Parshat Vayikra: Accepting God’s Commandments, Especially when we don’t Understand
Rabbi Reuven Spolter is the director of OTS Amiel BaKehilla
Many years ago, in a discussion about the Passover Seder with a rabbinic colleague who happened to be a vegetarian, he explained that instead of a shank bone he would place a piece of sweet potato on his Seder plate. When he noticed my puzzled look he explained, “Instead of a Paschal Lamb, we have a Paschal Yam.”
The vast majority of us will not hear the reading of Parashat Vayikra in shul this Shabbat. We will read the Torah reading in our homes, either alone, or with our close family members. I sometimes feel that the Torah reading in shul affords us the luxury of overlooking parts of the Torah we find challenging. If we listen and follow along in the Hebrew at the relatively quick pace of the Torah reading, we need not expend that much effort or energy on the content of the reading.
This week, in the confines of our own homes, we have the time and luxury to study the Torah reading in greater depth –forcing us to face an uncomfortable truth about Parashat Vayikra: It’s all about animal sacrifice. In fact, much of the entire book of Vayikra describes the service in the Mishkan and the various animal and grain sacrifices offered.
Many people choose to overlook this strong focus on animal sacrifice in Jewish tradition. Truthfully, modern Jews lack a religious framework in which to place the slaughter of animals and the spilling or sprinkling of their blood on an altar. Animal sacrifice seems crude, primitive – even pagan. Yet, the truth is quite the opposite. Animal sacrifice and its myriad of laws and details comprise a significant portion both of the written as well as the Oral Jewish traditions.
Maimonides, in his Guide to the Perplexed (Section III, Chapter 32), famously described the sacrifices as a Divine method of weaning humanity off of idolatry. If we accept this explanation, we can relegate the many sections of the Torah proscribing animal sacrifice to an interesting, but no longer relevant point in our distant history. In this way, we can absolve ourselves of the need to struggle with a future which includes animal sacrifice.
Ramban (see his commentary on Vayikra 1:9), forcefully rejects Rambam’s assertion. How can it be that the sum total of myriad sacrifices has no intrinsic value, but instead only served to prevent a more drastic type of sin? The Torah describes sacrifices as “a pleasing odor to God.” (Vayikra 1:13) Noah offered animal sacrifices before we have any record of idolatrous behavior. Ramban then offers an explanation for a logic behind sacrifices, but also concludes, “In truth, there is in the sacrifices a hidden secret.”
Personally, I find Rambam’s argument unconvincing. In fact, I’m not convinced that Rambam believed it himself. Rambam himself offers a different reason for sacrifices in the Mishnah Torah (see Laws of Trespass, Chapter 8), explaining the difference between a law (mishpat) which has an explicit reason – like the prohibition against theft, and a statute, (chok), whose underlying reasoning eludes us.
One ought to consider the laws of the Torah and to penetrate into their ultimate significance as much as he can. If, however, he cannot discover the reason and is ignorant of the basic cause of a law, he should not regard it with contempt…The statutes are precepts the reason of which is not known — such as the prohibition against pork and that against meat-milk mixture, the laws concerning the heifer with the broken neck, the red cow, or the goat that is sent away to the wilderness…and all of the sacrifices are in this category of statutes…
Much of religious life is replete with prayers for not only the building of the Beit Hamikdash, but for the return of the ritual sacrifices to the Temple. Every Shabbat during Mussaf we pray that,
May it be Your will, LORD our God and God of our ancestors, to lead us back in joy to our land and to plant us within our borders. There we will prepare for You our obligatory offerings: the regular daily offerings in their order, and the additional offerings according to their laws…
In less than two weeks, we will sit together with our families around the Seder table and recount the story of the Exodus and from Egypt. At the very end of the Maggid section in which we give thanks to God for redeeming the Jewish people from bondage, we also add an additional prayer:
So too, Lord our God, and God of our ancestors, bring us to other appointed times and holidays that will come to greet us in peace, joyful in the building of Your city and happy in Your worship; that we shall eat there from the offerings and from the Pesach sacrifices, the blood of which shall reach the wall of Your altar for favor, and we shall thank You with a new song upon our redemption and upon the restoration of our souls. Blessed are you, Lord, who redeemed Israel.
As the Coronavirus crisis forces us to turn inward and shelter in our homes, with only our immediate families for companionship, this world-wide plague also prompts us to reevaluate much of what we knew before. Great countries, even the entire world – are on the brink of collapse due an unseen force that cannot be seen or even detected until it is too late. As much as we believed that we had control over our lives and destinies, there will always be forces beyond our control which we must learn to contend with and accept.
Is this not the definition of a chok – a statute? The sacrifices in Vayikra remind us that in religious life we must submit to the will of God, even with regard to those commandments with which we struggle.
When my vegetarian rabbinic friend told me about his Pesach sweet potato, I asked him, “When the Temple is rebuilt and we offer the Korban Pesach in Jerusalem, what then will you have on your Seder plate? Will you still celebrate with the Paschal yam?”
He answered – without missing a beat: “When the Temple is rebuilt, I might not like it, but I will be a vegetarian except for one night of the year, in order to fulfill my religious requirement.”
We need not understand every commandment, but our submission to God’s commandments, both intellectually and physically, represents a powerful expression of our religious experience.