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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayikra: Why offerings?


Today there are many organizations whose sole purpose is to safeguard and protect animals from abuse and cruelty. A person can elevate the world to a higher level by utilizing it to serve G'd. It is beyond our comprehension to understand the purpose of each part of creation. The Torah gives us very clear prohibitions regarding cruelty against animals. Humans were created by G'd to be the guardians of all of creation and to use every part of it responsibly. G'd commanded us to slaughter the sheep, the cow and the goat in order to prove that the powers represented by these three animals have no ability to do anything on their own. In His great mercy, G'd accepts the soul of the animal offerings in lieu of the sinner's soul. The common denominator for all offerings is that they bring those making the offerings closer to G'd. Praying to G'd every day is our opportunity during the exile to achieve closeness to G'd.

Prevent abuse and cruelty of animals

In the beginning of this week's Torah portion, G'd calls upon Moses and instructs him to teach the Jewish people about the offerings to be brought on the altar. In our modern-day society it may be difficult for us to understand the purpose of slaughtering an animal and burning its remains on the altar. This is due to the influence of the many organizations whose sole purpose is to safeguard and protect animals from abuse and cruelty. Some people take it even further and refuse to eat any food or wear any clothing derived from animals, believing that one life should not be killed to sustain or benefit another.

Elevating the world

The Midrash Rabbah (Koheles 7:13) teaches that all of G'd's creation was created for the benefit of man. The Kabbalists point out that this does not only refer to the lower beings but even includes spiritual beings such as angels who are dependent on humans and were created to assist them in this world (see Nefesh Hachaim 1:10). Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto (Path of the Just Chapter 1) explains that when a person utilizes the world around him to achieve his purpose and serve G'd, he elevates the whole world around him to a higher level.

Beyond comprehension

The world is made up of minerals, plants, animals and human beings. G'd not only created everything but constantly keeps every part of the world "alive". As it says (Nehemiah 9:6): "You are G'd You made the Heavens and all their legions, the earth and everything upon it, the seas and everything in them and You keep them all alive." Even minerals consist of atoms and molecules that are constantly moving. The plants have the ability to grow and in many instances produce fruits. Animals have a more advanced existence, and function in many ways similar to humans. However, minerals, plants and animals were all created to serve humans and to assist us in achieving our purpose in life (see Talmud Kidushin 82a). It is beyond our comprehension to understand the purpose of each part of creation. We can only join King David as he expresses in amazement (Tehillim 104:24) "How abundant are Your works HASHEM, You made them all with wisdom. The earth is full of Your possessions."

Animal cruelty prohibited

The Torah commands us to be sensitive to the pain of animals (see Talmud Bava Metzia 32b) and gives us very clear prohibitions regarding cruelty against animals. We are prohibited from taking the mother bird away from her chicks (Devarim 22:6-7). Similarly, we are prohibited from slaughtering an animal and its offspring on the same day (Vayikra 22:28). The Ibn Ezra explains that even the prohibition of letting an ox and a donkey plow together (Devarim 22:10) is because the donkey does not have the same strength as the ox. The Daas Zekeinim suggested that it will disturb the donkey to hear the ox's constant chewing of its cud. All this is to refine and educate us to be sensitive even to the feelings of animals. The Talmud (ibid 85a) relates how Rabbi Judah the Prince addressed a calf that sought refuse by him from being slaughtered. He said, "Go back for this is what you were created for." The great sage was punished for although his statement regarding the purpose of the calf was correct his somewhat indifferent attitude was not. The Torah wants to elevate us even higher to the extent that we should feel sensitive to every part of existence. Thus the Torah (ibid 20:19) even prohibits cutting down fruit-bearing trees to teach us not to waste what can be brought to good use.

Humans are the guardians

The rationale behind many of the societies and organizations who aim to protect animals stems from the theory of evolution. They regard humans as a well-developed animal and therefore feel that humans have no right to kill any lower animals. From the Torah we know that this is not the case. As the Rambam points out in his introduction to Pirkei Avot (Chapter 1) that although animals may have many characteristics that are similar to humans, that is where the similarity ends. Just like the plants were created as plants, the animals as animals, so were Adam and Eve created as human beings. The Torah describes the creation of the first man, as it says (Bereishis 2:7) "And HASHEM G'd formed the man of dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life; and man became a living thing." Humans are not obligated to be sensitive and respect the animals and every other part of creation because we evolved from them but because G'd created us to be the guardians of all of creation and to use every part of it responsibly.

