Confronting the Physical in Parashat Sh’mini

Originally given as a d’var Torah at Congregation Rodfei Zedek (Chicago, IL) on Saturday, April 2, 2016
Every year, when I read Leviticus, I find myself skimming over the gory details of the various sacrifices. This time, though, as I read Sh’mini, I stopped myself, and asked why this was so. What does it mean that I feel this distaste for the blood and guts of Temple worship? Surely these practices meant something to the people who followed them, not to mention that they still provide many of Judaism’s continuing liturgical associations. I decided to confront the physicality of these offerings, rather than gloss over them, to see what insights I could gain.
Commentators often remark how distant we are from this form of religious practice. As far back as the Medieval period, Maimonides and Abravanel considered it a sign of weakness or backwardness: as evidenced by the sin of the Golden Calf, the people who had sojourned so long in Egypt could not connect with an abstract notion of divinity, and so God provided the system of sacrifices as a way for them to feel near to God without falling into pagan practices (Etz Chayim, p. 586). We might pat ourselves on the back for having replaced Temple offerings with the prayers of our hearts, but this more abstract way of connecting can have its own limits. The Hebrew word for offerings, korban, comes from the root meaning “to bring close” or “to come close” (p. 587). Are we, with our offerings of words rather than physical objects, less likely to feel a visceral connection to the divine? The Rabbis expressed concern that Temple worship could lead to an emphasis on form over feeling, but it seems to me that synagogue worship can do the same, when we recite the words by rote, without the heartfelt intention that is supposed to propel them to the Source, as the smoke from the altar rose to God.
I am not advocating a return to Temple sacrifice: we have been better off with a more portable rather than place-bound religion – indeed, it has been key for our survival – and I would not want to reinstate a caste system dependent on inherited positions, either. But at a time when it is more important than ever that we consider how to live lightly on the Earth, the physical connections inherent in Temple worship are worth contemplating. Jacob Milgrom, in his commentary on Leviticus, reminds us that the Latin root of the word sacrifice is to make sacred, to set apart or dedicate. He notes that sacrifice in all cultures involves giving up some physical sign of wealth, and particularly, in Israelite Temple worship, some physical sign of personal wealth: first fruits, a grain offering, a bull calf, but never fish or game, which come from Nature’s store rather than our own (Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Commentary, p. 441). In imagining what it would have felt like to have been so invested in Temple sacrifice, we might come to a more concrete way of thinking about the relationship between God, the physical, animal world, and ourselves.
Temple worship would have felt qualitatively different than synagogue worship: it would have been literally and figuratively visceral. In chapter 9, verse 23 of Sh’mini, Aaron turns from his work dabbing the blood and burning the fat of the sacrificial animals, and raises those same hands with which he has done those tasks – those unwashed hands, so far as we can tell, still covered in blood and grease – in blessing over the people before stepping down from before the altar. What would that have looked like, smelled like, sounded like, felt like, for him and for us, if we were part of that assembled congregation? It’s hard for me to imagine, as someone who didn’t grow up on a farm or work in a slaughterhouse, and for whom meat comes already butchered on plastic-wrapped, Styrofoam trays. For a people for whom blood is a manifestation of the sacred, however, the scene might have inspired a different reaction. Remember, that is why we are told that we cannot consume it; I would say this is also why Aaron and his sons are not just consecrated with anointing oil, but with blood (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 8:30). Rather than a sign that my perspective is closer to what an abstract deity might prefer, my discomfort with the gross physicality of this image of Aaron’s work, Aaron’s hands, might be a sign of my distance from the perspective underlying the Torah’s claim that blood is holy.
The visceral nature of sacrifice reveals there the relationship between the physical world and the sacred, even for an abstract divinity. Thorkeld Jacobsen, in his study of ancient Mesopotamian religion, differentiates between the Mesopotamian understanding of divinity as an immanent “power at the center of something that caused it to be and thrive and flourish” and the Israelite notion of divinity as “altogether transcendent”: as he says by way of illustration, “God is totally distinct from the bush out of which he chose to speak to Moses” (Treasures of Darkness, p. 6). God as represented in the Torah may be transcendent rather than immanent, but that does not meant that God is divorced from the physical world. Aaron and the kohanim recognized this fact with every careful execution of their duties in the Mishkan. God might not inhere in physical things, but as Sh’mini demonstrates, God is clearly invested in them. What might we do to recognize the relationship between God and the physical world?
Sh’mini insists that we do so by distinguishing between the “sacred and the profane, the impure and the pure,” such as in differentiating between the animals that we do and don’t eat (Leviticus 10:10). In other words, we can express our holiness through what we consume, just as sacrifices are “consumed” partially by the priests and partially by fire: in the case of the dedication of the Mishkan as described in Sh’mini, a “fire that came forth before Adonai” after the kevod-Adonai, the Glory or Presence of the Lord, “appeared to all the people” (Leviticus 9:24, 23). Milgrom points out that sacrifice, among other functions, can be a “rationale invoked by Priestly texts…each time meat is desired for the diet” (Leviticus 1-16, p. 442). Perhaps this most physical form of consumption, that of the flesh of another living creature, must be defined, controlled, and contained, both in how we consume it and what of it we consume.
In our day, we consume a voracious amount, without much thought to how each act of consumption could reveal our relationship to both the physical and the numinous worlds. Does this make us like Nadab and Abihu, offering an unscripted pan of incense in either our ignorance or our arrogance, ignoring the order of things as well as the necessary physicality of the gift that would connect us to the One beyond, thinking that an odor alone will do? The same consuming fire that comes forth from before the Lord in Leviticus 9:24 does so in 10:2 (the Hebrew wording is exactly the same), only this time it consumes Nadab and Abihu rather than the sacrifice on the altar. Unlike the sacrifice, however, the fire does not consume them wholly, as there is enough of them left to be dragged off by their tunics. Perhaps this will be our punishment as well, burned out but not sanctified by offerings that are at once too much and not enough.
On the “eighth day,” we are challenged to begin living in the day-to-day world of ordinary events, whether that day comes after seven days of celebrating the construction of the Mishkan, the seven days of Creation, or the seven days of the week concluding with the holiness of Shabbat (Etz Chayim, n. Leviticus 9:1, p. 630). If we cannot relate to the blood and guts of Temple worship, perhaps we can at least try to imagine how we might experience that same everyday connection between the physical world and the holiness possible in our interactions with it. As Aaron and his sons, with a mixture of success and failure, embark on their connection with God through Temple worship, perhaps we can embark on a venture that might have its own mixture of failure and success, but that will bring us closer to God and to the world, through what we consume and what we sacrifice, in whatever forms those might take.
The picture is Marc Chagall’s 1911 painting “I and the Village”, which is displayed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

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