It is written that Rabbi Simeon asked Elijah: “What does the Holy One, blessed be God, study in the firmament?” Elijah said to him: “God studies the sacrificial offerings.”
The bulk of our Torah portion, Tetzaveh, is devoted to rituals concerning sacrifice. A vast amount of the 613 mitzvot is devoted to sacrifice, yet we rarely devote time to pondering them. Many of our liturgies have taken out any mention of sacrifice.
However, for nearly six centuries the altar of the Second Temple burned like a small sun. And just as the rays of an extinct star persist - coursing ever more distant galaxies - so too, the influence of that extinguished fire continues to evolve into the religious consciousness of ever more distant generations. That altar was a theological singularity into which our concept of holiness, ethics and understanding of God were compressed, and out of which world religions were forged.
In the ancient world, many cultures offered sacrifices to their gods. Two of the things that differentiated the Israelite cult from any other can be found when we look carefully at this week’s portion: The mysteries of the burnt offering and the blood.
“Turn all of the ram into smoke upon the altar. It is a burnt offering. ...” (Exodus 29:18). In other cultures, the sacrifices were often considered actual meals for the gods. In one ancient Near Eastern text it was written, “The Anunnaki, the great gods, sat in hunger and thirst ... like flies around the sacrifice they gathered.” In Babylonia, the idols were served two meals a day. In the morning, the images in the Temple of Uruk were served milk and fruit. In Egypt, the gods were served grand feasts.
However, in Psalm 50 we read, “Were I hungry, I would not tell you, for Mine is the world and all it holds. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of he-goats? Sacrifice a thank offering to God, and pay your vows to the Most High.” In the Jewish tradition, the sacrifices were not food for God. God does not eat flesh or drink blood, and even if God did have a hunger for anything at all, it is arrogant for man to presume the power to slake it. “All is from You, and it is Your gift that we have given to You. For we are sojourners with You, mere transients…” (I Chronicles 29:14-15). Even that which man gives is taken from God’s world in order to give, the same way a child borrows money from his mother to buy her a present.
The burning of the sacrifice was wholly unique to Israelite culture. There was no idol in the sanctuary to which to offer a meal. It was taken out of man’s world and irrevocably offered into God’s world. Through the act of burning offerings, the Israelite conception of God moved away from corporeality and into a sophisticated sense of the universe being multidimensional, with less tangible realities. The burning transferred the offering into the realm of the ethereal, moving the God-concept from concrete to abstract.
Along with the uniqueness of the burnt offering was the Israelite preoccupation with the blood offering. In our Torah portion it is written, “Take its blood and dash it against all sides of the altar” (Exodus 29:16).
The very life-principle, according to Israelite thought, was contained in the blood. Therefore it is considered repulsive to eat it, and of the highest crime to shed it. It is the miraculous ingredient that enables life to open its eyes and interact with the world, and so it is given special attention in the sacrificial system. The God of Life is not honored with the death of an animal, but rather with the offering up of its life-principle. In prayer, man offers up his awe-filled appreciation for the miraculous gift of life, for the secret of life which courses through him in his blood.
There is a tale that tells of the aged Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai visiting the ruins of the Temple with his students. One of his students cried out in sorrow, but Rabban replied, “Do not grieve, my son. We have a means of atonement that is equal to sacrifice: the doing of kind deeds. For it is said, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’ ” (Hosea 6:6). Over time sacrifice evolved into kind deeds, prayer and study.
Whenever a minyan gathers at some distant point in the Diaspora and turns toward the direction of the ghost of the Temple, beneath a ner tamid, which recalls the ever-glowing light of the tamid offering, the memory of that small sun flickers on its phantom altar, the attentive and loving worship of several thousand years.
Zoë Klein is senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah (templeisaiah.com), a Reform congregation in West Los Angeles, and author of the novels “Drawing in the Dust” (Simon & Schuster) and “Scroll of Anatiya” (Wipf & Stock). She’s online at zoeklein.com.