Parshat Vayikra תשפ
In Proverbs (3:15-18), King Solomon, the wisest of all men, extolls the virtues of the Torah:
(טו) יְקָרָה הִיא מִפְּנִינִים וְכָל חֲפָצֶיךָ לֹא יִשְׁווּ בָה
(טז) אֹרֶךְ יָמִים בִּימִינָהּ בִּשְׂמֹאולָהּ עֹשֶׁר וְכָבוֹד
(יז) דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי נֹעַם וְכָל נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם
(יח) עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ וְתֹמְכֶיהָ מְאֻשָּׁר
15) It is more precious than pearls, and all your desires cannot compare to it. 16) Length of days is at its right, at its left, wealth and honor. 17) Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its pathways are peace. 18) It is a tree of life to those who grasp it, and its supporters are praiseworthy.
The לולב – palm branch -that the Torah mandates us to shake on Sukkot, goes through stages as it grows to become a large overreaching palm branch. “Perhaps one should take it when it is very young?” questions the Talmud (Sukkah 32a). Abaye answers,
”Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its pathways are peace.“ When the branch is very young it is prickly and it will scratch the hand of the one holding it. It is impossible that Hashem commanded us to take it at that stage of its development, for that would be very unpleasant!
Our Sages provide a beautiful metaphor for this notion:
A guest checked in to a hotel and left his bags for the bellhop to bring to his room. When the bellhop showed up at his door holding two suitcases all out of breath, the guest immediately said to the bellhop, “You must have the wrong suitcases!” The bellhop asked, “How could you tell without even checking?” “My suitcases were very light, and would not tire you out!” answered the guest.
Similarly, if one is finding Judaism’s “load” difficult to carry, he must be doing something wrong, because the Torah and its ways are pleasant and easy to perform.
This week we begin the third book of the Torah, ויקרא-Leviticus. Another name for this book is תורת כהנים, The Laws for the Kohanim, because most of it deals with the laws of the service in the Tabernacle, the domain of the Kohanim. Although this includes the Menorah’s lighting , the incense offering, and the show bread, the majority of the book deals with the different sacrifices brought on the altar.
But we have a major question: If the Torah’s ways of the are so pleasant, how are we to understand animal sacrifices? Are the animals experiencing pleasure when they are slaughtered for a sacrifice?
Even though it may not be a pleasure for an animal to be slaughtered, we need to understand that שחיטה – ritual slaughter– with its intricate rules, ensure that the animal is slaughtered in the most painless way possible.
The act of ritual slaughter requires theשוחט – shochet (slaughterer) to cut most of the trachea and esophagus and to completely sever the animal’s two carotid arteries. This must be done by continuously sliding the knife back and forth over the animal’s neck without pause or any hesitation whatsoever.
A most crucial component of a slaughter is the knife. It must be razor sharp so that it cuts cleanly and swiftly through the animal’s hide and flesh. The blade must be perfectly smooth without even the slightest nick. Before a shochet can use his knife, he must check every millimeter of it to assure that it has no nick. He does this by lightly and carefully passing his fingernail along the entire blade – on the top, and its two sides. The slightest nick renders the knife unfit for use, and if an animal would be slaughtered with it, the animal is נבלה – nevaila – unfit for consumption. The animal feels no pain from the knife’s incision, but what about other pain?
Within a second or two of the shochet cutting the two carotid arteries – the blood’s central route to the animal’s head- blood ceases flowing to the brain. The animal’s blood pressure falls drastically, causing the animal to immediately lose consciousness, and it can no longer feel pain. The animal’s subsequent twitching or moving around after slaughter results from a muscle reflex similar to a chicken that can run around without its head and is no indication of brain function.
There is a remarkable difference in the anatomy of a kosher animal verses a non- kosher animal. In non – kosher animals, the vertebral artery, which feeds blood to the brain, is not connected to the carotid artery. This means that even after cutting the carotid artery, since blood continues to flow to the brain through the vertebral artery, the animal’s brain continues to function and feels pain. Whereas in kosher animals, the vertebral artery to the brain is connected to the carotid artery. When the carotid artery is severed, the vertebral artery also loses its blood. Hence, with no blood flowing to the brain, the brain ceases to function and the animal feels no pain.
This is an example of how Hashem’s mercy applies to all of His creatures. Even though we are allowed to slaughter animals for sacrifices and for consumption of their meat, it must be done painlessly.
There is yet a more basic question: Even though the animal doesn’t suffer during slaughter, why must we use animals for sacrifices? Why can’t we just leave them alone to live their lives in peace?
The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (6:12) says:
(יב) כָּל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בָּעוֹלָמוֹ, לֹא בְרָאוֹ אֶלָּא לִכְבוֹדוֹ
12) Everything that Hashem created in his world, He created exclusively for His honor.
