March 2018, Parshat Vayikra

Dear friends,

Recently I’ve been listening to my favourite history podcast called Hardcore History by Dan Carlin. The particular show is called Blueprint for Armageddon and is an epic 30 hours or so of the most captivating, enlightening, and highly troubling course on the so-called Great War. WW1 is mind-boggling on many levels but one of the recurring motifs of the first part of the war was the fact that the participants had no idea what the war was going to be like.

On the whole, recruitment for WW1 was quite easy for all the armies minus the Russians. Even in Australia the enthusiasm to voluntarily enlist for war is something that is very difficult for us moderns to get our heads around. To make sense of it at all we need to remember that once upon a time, i.e. before wars were taken over by machines, war was romantically seen by many as an adventure to escape their dreary lives and be given an opportunity to perform acts of extreme heroism.

The French were particularly famous for their fearlessness and standing up against the odds. The problem in this particular war was that they were using the same mindset of courage and valour not to rise and charge against other humans with bayonets in hand but actually against a barrage of explosive steel shelling. The image of a French soldier attempting a bayonet surge in a volley of German machine gun fire with the inevitable carnage leaves one with an indelible sense of trauma.

The question we want answered is why they would be willing to throw their lives away for ostensibly nothing in return. It was absolutely futile and they knew it. How then could they be willing to sacrifice themselves for apparently no objective whatsoever? And sacrifice they did. They did not find a tree to hide behind but rather in their flashy uniforms with white gloves and caps (no helmets of course) red pants and blue tails, they presented themselves as shooting targets for their German enemies.

The answer they would have given is that there is a higher ideal of courage that is worth laying down their lives for. For us, we struggle to makes sense of that idea. We rightly view this kind of thinking as primitive. Would anyone not deranged seriously be willing to have their child torn apart by bullets simply to prove his courage?!

Now imagine that an alternative explanation was offered. The French have a god and this deity just loves blood, gore, and guts. They were merely fulfilling the needs of their god who enjoys the aroma of burnt flesh. If we thought the courage rationale was flawed, this logic is downright scary. How can one’s idea of god include a picture of a bloodthirsty monster?
And yet, when we read this week’s Parsha we come across this very idea. There are many different sacrifices but the burnt offering is the one particularly disturbing. The burnt offering as its name suggests is not eaten but is consumed by fire at the altar. Its fragrance, we are told, is an absolute delight to God who therefore insists on us being diligent to remember to bring up this daily sacrifice of one-year-old sheep at the right time in the morning and the afternoon.

How can God command us to waste something for no gain to anyone other than His thirst for blood which needs to be sprinkled seven times across the altar? But it’s not only wasteful, it’s a living being! Even if we accept that slaughtering the Kosher way is the least painful way of putting an animal to death, surely the legitimacy of causing death to the animal rests fundamentally on the life it gives us humans. Killing exclusively for the enjoyment one derives from the killing just seems so savage.

When I was younger the only way I was able to deal with reading this Parsha and many others in the Torah which talk of sacrifices, was by tuning out. I concentrated on the words being pronounced perfectly and the notes sung flawlessly in tune, but deep down there was a nag that wanted to understand, a nag that I tried to suppress.

As we all now know, suppressing feelings inevitably leads to the feelings surfacing elsewhere and always twisted. This is the basis of all modern psychology.

But it’s not only bad for our psychological and spiritual well-being. According to the Rambam – arguably the greatest Jew ever second only to Moshe – not seeking to understand, or worse claiming that God is not bound by reason, is the greatest form of sacrilege. How then can one feel comfortable attributing to God senseless actions?

According to the Rambam, it is the people who think that God is irrational who are the special cases. Of course he lived before our modern sensitivities and calls these people ‘wise in their own eyes, diseased in their souls’.

How then does the Rambam explain sacrifices? The explanation he gives is contextual. It’s not that God is bloodthirsty but rather the human imagination of 3500 years ago is so primitive that to guide it on the way to spiritual enlightenment God must deal with the spiritual state in which humans found themselves in. That consciousness viewed human sacrifice as perfectly sensible, causing pain and suffering to animals as a godly pastime, and worshipping gods of stone and wood natural as can be. To such a humanity, God can only hope to outlaw the most savage elements and highly restrict the lesser ones.

It is perhaps for this reason that there is now a long tradition which reads this Parsha and its sacrifices as metaphorical. The second verse in this week’s Parsha, Parshat Vayikra, states ‘a person when he brings a sacrifice from yourselves’ which sounds like ‘I threw my mother out the window a key’. The seminal work of Kabbalah, the Zohar, comments on this by saying that the sacrifice has to come from within each and every one of you. There are some beasts in us which require total eradication, whilst others merely curbing and restraining. Some sacrifices are there to teach us that by-standing when evil is being perpetuated places guilt on us collectively, whilst others are there to teach us individual responsibility. Most importantly, sacrifice is there to teach us the moral of community building. We must subdue our egos for the good of the community and we must give generously in support of its institutions.

As some of you are aware, I recently came back from a week spent in Broken Hill. There is so much I can write that I, together with everyone involved, found inspiring. Whether it was the memorialising the characters of the community, crying at the cemetery filled with children, singing in Shule with the best acoustics, the local kitchen staff members we employed who simply glowed in every which way by the experience of culture and community they were made to feel part of, and the effect our trip had on the local volunteers who have dedicated so much time, money, and energy, to ensuring the Shule is rededicated and the memory of the community it once served never forgotten.

At the heart of all this inspiration though is the sacrifice the members of the community made. Firstly to ensure a thriving Jewish community with religious infrastructure as well as the sacrifices made to contribute to the wellbeing of the wider community such as the hospital and the welfare of the worst-off in their societies, the miners. It is a matter of record that certain Jewish businesses went broke after giving credit to miners who couldn’t repay.

Such sacrifice is the most sublime and deeply moving. It is why I believe we were motivated to go back and hold a service with a Torah for the first time in 60 odd years. Because we understand that the Torah was their inspiration for the sacrifices and contributions to building such an exemplary community where the worst-off are cared for and religious intolerance practically unheard of. A community where Muslims, Jews, and all others lived happily and respectfully side by side.

The aroma of such sacrifice is God’s greatest delight, no doubt.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur