This Shabbat we read the first portion from the book of Leviticus, burning through one offering after another, one sacrifice following yet another. “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘If a person sins unintentionally in any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done, and commits any of them’”. Much details is provided as to what needs to be done “ if the anointed priest sins”, and what should be done “if the whole congregation of Israel commits error and the matter escapes the notice of the assembly”, what happens when “a leader sins and unintentionally does any one of all the things which the Lord his God has commanded not to be done, and he becomes guilty”, and also what should happen “if anyone of the common people sins unintentionally in doing any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done, and becomes guilty”. Ample detail is also provided when the sin offering is “a bull without defect” or in the case where it is “a lamb as his offering for a sin offering, he shall bring it, a female without defect.”
Sacrificing animals is not an easy concept to swallow. Slaughtering of living creatures for the sole purpose of cleansing a sin of a human being makes us uneasy about this entire process when we think about it in current terms. We try to probably distance ourselves from the entire process. We at the Reform Movement certainly do not wish for these days to return to such yesteryear ceremonies. One may be led to think about them of an odd kind of a deal – it is possible to sin and there is a price tag for repenting. It is even possible to get a certain discount in some cases. For example, it is said, “if he cannot afford a lamb, then he shall bring to the Lord his guilt offering for that in which he has sinned, two turtledoves or two young pigeons”, and if that is too much then a further price reduction is possible, “if his means are insufficient for two turtledoves or two young pigeons, then for his offering for that which he has sinned, he shall bring the tenth of an ephah of fine flour for a sin offering; he shall not put oil on it or place incense on it”. The rich pay more and the poor pay less, but both may have the perception that there is a price for the sin that can be pre-calculated. It is clear, at the end of the process, “the priest shall make atonement for him in regard to his sin which he has committed, and he will be forgiven”.
From our prophets we have already learned that the Israelites took this concept of the offering of sacrifice in a very wrong direction. Time after time the prophets declare this system of sinning and sacrificing as immoral and not what God is seeking. Isaiah cries out loud, “‘What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?’ Says the Lord. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams And the fat of fed cattle; And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats.’” He continues to complain, “Your silver has become dross, Your drink diluted with water. Your rulers are rebels And companions of thieves; Everyone loves a bribe And chases after rewards. They do not defend the orphan, Nor does the widow’s plea come before them.” Isiah demands from the Sons of Israel, “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow.” He cries out, “Zion will be redeemed with justice And her repentant ones with righteousness.”
Sinning, making mistakes, erring, is simply human – as humans we will fail and cause failure, we shall do bad and generate anger. I would like to suggest that the idea of making animal sacrifices may be viewed not for the simple ability to cleanse from the sins but rather for an opportunity to admit that we are not perfect, not as good as we want to be, not as we would like to view ourselves when looking at our image in a mirror placed in front of us. That animal being sacrificed brought recognition of the bleeding truth of what people have done in those generations. Nowadays we are remote many generations from the times that such animal offerings were made. We flinch at the thought that this was possible then and that there are those who want this ceremony to return. But maybe this very feeling should teach us that we have the moral obligation to make sure that there will be no need to make such sacrifices in the first place.
Our prophets show us the way – the establishing of an exemplary society. A society where redemption through sacrifice of animals is not needed anymore. A society where the orphan and the widow feel as an integral part of society, and the strange and the stranger find refuge amongst us. We are certainly not there today, it may be good for many of use, but yet too many find themselves pushed to the side of the road, unable to pick up the pace of the rest of us when we move on with time. We can change this, we must be active and we have to influence. On this first day of the month of Nissan we can do something, little as it may be, to bring some change about the place where we live at. Making a donation for a cause of social justice can remind us of the animal sacrifice of yesteryear, reminding ourselves that the community we live in is still far from perfect. Together we can assist those of need to celebrate their festivals, Jews, Muslims, Christians and people of other faiths that roam the land. We should strive not to leave anyone behind. I call upon you to reach out again in the spirit of this season, to join fund raising by the congregation, and the Movement through its Keren BeKavod. It may be a small effort during this season of the year, but encouraged year round, a small sacrifice with an opportunity for a major change.
Shabbat Shalom and Khodesh Tov.
Reuven Marko, 16 March 2018, 1 Nissan, 5778