What does this statement mean? Why does Hashem need us to give Him honor? Our Sages explain that Hashem created everything in the world so that we can recognize Him through His miraculous and amazing creations. When we take the time to learn about any one of Hashem’s millions of creatures, be it an ant, a cow, or a 200-ton blue whale, you will discover an infinite amount of wisdom in each one. They instinctually use this wisdom to escape from predators and to find food. An octopus caught by a shark and about to be devoured, stuck two of its tentacles into the shark’s gills, and essentially choked it until it let go of him. Man is forever discovering more and more how the animal kingdom works and how interdependent the different components are. As each new discovery is revealed, the scientists who discovered it stand in awe of the sophistication of the creatures they are studying. These miracles are documented in videos like “Planet Earth” and “The Blue Planet.” Yet these videos showcase only a miniscule fraction of Hashem’s brilliant creation.
The Malbim explains that this is the meaning of the verse that we say in Ashrei (Psalms 145:4) three times a day:
(ד) דּוֹר לְדוֹר יְשַׁבַּח מַעֲשֶׂיךָ וּגְבוּרֹתֶיךָ יַגִּידוּ
4)Each generation will praise Your deeds to the next (generation), and Your mighty deeds they will tell.
As each new generation discovers more of Hashem’s miraculous world, it relates it to the next generation. With this, we appreciate more and more the mighty deeds of our miraculous world’s Creator.
There is yet a deeper level to this concept, namely, that a plant, animal, or object actually fulfills its purpose in creation by assisting man in his service to Hashem. For example, when a person recites a blessing over an apple and acknowledges Hashem as his benefactor and thanks Him from the depths of his heart for the scrumptious treat, the apple, having triggered that gratitude to Hashem, has reached its ultimate purpose in the world. It has brought honor to Hashem by connecting the person to Hashem. There is nothing greater in the world! This concept applies to everything that Hashem created. He created it to be used by man in his service to Hashem.
The Midrash clearly expresses this concept. At one time in Jewish history, the Jewish people were led by Jewish kings who were idol worshippers. In those days, false gods had false prophets. Eliyahu (Elijah) the prophet was the last authentic prophet left, and he decided that it was time to do something about the false prophets, the prophets of the Baal. He challenged them to a contest: They would both bring a sacrifice on an altar, and the sacrifice that Hashem accepted by sending down a bolt of fire and consuming it would prove who was the real prophet.
The false prophets of the Baal accepted the challenge, thinking that they could “guaranty a win.” How? In their altar they hid a person, who, on que, was to light the fire under their sacrifice. Hashem, however, brought a snake that bit and killed the fellow, so their ruse failed. Eliyahu upped the ante, and, with a bit of showmanship, first poured much water on his sacrifice and the wood beneath it.
A very interesting Midrash discusses the two animals used in this contest (Bamidbar Rabba 23:9):
מה עשה אליהו? אמר להם, בחרו שני פרים תאומים מאם אחת הגדלים על מרעה אחד והטילו עליהם גורלות אחד לשם ואחד לשם הבעל ובחרו להם הפר האחד ופרו של אליהו. מיד נמשך אחריו והפר שעלה לשם הבעל נתקבצו כל נביאי הבעל ונביאי האשרה ולא יכלו לזוז את רגלו עד שפתח אליהו ואמר לו לך עמהם השיב הפר ואמר לו לעיני כל העם אני וחבירי יצאנו מבטן אחת מפרה אחת וגדלנו במרעה אחד והוא עלה בחלקו של מקום ושמו של הקב”ה מתקדש עליו. ואני עליתי בחלק הבעל להכעיס את בוראי? אמר לו אליהו, פר פר אל תירא לך עמהם ואל ימצאו עלילה שכשם ששמו של הקב”ה מתקדש על אותו שעמי, כך מתקדש עליך! אמר לו וכך אתה מיעצני שבועה איני זז מכאן עד שתמסרני בידם שנא’ (שם) ויקחו את הפר אשר נתן להם ומי נתן להם אליהו
What did Eliyahu do? He told them to choose two cows, twins from the same mother who grazed in the same pasture. They did a lottery, one for Hashem and one for the Baal. Eliyahu’s cow immediately went over to him, but the other cow wouldn’t move. All 900 prophets tried to move it but they couldn’t budge even one foot. Eliyahu went over to the animal and told it to go with them. The animal replied to Eliyahu in front of everyone. “My friend and I came out of the same womb from the same mother cow, and we grew up eating the very same grass. His lot is to sanctify Hashem’s name, and my lot in to be with the false prophets of the Baal to anger Hashem!” Eliyahu told her, “Cow, cow, do not fear, go with them, and just as Hashem’s name will be sanctified through the cow with me, so too it will be sanctified through you.”
Eliyahu meant that when the cow for the Baal would not go up in smoke, it will be testimony to the people that the prophets of the Baal are false.
The false prophets couldn’t get anything to happen to their cow, and after having tried every trick up their sleeves, no heavenly response was forthcoming. On the other hand, Eliyahu, after dousing the alter until it was soaked with water, Eliyahu prayed to Hashem and, immediately, a fire came down and consumed the animal, the wood, and the water. When the people saw this, they proclaimed “Hashem is the real G-d, Hashem is the real G-d!!”
This Midrash reveals to us that the purpose of every creature on the planet is to bring honor to Hashem’s name. When the animal was given the opportunity to express it, it did so unwaveringly. The other cow wanted to be slaughtered and put on Eliyahu’s altar instead of the altar of the false Baal prophets. Eliyahu’s consolation to the cow was that, by not burning up, it would also fulfill its mission of sanctifying Hashem’s name, .
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato expresses this concept very clearly in the first chapter of his book Path of the Just:
וְאִם תַּעֲמִיק עוֹד בָּעִנְיָן תִּרְאֶה כִּי הָעוֹלָם נִבְרָא לְשִׁמּוּשׁ הָאָדָם, אָמְנָם הִנֵּה הוּא עוֹמֵד בְּשִׁקּוּל גָּדוֹל, כִּי אִם הָאָדָם נִמְשָׁךְ אַחַר הָעוֹלָם וּמִתְרַחֵק מִבּוֹרְאוֹ, הִנֵּה הוּא מִתְקַלְקֵל וּמְקַלְקֵל הָעוֹלָם עִמּוֹ, וְאִם הוּא שׁוֹלֵט בְּעַצְמוֹ וְנִדְבָּק בְּבוֹרְאוֹ וּמִשְׁתַּמֵּשׁ מִן הָעוֹלָם רַק לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְסִיּוּעַ לַעֲבֹד בּוֹרְאוֹ, הוּא מִתְעַלֶּה וְהָעוֹלָם עַצְמוֹ מִתְעַלֶּה עִמּוֹ. כִּי הִנֵּה עִלּוּי גָּדוֹל הוּא לַבְּרִיּוֹת כֻּלָּם בִּהְיוֹתָם מְשַׁמְּשֵׁי הָאָדָם הַשָּׁלֵם הַמְקֻדָּשׁ בִּקְדֻשָּׁתוֹ יִתְבָּרֵךְ
If you look deeply into the matter you will see that the whole world was created for man’s use. However, it stands in the balance. If the person is drawn after the pleasures of the world and distances himself from Hashem through them, he ruins himself and the world with him. If, however, he takes control of himself and uses the world only to serve as an instrument to help him serve Hashem, he elevates himself, and the entire universe (his helper) is elevated with him. For it is a great merit for the creatures to be used as a tool in the hands of a human being perfected with Hashem’s holiness.
Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) in his work תומר דבורה – The Palm Tree of Devorah -brings this concept to a higher level. There he writes:
החמלה על כל הנמצאים שלא לחבלם, תלויה בחכמה. זולתי להעלותם ממעלה אל מעלה:
מצומח לחי, מחי למדבר – שאז מותר לעקור הצומח ולהמית החי, לחוב על מנת לזכות:
A person’s compassion should extend to all Hashem’s creatures not to harm them, other than when he elevates them from level to level: from plant life to animal, and from animal to a person. Then he is permitted to uproot a plant or kill an animal because he brings merit to them.
When a person eats fruits or vegetables, or meat from an animal, that food becomes elevated from the lower level of a plant or animal to becoming part of a thinking human being, one who can chose to serve Hashem. Additionally, the food is actually what gives him the energy to serve Hashem, because without food, a human being cannot function.
It is for this reason a person’s table is like an altar. It is there that he eats the food that is burned up as energy to power him in his service to Hashem. This is also why the Sages say that a person who feeds a Torah Scholar, it is as if he has brought a sacrifice in the Holy Temple. Since the food will be consumed in the Torah Scholar providing him the energy to learn Torah, it is as if an animal was burned on the altar for the sake of Hashem.
This brings us to the concept behind the animal sacrifices in Judaism. Bringing an animal as a sacrifice causes it to reach its purpose in the world by being used as a tool for service to Hashem. In the matter of a sin offering, for example, where an animal is brought for atonement for a sin, Nachmanides explains that the process of bringing a sacrifice on the altar is instructive to the sinner, and helps keep him from repeating his offense. As he watches the animal be slaughtered, quartered, and put on the alar, and then sees the animal’s blood sprinkled on the altar, what should be going through his mind is, “This should all be happening to m, because I sinned to Hashem. I should be slaughtered, I should be quartered, my blood should be strewn about! Hashem, however, in His infinite mercy, allows me to observe this happening to an animal, and to learn the lesson, without having to go through it myself. I have learned my lesson.” In this way, the animal serves a very important purpose, helping a person to better serve Hashem.
As noted at the outset, the Mishna says, “Everything that Hashem created in his world, He created exclusively for His honor.”
We currently find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, the corona virus. It might indeed be difficult to grasp how this sub-microscopic snippet of protein, which continues to wreak havoc around the globe and evades all efforts to rein it in, could bring honor to Hashem.
Perhaps there is something here to consider. Hashem is showing us that He is in control of the world, and that He can do anything He wants. We are all in His hands, and need to turn our eyes to Him and Him only for our salvation.