Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Vayikra: There Will Be Blood

At the conclusion of Exodus, we found the Israelites wandering through the Sinai with their newly-built Tabernacle. So far, it's been a tough ride out of Egypt, and the follies and tribulations of our desert ancestors are well documented in the annals of history. Having moved past the disaster of the Golden Calf, we begin the book of Leviticus - Vayikra - with the hope that things will get a little brighter.

Over the course of the next five chapters however, we learn that the beautiful Tabernacle was built to function as an altar to spill the blood of animals and sacrifice them to God. These sacrifices were instituted so the Israelites could atone for their sins. Not exactly a cheery portion this week.

It seems like Vayikra is obsessed with blood:
In fact, the word blood is mentioned at least 25 times in these five chapters. This Parsha raises some tough questions about ancient Judaism as well as the nature of God. Why is the Torah so concerned with spilling the blood of animals? Were the ancient Israelites a primitive, bloodthirsty people who cared nothing about living things? Why does God need blood to grant atonement?

Over the centuries, non-Jews have pointed to this Parsha to say that Judaism is not a religion based on morals and intellect, but on uneducated rituals. Indeed, it is very difficult -- if not impossible -- for our civilized, modern minds to understand the significance of animal sacrifices. Spirituality should be the key to reaching God, and the physical world should be bypassed completely to achieve salvation ... right?

Not for Jews. Holiness in Judaism means that the physical and spiritual join together; a bond between humankind and God. In the Torah, a place was consecrated as sacred only if something happened there between man on Earth and God in Heaven. We have to remember that we are human beings with human urges and human emotions, and we should not repress our humanness. The Torah understood this, at least in the most basic of ways, by emphasizing blood throughout this Parsha.

We simply cannot ignore the physical aspect of Jewish life and tradition. Despite the emotions and basic human needs that drive us and our behavior, it's blood that is running through our veins, and blood that keeps us alive and sustains us. When the Israelites saw the blood of the animals they were sacrificing, they were immediately reminded of their own mortality. These sacrifices were sin offerings, so instead of being punished with their own blood (except in cases of murder or other serious violations of the law), a person would sacrifice an animal to God. The twist comes in knowing that God does not need these sacrifices; they were more for the person who committed the sin to realize that they are still human.

We are not just body and not just soul, but a united being composed of both. Although Judaism has (thankfully) evolved beyond animal sacrifices, the physical human aspect of our religion is today just as important as the spiritual. We afflict our bodies on Yom Kippur, we can choose what to eat or not eat based on Jewish law, and we are commanded to pay attention to the body's needs. This Parsha reminds us that although it's not alright to sin before God, it's alright to be human. Lucky for us, we don't know how to be anything else.

Become a Fan on Facebook.
Save to

No comments: