Thursday, 28 Mar 2024

Written by Tim Motz LBC rabbinical student

Perched in a hill valley in northwestern Iraq sits the Yazidi temple complex at Lalish, to which I backpacked a few years ago. Yazidism is one of the worlds’ oldest religions, apparently emerging from Ancient Near Eastern traditions comparable to Judaism and Islam – with monotheistic beliefs and a version of the Adam and Eve story – and possibly pre-dating both. Lalish is Yazidism’s holiest site, containing tombs sheltering Yazidi saints. The tombs are topped by highly distinctive grooved cones: the base of each cone represents the sun, thirty vertical grooves represent the lunar month, and two spheres atop represent the sun and moon once more. Two snake motifs mark the intricately carved stone door to the tombs, next to which I found a priest sitting on carpets folded up on the ground, all wizened beard and black turban – ready to take my entrance fee. Inside the tomb, colourful fabrics left by worshippers draped the walls like drying towels, while nearby hundreds of metal pots had once held oil for a sacred flame.

Lalish is a beautiful and tranquil place, sheltered by a narrow tree-filled valley, with streams running all around and even passing through the tombs. With few return transport options, I was moderately stranded, and quickly invited for chai by locals visiting the temple. As always in Kurdistan, scalding cups of syrupy tea emerged from a hidden room while I sat outside and made friendly but halting conversation. Local Yazidis have a great fondness for Lalish, coming to spend long hot summer days there, so that within time I was befriended by two brothers my own age, guided around the tombs for a second time, and eventually invited for lunch at the shrine.

Earlier in the day, I had seen a timid-looking goat led into the temple complex, by a string around its neck. Now that it was lunchtime, ten men shared a roasted carcass of blubbery mutton. The severe priest had the honour of eating the sheep’s scrawny head. There was bread, coke, salads; I chatted to my hosts in broken English interjected with my few words of Sorani Kurdish. And so, without even realising it at the time, I took part in a sacrificial feast. A live animal had entered the temple, and, a few hours later we were enjoying a barbeque.

This memory often comes to my mind when I read about sacrifices, as we do in this week’s portion, Tzav. Its language is terse, formulaic, and full of technicalities; when reading Torah at this time of the year I sometimes miss the gripping narratives of Genesis. But this week’s reading is also a part of our inheritance, and it’s important to me to find the same richness within it.

Contained in Tzav are rules regarding the different kinds of offerings that were made at the Temple. What I shared in at Lalish would probably have corresponded to a peace-offering, or zevach shelamim. These sacrifices were made voluntarily, whether to express gratefulness for acts of Gd’s goodness or simply out of joy. The sacrificed animal was shared out: the blood was sprinkled on that altar as an offering to Gd; a portion went to the presiding priest; and the remainder was enjoyed by the person making the sacrifice, shared with their family and friends, along with bread, which was also a compulsory part of the offering.

The impulse behind this procedure feels deeply familiar to me. When I have something to celebrate, my joy is elevated if I share it with my family and community. Sharing it also with Gd presents an opportunity to make a celebratory meal into a holy one. This is perhaps why people choose to sponsor kiddush; it is the same sharing of sacred food that I experienced at Lalish.

A range of our human needs were met by the sacrifices set out in Tzav. If, while the Temple stood, I had committed a sin unintentionally, I would have made a sin-offering, or chatat. Such an offering was not shared with friends or family: I would have given my offering over to the priests, who alone would eat it. Making this sacrifice would not have undone my sin – that would have been a problem for me to resolve. But, when we sin, we release uncertainty and chaos more into the world; when I hurt others, I feel guilty, and I doubt myself. Making a sin-offering would have been a visceral way to express my sorrow and atone. Once my offering was accepted, I would have known, without doubt, that I was reconciled with Gd. What a gift  for our ancestors to have known that they could access the Divine in such a reliable way.

In our world without the Temple, I hope that reading Tzav can, first of all, remind us of the human experience of making sacrifices. These were not just a choreographed ritual: they were a chance for expressions of joy, coming together of friends, a means of emotional transformation. Like the Yazidi making offerings a few hundred miles away at Lalish, the Israelites’ sacrifices in Jerusalem allowed them to share of their produce, create community, and commune with Gd.

I ask myself what could possibly take the place of Temple sacrifices today. The Talmud (Taanit 2a) suggests prayer. For me, personally, this works quite well: I love prayer, and I find it inspiring to hope that I might one day raise my prayer-life to the spiritual heights that the Temple sacrifices enabled.

But prayer needn’t be our only substitute for sacrifice. Tzav points towards the broad range of rewards we could reap from the offering of sacrifices: closeness to Gd, the expression of joy, the expiation of sorrow – as well as a hearty meal and with loved ones, enjoyed under a canopy of holiness.

Even without a Temple, Judaism and Jewish community offer a path towards all of these. We cannot make sacrifices at Lalish or Jerusalem, but we can still access some of the same rewards.


Tim Motz, LBC rabbinical student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.