shared with others. In balancing the desire to eat meat and the moral problem of killing animals, sacrificial ritual was an extension of the wider dietary laws. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook, chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, once wrote that all the laws of kashrut are devised to remind us constantly that we are eating the flesh of one-living creatures. For that reason, for instance, we do not consume the blood from an animal, which in biblical tradition is considered “life itself.” Another side effect of bringing the offering in a holy environment was the deep impression the ritual was sure to make. This was not just killing for the sake of pleasurable feasting; it was done for God’s sake. One came closer to God through voluntary giving of one’s possessions, through sacrificing something. (The word “sacrifice” combines the Latin facere, “to make or render,” and sacer, “holy.” It is a translation of the Hebrew korban, “bringing close” to God.) And rabbi Plaut asks the following question: And what has become of us today? We buy “it” at the butcher’s or in the store, probably already cellophane-wrapped. Small children have no real inkling of where the meat came from. Any connection to the living creature is totally absent. These animals are thought to have been “harvested” in some mysterious way, which even adults would rather not know about. In contrast, our biblical ancestors never reduced animals to the status of “things.” Yet we tend to feel smugly superior to those ancient times. We do so with little reason.”
What do released prisoners, recovering patients, seafarers and caravan travelers all have in common? These people have all been in perilous situations, their very lives endangered, and having come through safely, they are required to express their gratitude to Hashem by bringing a thanksgiving sacrifice to the Temple in Jerusalem. The procedure for the thanksgiving offering, the korban todah, is described in this week’s portion.
The Midrash provides us with a rather surprising bit of information about the thanksgiving offering. In the End of Days, when the Presence of the Creator will fill the world with holiness and people will live in eternal bliss and serenity, all sacrifices will be discontinued – except for the thanksgiving sacrifice. This immediately leads us to ask: How can this be? If, as the prophets repeatedly assure us, people will be safe and secure, protected from all physical harm and danger, from sickness and imprisonment, how will it be possible for a thanksgiving sacrifice to be brought? The conditions that necessitate such an offering will simply not exist!
Rabbi Naftali Reich explains: ‘ We are endlessly beholden to Hashem for all the good He does for us, and as a result, we should be endlessly grateful. Unfortunately, however, we live in a benighted world of illusions and delusions, and we often fail to recognize the innumerable gifts and bounty that flow to us from Hashem’s generous hand. And even when we pay lip service to it, how deeply do we actually feel it? How real is it to us? The only things we face with stark reality are life-threatening situations. In the face of danger, our affectations and pretensions quickly dissipate, and we realize how dependent we are on our Creator for our safety. As the old adage goes, “There are no atheists in a foxhole.” It is only when we are ultimately delivered from danger that we are capable of expressing genuine gratitude.
In the End of Days, however, the Presence of the Creator will illuminate the entire world and dispel all the foolish delusions which so becloud our vision and befuddle our minds. Then we will see Hashem’s hand with perfect clarity, and our acknowledgments of His guidance and benevolence will carry the ring of true conviction. At that point, we will no longer have to face life-threatening situation to inspire genuine gratitude in our hearts. We will thank Him endlessly for every minute detail of our lives and bring thanksgiving sacrifices to give expression to the transcendent feelings of gratitude that will permeate our souls…
In our own lives, we all too often take for granted all the blessings we enjoy, and we forget to express our gratitude to our Creator, the Source of all this bounty. Indeed, when we experience hardship, we are inclined to confront Hashem, saying, Oh, why do we deserve this? But when we experience good fortune, are we as inclined to thank Him? Common courtesy, of course, requires that we acknowledge Hashem’s bounty, but if we offer words of gratitude to Hashem in all situations, we will also discover a deeper dimension to our appreciation and enjoyment of the blessings of life.’
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim