The bloody path of returning to G-d
Jewish children of five years old begin their Torah study with this book, otherwise known as the Torat Cohanim, the Torah for the Priests. How ghastly to start with something as horrific and bloodthirsty as animal sacrifices! Surely we should begin with the Creation, or the building of the Mishkan, something visual and hands on. But no, it begins with sacrifices. And don’t be put off by the alternative title as if it only is meant for the priests to read and do. We, the lay-people, are not untouched by these things either. As if to make this point Vayikra begins with a vav of continuation from Shemot (Exodus), we’ve just finished building the Mishkan and now straight to what was going to happen there: sacrifices.
How hard it is for us modern, liberal, western democratised Jews of the 21st century to visualise the Holy place, blood spattered and smelling, animal carcasses around the place, some being burned and the smoke and aroma ascending. Surely though, that is now our problem: we have a highly sanitised view of G-d, who He is and what He demands of us. Yet the opening verse here should quickly change our minds. The word kara is used (and a further 9 times in Vayikra alone) where normally amar would be used. It seems that with this emphatic verb G-d is saying ‘this is so important it needs to be proclaimed, called out, spoken loudly or declared to Israel’. It was the purpose of the Mishkan to not only be G-d’s dwelling place in the midst of us but to be the vehicle for maintaining the sacrifices: sacrifice made a way for G-d to dwell with us. This is the important link G-d wants to ‘shout from the rooftops’!
Why should this be so important? Again the answer is in the Hebrew text. From the Midrash Rabbah we have R. Abbahu noting that the word for offering (karban) has the root for ‘draw near’ (karav), the two are interlinked. The message of sacrifice is that to draw near to G-d, or approach Him, we have to come with a sacrifice. Sacrifice makes a way to approach Him who is otherwise unapproachable because of our sin. So what is sacrifice? Can we define it apart from the nuts and bolts of the actual act? Yes we can. Sacrifice is a price paid FOR something. In Vayikra 1:4 it says that the animal dies as an atonement on behalf of the one offering it. This can be seen as a transaction completed, a contract made that satisfies both parties to it, an exchange of acceptance or agreed values/status. Seen this way we see that G-d certainly does not need sacrifice as if He were some angry, tempestuous, capricious or bloodthirsty deity who needed appeasing. Far from it; this is a purchase and a statement of contractual standing, this satisfies justice and righteousness.
In fact we might say WE need it far more than He does, but then again we didn’t instigate sacrifice, He did… He always has put sacrifice in place for us, because we are not able to. We wouldn’t understand what is needed to satisfy the just and righteous standards of G-d. Sacrifice is also death, and here the exchange element is brought out strongly, the animal dies in your place. Understanding sacrifice in this way lifts Yeshua’s own statement that ‘no one comes to the Father except through me’ to a high level. Only by HIS sacrifice can we actually draw near to Father G-d. Only by that exchange, purchase is redemption possible. And we have forgotten just how bloody and costly Yeshua’s sacrifice was, the agony and visual, physical nightmare it must have been.
Sacrifice is not barbaric but integral to our faith and identity as Jews. Some would have us believe that this is now over, the Temple gone and that ‘pleasant, nice’ times are here to stay. Think again, the Temple will be rebuilt and the sacrifices will start again at some point with Mashiach in the Temple as High Priest overseeing it all.