Jewish Thought

Animal Sacrifices

04.01.18

Question

What is the meaning of animal sacrifices in Deuteronomy. Why reinstitute these instructions now, when the 3rd Temple is not yet built. It seems cruel and unnecessary in the modern age.

Answer

To the Questioner, 

The animal sacrifices are a mitzvah (commandment) in the G-d given Torah. Once we have established clearly that G-d exists and has created the world only to Give Good to all the created beings, we can be assured that the fulfillment of each and every mitzvah brings only good to the world - even if we don't understand how. Notwithstanding, please read the following that Rabbi Pinchas Winston has written in bringing this mitzva a bit closer to our understandings today:

"The concept of sacrificing life for a “higher cause” is an old one, and, quite a noble one — when the cause is real and the person being sacrificed has chosen such a “noble” end. If either the cause is fake or the person unwilling, then, it goes from being noble to tragic.

This is why many people today have difficulty with the idea of animal sacrifices — certainly now and even in the past. After all, didn’t anyone consult the animals first to see whether or not they agreed to their role in serving the “higher cause”? Or, such people don’t accept the “higher cause” as being real, and therefore, see the sacrifice as being wanton wastage of life.

(As an aside, I once heard a talk show on a related issue that asked the question: Would you sanction the sacrificing of animal life to create cures for human sicknesses? One woman said that, even if her own son were dying that still she would not allow an animal to be killed to the save the life of her child. She said she loved her child. Most other callers-in, however, vehemently disagreed, as did the broadcaster, who difficulty fathoming this mother’s logic.)

The second point is more difficult to deal within in the context of this parshah sheet, because, it begs for proof that Torah is true. Such a person is not grappling primarily with the concept of animal sacrifices, but, with the validity of Torah, and requires a more direct and intensive approach to the issue.

...A psalm by Dovid. G-d, our Master, how mighty is Your Name throughout the earth, Who places Your majesty on the heavens. (Tehillim [Psalms] 8:1-2) -

This is the beginning of this psalm, but, perhaps its most telling line is the posuk [verse]:

What is frail man that You should remember him, and the son of mortal man that You should be mindful of him? Yet, you have made him but slightly less than angels, and crowned him with soul and splendor. You give him dominion over Your handiwork, everything you placed under his feet. ([verses] 5-7)

What a difference between Dovid HaMelech’s attitude towards man’s place within the scheme of things, and, the prevailing Western one, which goes something like this:

“What? Man frail? Says who? Unimportant? G-d is lucky we even pay any attention to Him, if and when we do!”

Not that anyone actually says the words, but, it is implied in Western man’s attitude towards life and G-d. When we take life for granted, and everything life encompasses; when we make light of what is serious in life and fail to live with an air of humility, we basically say that we are more important than anything else.

We are like a son-in-law who holds an important position in the father-in-law’s firm, but only because of the father’s love for his daughter, and therefore, her husband. In all honesty, had the same person not married the boss’s daughter and had shown up for the job, he would barely have been hired for lower management, let alone anything higher.

Yet, after a short while of bossing subordinate around, sitting in a cushy executive office, and having access to the company credit card, the son-in-law begins to take himself too seriously. He begins to act as if he earned his position in his own merit, which is often the first sign that he did not, and, humility come confidence eventually erodes into blatant arrogance — and a confrontation with his boss father-in-law.

Or, in the case of mankind in general, a confrontation with our boss Father-in-Heaven.

Sheep and cattle, all of them, even the beasts of the field; the birds of the sky and the fish of the sea; for man even traverses the lanes of the sea. ([verse] 8)

Okay, they may not be “employees” and subordinates in the typical sense of the word, but, they do represent the phenomenal dominion G-d has given man over creation. They also represent vulnerability to man’s will and strengths, and therefore, our own potential to be abusive.

This was also one element of the sacrificing process that drove the point home to man how dear the life of creation and aspects of creation must be to us. If any one has ever seen a pet being put to “sleep,” or, an animal that was run over by a car and killed, then, they know how easily emotions are affected by the death of animals that seem to have an innocence about them. I feel great remorse when I accidentally hit a butterfly while driving on the highway.

Animal sacrifices were a solemn event. They were commanded by G-d, and, like with any mitzvah we do, we carried them out with loyalty. The entire universe belongs to G-d, including the animals, and no one cares for them more than He does; they’re HIS creations.

It is no coincidence that their blood resembles our blood, and, that they possess many similar characteristics to humans. Seeing animals should invoke strong feelings of mercy, though not at the cost of our feelings for G-d, Torah, and fellow human beings.

We may have dominion over the world and all other living peoples, but not because we earned it, but because it was gifted to us. Sometimes we can realize this through mature, spiritual, and godly means. Other times, and, historically, it seems to be the vast majority of times, we have to be reminded of this through the destruction of others because of us.

Unbridled human pride can be an ugly thing. There are few things more noble, more godly than a humble person."

[From: https://torah.org/torah-portion/perceptions-5761-vayikra/]

It is true though what you write, that the reinstitution of the mitzvot involving the sacrifices does not take place until the rebuilding of the Third Temple; may it be speedily in our days.

With Blessings,
Rav Nachum

 


 

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