Leviticus 22:26 – 23:22
The passage selected for reading this year from Parashat Emor contains information on animal sacrifice. This past Pesach was the first on which fundamentalists have actually slaughtered a sheep in the main square of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, though they have in the past been made to perform this antique ritual outside the city wall.
Do any rational Jews living in the world of the twenty first century really want to see ‘activist’ priests, gowned in long white robes blowing silver trumpets and sprinkling blood over the sacrificial altar? All the equipment is available – and perhaps borrowed – from the Temple Institute, which its publicity says
‘is dedicated to every aspect of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and the central role it fulfilled and will once again fulfil, in the spiritual wellbeing of both Israel and the all the nations of the world’.
Thankfully (particularly in view of the ‘spiritual’ bit) this is not part of the mind-set of Progressive Jews, for whom Judaism is a far richer way of life than the wholesale destruction of animals. It is a religion of caring for those around us, our family, friends and neighbours – ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ as the Book of Leviticus itself tells us. It is a lifestyle of ‘tikkun olam’, of attempting to right some of the wrongs we see all around us and thereby usher in the Messianic Age. It is being protective of our planet, so that its God-given beauties will still be there for our descendants to enjoy and it is being kind and careful of the animal world. It is about teaching our children how to be good Jews and not repeat the devastation caused by the two World Wars of the twentieth century, because if we don’t learn from our mistakes we are doomed to repeat them. Killing animals in the hope of pleasing God seems unlikely to succeed; pleasing God by using ourselves in the service of the Eternal’s Creation is more likely to be successful. To put it another way: offering our compassionate actions, our kindness and willingness to serve others is not always easy, but it does help to bring us closer to God.
There is one verse in the middle of the descriptions of Shabbat and Festivals with their myriad sacrifices that is quite different to the rest, but it forms the link between sacrifice and compassionate action. It’s verse 23 in chapter 22 that says that when you reap your fields you should leave the corners of the field to be gleaned by the poor – like Ruth, when she came back to Judah from Moab with Naomi and met Boaz. The link there seems to me to be about recompense for God’s goodness to us by helping the poor of our communities, which can be summarized by the word tzedakah (which means both justice and charity – it is only just to share the good things we have with those that don’t have them). It could also mean helping someone get to a hospital appointment, or inviting them for Seder or Friday evening. Or it could mean looking after the needs of a guest in your home or a casually met tourist. Or perhaps it means sacrificing an hour or two of your time to have a natter over a cup of tea with someone who is socially isolated. There are so many ways of acting with kindness and compassion in the world around us.
The midrash tells us that when Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Yehoshua, his student, once saw the ruins of the Temple, the younger man cried out, ‘The place where Israel gained atonement for sins is ruined!’, Rabbi Yochanan answered him by saying, ‘Do not be distressed. We have a way to make atonement that is just as good, and that is the practice of compassion.’ So we know that the destruction of the Temple could be seen as an opportunity even in the generation that could actually remember it in full working condition.
And we should remember that the Rabbis saw prayer, too, as efficacious as sacrifice. Think about this idea from Moses Maimonides: ‘sacrifice is not the primary objective of the commandments, prayer is a better means of approaching God’.
So there we have it: sacrifice is outdated and we must hope (and pray) that a Temple in which animal sacrifice is the order of the day will never come into being. Instead there are far more life-enhancing ways to live a better life: tzedakah is one – either in its classic sense of giving money to charity or in the sense of compassionate action. And the other is study of the texts of our people, our culture as Jews. The sort of study that is undertaken in the evening classes that are held at the Leo Baeck College – our Lehrhaus. Why don’t you come and join us either in person or online?
Student rabbi Roberta Harris