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What the Heck Can Ritual Sacrifice Teach Today?

Torah Talk on Terumah 5780

Asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham, “Make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them,” God commands in this week’s Torah portion of Trumah, and the sanctuary ordained is for the purpose of ritual animal sacrifice. Defunct in Jewish tradition for over 1900 years, since the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, just what the heck can ritual sacrifice teach us in the year 2020?

One of the central teachings of Judaism, one of our great and most influential revelations, is that God does not require human sacrifice of us. From the time of the binding of Isaac in Genesis through the creation of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness of Sinai that is the heart of our Torah portion of Trumah this week, Judaism repeatedly affirms that children are not bred to be sacrificed to an angry or vengeful God. Instead, sacrifice is ritualized to animals, and used to supplant the dangerous pagan tendency to sacrifice human beings.

Described in loving detail in this week’s sedrah, at the heart of Biblical Judaism is the altar for the sacrifice of small animals, cakes of grain, and incense, rather than humans. It is never to be used as other religions might have, for the real or surrogate sacrifice of even a single human being.

This may seem obvious, but I think for most of us today it is not. You see, the mizbei’ach in the Mishkan, the altar of sacrifice of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness was a means to an end. It served as a way for our Israelite ancestors to sublimate the human need for ritual and rite and gave them an understanding of the value of human life. Our High Priests, indeed all kohanim, were taught to be ohev shalom v’rodef shalom, lovers and pursuers of peace. They did not engage in punishing human beings, or even participate in warfare or policing or politics. They were trained solely in ritual.

To our post-modern eyes, the sacrifice of an animal can seem barbaric. But Biblically it was used to demonstrate that God loved and valued human life in this world, and did not desire its destruction. The mitzvot, the commandments, are ordained for the purpose of life—v’chai bahem, we are commanded, live by them, not die for them.

Human sacrifice was ubiquitous in the ancient world. One can make the case that Christianity was a way of reaffirming that ancient practice, ritualizing in a graphic and disturbing way a literal human sacrifice, the killing of God’s own son. That specific sacrifice became a way of asserting the primacy of the world-to-come over life in this world.

While giving full respect to Christianity and its sincerity of belief, Judaism has continued down a different path. We insist that the giving of human life is no metziah, no desirable end. While we mourn and remember our many martyrs, we celebrate their lives and their courage, not the brutal way they ended. For Jews, the true passion is for life, not death. The purpose of religious expression, of avodah, worship, is to reach towards that passion, to affirm God’s connection to us in a direct and holy way, during life.

In our tradition, prayer and tzedakah replaced ritual sacrifice. It is not blood that God seeks now, but our own passionate devotion: to holiness, to personal and professional morality, to social action, to the good that we can bring in this world.

Poet Ruth Brin writes about the process of sacrifice conducted by the High Priest then, and by us today:

The garments of the high priest were of such beauty,

The jewels so radiant, they dazzled the people.

Daily in the sanctuary he made sacrifices to the Lord,

Of the lamb and bull

The dove and the little cakes

To the shepherds and farmers

Who brought the sacrifices

These were the means of life.

Thus they proclaimed their willingness

To give life itself to their God.

In all ages, at all times,

People have traded value for value…

But for those who love God the only sufficient gift

Is the symbol of life.

Teach us, God, the spirit of sacrifice;

Will You accept as sufficient

Our prayers and our attempts to pray

As You once accepted the lambs and grain

Of our ancestors?

Will You accept our struggling efforts

To return love for hostility

And justice for partiality?

Will You find our study acceptable?

Teach us God the spirit of sacrifice:

How to devote out lives to our highest ideals.

In this week of Parshat Terumah, may our own religious direction, our prayers and actions and spirits, be nurtured by our connection with Jewish holiness and blessing. May we continually affirm life, as Judaism and our God require.

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