Sheep, goats and cows

The halachic authorities explain that although the Torah educates us not to be cruel to any animal we are nevertheless permitted to utilize animals for our benefit, including their slaughter for human consumption and as offerings (see Terumas Hadeshen 2:15 and Noda Beyehudah Yoreh Deah 2:10). However, why did G'd command us to bring offerings? Shortly, we will be celebrating the exodus from Egypt. In Egypt the Jewish people had been exposed to idol worship and many of them participated in the heathen rituals of the Egyptians. The Rambam explains (Moreh Nevuchim [Guide to the Perplexed] 3:32 and 46) that G'd wanted to negate the idol worshippers and their services. The Egyptians worshipped the sheep as idols (as it represents the symbol of the sheep in the zodiac). That is why the Egyptians would not allow the sheep to be slaughtered. As Moses said to Pharaoh (Shemos 8:22): "It is not proper to do so, for we will offer the deity of Egypt to HASHEM our G'd." Similarly, the inhabitants of Kasdim (Chaldea) worshipped the goat representing the goat-headed demons. The Rambam continues that even nowadays the inhabitants of India worship the cow (that represents the symbol of the ox in the zodiac) as being holy. Even today the Hindus would never allow a cow to be slaughtered. Concludes the Rambam, the Jewish people had been involved in these various forms of idol worship and G'd commanded us to slaughter these animals and bring them as offerings to teach that the powers represented by these three animals have no ability to do anything on their own and that everything is in the hands of G'd. This lesson was brought home to the Jewish people even prior to the actual exodus when they were instructed to slaughter the Egyptian idol, the sheep, as a Pesach offering.

A soul for a soul

The Ramban (Vayikra 1:9) says that this cannot be the ultimate purpose in bringing offerings. Right from the beginning of mankind we find offerings being brought. The Torah relates (Bereishis 4:3-4) how Cain brought an offering from the fruit of the ground to G'd and that Abel also brought from the first born of his flock. Later after the Flood we are told how Noah brought an offering to G'd. It says (ibid 8:20) "And Noah built an altar to G'd and he took from all the pure animals and all the pure birds and brought a burnt offering on the altar." The Ramban quotes Ibn Ezra who explains that humans function on three levels: thought, speech and action. G'd commanded that when someone transgressed a sin and brings an offering to achieve atonement, he shall put his hands on the animals corresponding to the improper action of his hands, he shall say confession corresponding to the improper words spoken, and the internal organs of the animal offering, corresponding to the organs where thought and cravings originated, shall be consumed by the fire of the altar. He shall further sprinkle the blood of the animal on the altar to remind him that he really deserves that his own blood should have been spilt as a punishment for transgressing the word of G'd. In His great mercy, G'd accepts the soul of the animal offerings in lieu of the sinner's soul. (We find a similar idea at the Akeidah where Abraham brought a ram as an offering instead of his beloved son Isaac.) In addition, some offerings have parts given to the Kohanim to provide them with sustenance so that they can pray for the person who sinned.

Closer to G'd

The Ramban continues to explain that there are deeper Kabbalistic reasons for every offering. This is why only the four-letter name of G'd is used in the Torah in connection with the offerings rather than the other names of G'd such as "Elokim". Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh elaborates on this idea and explains that G'd's name Elokim represents punishment and justice whereas the four-letter name represents the mercy of G'd. In allowing sinners to bring offerings, G'd is not looking to spill the blood of a substitute for a human being. Rather, G'd's in His love for the person enables him, by internalizing the message of the offering, to get close to G'd. The root for the Hebrew word for offering "korban", says Rabbi Hirsh, means to approach and come near, to achieve a closer relationship with someone. Not all offerings were brought as a result of sins or transgressions. We find thanksgiving offerings and communal offerings during both weekdays and holidays. The common denominator for all offerings is that they bring those making the offerings closer to G'd and elevate them to a higher sphere of life. The offering is not a sacrifice where one has to forfeit or lose something, or merely a requirement to offer something to a higher authority. Rather it is a unique opportunity for the one's bringing the offerings to enter into a closer relationship with G'd, as the Prophet Isaiah says (58:2 ): "They were looking for a closeness to G'd." And this is what King David expresses (Tehillim 73:28) "Being close to G'd is for my good."

Praying to G'd

The Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 1:2) says that the world exists on three pillars: (1) Torah learning; (2) service of G'd in the Temple, and (3) acts of lovingkindness. Since the destruction of the Temple we have not been able to serve G'd by bringing offerings. Our sages explain (see Rabbeinu Yonah ibid), that as a replacement we pray to G'd every day. This is our opportunity during the exile to achieve some of the closeness to G'd that was achieved through the offerings at the time of the Temple. Whenever we pray we ask that the time will come when G'd again will allow us to serve Him in the Temple in Jerusalem, where we will again have the opportunity to get close to our All-Merciful G'd at the highest level.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel