Vayikra: Cows, sheep, goats and God

goat-sheep-cow-85844094Vayikra – And God called. And so begins a lot of instructions about killing and offering up a lot of animals for all sorts of reasons, all with the purpose of getting closer to God (“korbanot”, the word for offering, comes from the word “karov” – get close to).

Placing the rules and regulations of offering animals within the context of an “am kadosh”, a holy people, beholden to God, asks us to take on the mindset of a wholly different society than the one in which we live today. But as with all Torah, there are lessons to be learned, even if the simple reading seems foreign and disturbing. One example is examining the actual animals identified for offering in this parasha.

In most cases, it’s the cattle, sheep and goat, in descending order of size, and the Commentators wondered why those particular animals. Abarbanel (15th c, Portagal/Spain) pondered the question and says that these animals symbolize the three Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Abraham took a calf from among his flock to feed the strangers who came to his tent. “Looking up , he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran to greet them… Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy who hastened to prepare it.” (Gen 18:1-7) The calf was offered up as a gesture of hospitality, and it became the model for openness, being welcoming and generous.   For his efforts, Abraham was told he would have a son, to fulfill God’s plan that he would be the father of a great people. First, he had to become a father.

Isaac is associated with the sheep. When Abraham was told by God to take his son, his only son, the son he loved, Isaac and make him an offering to God, Isaac was ultimately replaced by a ram.   On the walk up the mountain, Isaac asks his father, “Here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?’ (Gen 22:7) Later we read, “So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burt offering in place of his son.” (Gen 22:13) Torah is telling us, in part, that offering up a child is not the way to get closer to God.

Finally, Jacob is associated with the goat. In Chapter 27 of Genesis, we read how Jacob brought “two choice kids” to his elderly, blind father, in order to get the blessing of the first born. The young goats provided both the food and the skins Jacob needed to convince Isaac that he was Esau, the elder son. This problematic, deceitful part of the story nevertheless shows how Jacob was fulfilling the prophecy his mother Rebecca had received from God when she was pregnant, that Esau would serve Jacob. By taking the first son’s blessing, Jacob was brought closer to God, especially as he headed into the wilderness. He fled his brother’s anger and in a certain place, he stopped for the night and had a dream.   In it, “Adonai was standing beside him and said, “I am Adonai, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isac.” (Gen 28:13) And later, we read that Jacob gets even closer to God through God’s angel, when they wrestle, and Jacob becomes Israel; the man becomes the people.

We don’t use animals to get closer to God anymore. We use our words, our prayer, and our actions focused on making the world a better place. But these three animals remind us of some of the important elements of how we get close to God: welcoming all into our tent with generosity of spirit and home, replacing the animals with the devotion of our words and our hearts, and the struggle we engage in every day to understand and internalize the teachings of our history.

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2 Responses to Vayikra: Cows, sheep, goats and God

  1. David C says:

    from David C:
    I would argue that we still do and should – due to agrifarming and business, we should be using our animals in ways that are kodesh rather than hol and not sacrificing them to the gods and paganism of capitalism. We need to go back to our sources, our essential connections to God and to the need for kodesh in our lives at all areas of the food chain.

  2. doritjordan says:

    MY god would never sacrifice any of his creations. Animals. Humans, Earth – all creations of god (as most people believe) are treated wrongly by us. By the name of god we are allowed to kill animals. Today, not for Zevach but for food.
    My god- meant us to live in harmony on earth and all off it creatures.
    Torah offering animals to god to get us close to him- is an old primitive way of understanding god and holiness.
    We still are using animals, and today even more, humans became experts in the killing industry of animals. We pray for a better world but look a side on our actions. Welcoming all into our tents- but the animals, god’s creations are welcome on our plats, ignoring the long way of suffer till they got into our tents. Teaching the history and our ancient tribe story is here so we can learn that we are wrong. And till we will understand it- we will continue destroy each other and our land.

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