My Offspring for My Sins (Parashat Vayikra)

Posted on March 11, 2022

Rabbi Jordana Schuster Battis
Temple Shir Tikva, Wayland, MA
Kabbalat Shabbat • March 11, 2022 • 9 Adar II 5782

This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, the very beginning of the book of Leviticus, is notoriously difficult to make sense of from a modern point of view.

The topic is animal sacrifices:

sacrifices for saying thank you,
sacrifices for expressing atonement,
sacrifices for celebrations,
sacrifices just because you feel like it—

Who brings sacrifices,
What kind of sacrifices,
How to make the sacrifices,
Who gets to eat different parts of different sacrifices….

As I often say to B. Mitzvah students: I am very glad that in my professional Jewish leadership I get to serve as a rabbi and not as an ancient priest, whose main job was to get animals ready for a bloody public barbecue.

As my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi explains it, scholars of the ancient world suggest many possible explanations for why the practice of animal sacrifice endured in ancient Near Eastern societies:  perhaps our pre-Jewish ancestors thought that gods needed to be fed and appeased; perhaps they wanted to offering the gods something precious in return for the gifts of life and fertility; even, perhaps, ordained ritual sacrifices were a way of channeling people’s aggressive tendencies, so that they slaughtered animals for a socially constructive cause rather than being violent more randomly.[1]

And early Jewish societies kept up this practice, she says, “reject[ing] an older idea that God requires sustenance like human beings” but “nevertheless, [keeping up] the practice of offering sacrifices as a way of serving God,” “returning the best to God,” and drawing close to God, [2] as is suggested in the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban: literally, “a coming near.”

Despite common conceptions that sacrificed offerings were fully reduced to ash on the altar and were wasteful or dishonoring of the lives of animals, most sacrifices—the ones that expressed joy, celebration, and gratitude—were shared as a communal meals that “made scarce and costly meat available to many”[3] and that turned the act of slaughtering animals for food into a sacred ritual act toward a greater purpose.[4]

Much of this in ancient Israelite culture was similar to the practices of nearby groups. However, unlike many of those others, Israelite law was clear; Torah law was clear: human beings are not to be sacrificed. Human lives are not to be offered up as a way to appease God. Just as later in Jewish writing, the prophet Micah asks rhetorically:

Shall I come in front of God with burnt offerings…?
Should I give my first-born because of my wrongdoing?
My offspring for my sins? (Micah 6:6-8)

the answer throughout our ages has been: no. We are not meant to sacrifice our children for some hope of redemption that will not come through their blood.

 

We think we know all of this.  It seems obvious, doesn’t it, in our time, that the way to draw close to what is most holy and precious in our world is not through slaughter?

And yet, two wars have been raging in the last week that are haunting us: one abroad and one here at home. And both are sacrificing human beings for causes that go against every grain of what I hope that God desires.

The war abroad, of course, is the ongoing assault on Ukraine, with the last headline I saw this afternoon stating: “Russia Renews Ground Push With Indiscriminate Bombing.”[5] And while we all watch, holding our breath, to see what will happen to our cousin Mr. Zelensky and to allies we could not have imagined for ourselves not so long ago—we know, we feel so viscerally, the pain of awareness that: it is not for this that lives should be offered up, neither the lives of Ukrainians who are under siege, nor even the lives of Russian soldiers sent to fight for a cause that we thought was laid to rest with the fall of the Soviet Empire. May every excess dollar we spend at the gas pump now become a prayer now for peace. May we take our own grief and turn it to support of friends, families, and allies in need of comfort, supplies, and funds.  (As a side bar: with rising costs at the gas station and elsewhere—if you are needing to choose between spending on gas and any other basic needs, please let me or others on our professional staff team know. We have funds that can help.)

The second war, the war here in the US, is the extraordinary up-ramping of the attack on LGBTQ individuals and families, and particularly on the families of trans and nonbinary kids, across a terrifying multitude of states.  In the last four days alone, according to Freedom for All Americans, the bipartisan campaign to secure full nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people nationwide, Missouri, Kansas, Indiana, Wyoming, South Carolina, Arizona, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Utah, Kentucky, and New Hampshire have all begun considering bills that are harmful to trans folk.  Among the most horrifying moves of the last few weeks are the bill passed by the Idaho’s House that makes gender affirming care of trans and nonbinary youth a crime, the Texas governor’s efforts to have parents of trans and NB children investigated for child abuse, and the Florida Senate’s passing a bill disallowing schools to address sexual orientation and gender identity with children.  Should you think that it is only within the liberal Jewish community that we find such laws akin to war, akin to prohibited sacrifice, I share the words of Rabbi Akiva Weisinger, who tweeted on February 23:

For those wondering why I, an Orthodox Rabbi, am outraged by the Texas trans law, aren’t I supposed to stand up for Torah Values or whatever…:

I don’t like it when kids kill themselves.[6]

This is the moment to write letters, call legislators, pick up a phone and call a loved LGBTQ friend or family member in your life. Should you think you don’t know anyone trans or nonbinary—and I assure you, you do—reach out to any teen in your life and tell them that you support them and their friends. This is the time to remind ourselves of love.

 

We know: These are not the sacrifices called for by our God.  Instead, what is asked of us, the prophet Micah tells us:

God has told you, human, what is good,
And what the Holy One requires of you:
Only to do justice
And to love goodness,
And to walk humbly with your God.

Through postcard campaigns and care packages, tzedakah offerings and phone calls, prayers of our hearts and prayers while marching with our feet:  these are the offerings that are truly needed.  May we use them to return to joy, celebration, and gratitude, and to make each of our acts a sacred ritual toward a greater purpose.

 

[1] Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, “A Call to Approach God,” in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, 569.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 570.

[5] New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/, March 11, 2022, 4:30 pm.

[6] https://twitter.com/MisfitTorah/status/1496681251771756550