This week’s parashah, Tzav, and its predecessor, Vayikra, deal largely with sacrifices. As a result, they do not immediately grab our interest.
It is possible, of course, to imagine teaching them in careful, loving detail. Students would learn about the four different types of sacrifices that are defined here, studying all the rules for each of them. Despite the difficulty of relating the details of the sacrificial cult to modern life, it would be an easy unit to teach, and at the end we could give a test on the definitions, rules, and procedures and know what students had learned.
In fact, a child’s study in a traditional cheder began, usually when the child reached the age of five, with Leviticus, not with Genesis. There was some pedagogical merit in this, because many children approach the study of Torah with a literalism that delights in detail and does not require contemporary relevance. And many children could take pleasure in reciting the various kinds of offerings—olah, minchah, chatat, asham, zevach, shelamim—and repeating their definitions without becoming overly concerned with the underlying meaning.
All of these sacrifices ended, of course, with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. While traditional Jews pray for the reinstatement of animal sacrifices, Reform Jews do not. Conservative siddurim include the prayer but it is not a mainstay of Conservative belief.
Rabbi Judith Abrams suggests that, in order to deal with these parts of the Torah, we must first understand why sacrifices would have been instituted, and especially why our ancestors, following the destruction of the Temple, would have prayed for their reinstatement.
The Torah itself is largely silent about basic reasons for sacrifices. Although it defines specific occasions for sacrifices and gives instructions for each kind of sacrifice, the institution of sacrifice itself is taken for granted. In general, whenever a sacrifice is mentioned, whether it is the Pesach sacrifice that is described in Exodus or the one of the sacrifices defined in Leviticus, there seems to be an assumption that everyone already knows all about the sacrifice and its purpose.
From the descriptions in Leviticus, we can deduce that the purpose of sacrifices was to maintain or restore Israel’s relationship with God. That suggests a modern approach to teaching about them: we might contrast the ways that our ancestors expressed their relationship with God with the ways that we would choose today.
But we must still confront the institution itself. If we, in agreement with Maimonides, see animal sacrifices as merely one station in Judaism’s spiritual progress—that is, as spiritual “training wheels” that promoted a transition from idolatrous religions that practiced human sacrifices to a completely monotheistic religion with no sacrifices at all—why should we pray for sacrifices to be reinstated?
Rabbi Abrams suggests this analogy: if hospitals could no longer perform surgery, but all other aspects of modern medicine continued to exist, and if some of us had conditions that could only be treated with surgery, wouldn’t we long for surgery to be reinstated? Wouldn’t we try to perform it somewhere else? (After the destruction of the Temple, there were attempts to carry out sacrifices at other places.) Even after we had given up realistic hope for surgery to take place again, might we not still pray for it?
That, she concludes, is how our ancestors felt about sacrifices. Although the prayers of the worship service, in a form that we would still recognize, came to replace them, Jews longed for the certainty the sacrifices had provided that they were in the proper relationship with God.
Even if we do not pray for the reinstatement of sacrifices, we should pray for the close and enduring relationship with God that the sacrificial system promised. We should also be mindful of the prophets’ criticisms of it: that it provided a false sense of security, and that a true relationship with God could be based only on genuinely righteous living.