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In Melbourne Shabbat begins Fri 22 Dec 2017 08:23 PM and ends Sat 23 Dec 2017 09:24 PM
כ"ו ניסן ה' אלפים תשע"ב
The main subject in the Torah reading for this week is animals, their treatment and their function in the sacrificial system and the selection and preparation of animals for human consumption.
There is a whole order of Mishnah called Kodashim, "Those which are sanctified." This includes all the Kosher Laws and discusses the qualities of animals which are to be eaten by humans and those to be offered in the Temple to God. These animals must have qualities to which human beings should aspire in that they are primarily passive. The rabbis in the Talmud attributed wholesome characteristics to the animals that could be "consumed" or ingested by humans or metaphorically and ceremonially to the Almighty. To ingest these animals or to offer them to God (which would ordinarily seem like a waste since God doesn't eat) was ordained by God and God, in effect, commissioned these animals to be elevated to the service of God by both consumption and by sacrifice.
In the case of human consumption, the animal was elevated through providing protein to humans which they should convert to deeds of goodness in their lifetime. In the case of sacrifice, the animal symbolically placed on the altar in our stead when we have either achieved a sense of completion that is associated with a life well lived or alternatively, we are burdened with evil thoughts or behaviour patterns. What was going up in smoke on the altar? Upon the completion of a great project or a significant achievement in our lives, we offer up the gift of our lives and turn a new page. When we carry the burden of guilt, or actual transgressions that can never truly be restored to the state in which they existed before we began our involvement, we can offer something of ourselves that can never be retrieved.
The metaphor of going up in smoke is meant to relieve us only if we want forgiveness and admit our mistake. It will never work without confession. The two goats on Yom Kippur are a good example of such a concept of transference. The one goat that is slaughtered on the altar in the Holy of Holies represents the side of each of us that led a life in the past year deserving of sending up to God with a tick, as an offering of completion. The other goat is led to a cliff and dropped to its death. This goat represents the part of us that is identical in appearance to the first goat but which is completely unredeemable. In real life, a person cannot be separated in such a way. Yom Kippur offers the opportunity to really drop those parts of ourselves off the side of a metaphorical cliff! This is one example of the idea that entities are given into the Service of God and that God allows His creatures to be used for human consumption and self elevation.
Animals, post slaughter must be checked in terms of their health to qualify for being consumed by a human or offered on the altar. The animal must be slaughtered in a painless way and must not have had fear or been hunted. The cow and the lamb are the quintessential pure and willing sacrifice. The Talmud sees these animals in an anthropomorphic way being willing to stand in our place, to offer themselves up to God in our place. We can add the goat as it appears alongside the lamb in the Pesach Seder in the famous song about the "one little goat." In Chad Gadya, the kid is associated with the Jewish People who have always been singular to God but who are at the bottom of the food chain in many situations. The law of the purely Red Cow which we encounter in the Maftir Portion read together with this portion in leap years (as last year). This is the most obscure ritual contained in the Bible. Its significance in having its ashes used in cleansing humans from a form of ritual impurity contracted through contact with the dead is difficult to explain. Here is a cow again, a very naïve kind of animal. There is no way of restoring a person back to the naive state before they saw and encountered the death of a relative or comrade. It is hard to believe that anything could wash away that image. This ritual somehow was there to recognize and solemnize the change in us and help raise us up out of our malaise. Through reading about these peculiar rituals, we need to understand that they convey a truism in our lives today, that the imposition of God's will in our life must be made concrete. Eating is so basic. Does God care what I eat and how I eat, whether at a table or in front of the TV? Does God see whether I put in a 100% effort into my relationships? I think He would like us to know that answer is yes. We call this dignity of life and of course we realize now as always that we have to know what is in our food. This whole book of Leviticus is talking about the impact that our casual daily actions and exposure to violence or indecent conduct has on our soul. Even rushing through meals or not really paying attention to a child is corrosive to the soul. There is a challenge in commenting on a Parasha such as the one this week. Having been a vegetarian for 15 years of my life, it is very unpalatable in some ways but I hope we can see a deeper message about the little things which make us live with dignity and respect.