Monday, April 11, 2011

Horror with a Message?

Parshat Achrei Mot (Shabbat Hagadol)
Vayikrah 16:1-18:30
12 Nisan 5771 / April 15 – 16, 2011

Horror with a Message?
Laura W., Moishe House London
At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion the priests in the sanctuary/Temple are commanded by H-shem to,
“…go out unto the altar that is before H-shem and make atonement for it; and shall take of the blood of the bullock, and of the blood of the goat, and put it upon the horns of the altar round about. (verse 18 )”
It seems very strange that the most Compassionate Being that values loving kindness so highly would command such a seemingly cruel and quite frankly horrific act as part of the highest form of service. It seems being a vegetarian cohen was not an option - and you needed a very strong stomach to perform the sacred work in the Temple. However the Temple is meant to be the centre of light and peace for the whole world: a house for H-shem to dwell in as a G-d whose attributes we are meant to emulate
“Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth; Preserver of Kindness for thousands of generations, Forgiver of Iniquity, Willful Sin, and Error, and Who Cleanses” (Shemot 34:6-7)
What is going on? To understand these two contradictory ideas we have to read a little further to the fifth Aliya where it commands us not to eat blood.
‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life.’
What does 'by reason of the life' mean? And what does it mean for a spiritually sensitive person to have to kill in this way? How did Aaron, who is so closely connected to the attribute of peace, feel when he had to 'lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat' knowing that it would soon be sacrificed?
The truth that an innocent animal lovingly created by G-d is being killed in place of an individual or a group is perhaps meant to shock us back to reality and hit home the gravity of what we have done. The feeling that according to absolute judgment it 'should really have been me', and direct contact with the animal as its life force is being drained, seeing the fear in its eyes is, I would hope, enough to bring anyone back to the right path.
What is the message we can apply today? That if we really understood the consequences of our actions we would not sin, so we better know what we are doing. We have to educate ourselves enough not to end up causing suffering to ourselves and others, physically or spiritually. The temple sacrifices seem to be a necessary evil to awaken us from our apathy, a sort of institutionalized tikun (healing). According to the Torah, there was a brief utopia in the Garden of Eden before the first sin, when there was no murder or need to kill. Humanity lived in harmony with H-shem and Creation, a state we can all aspire to bring about in our days.
However here lies the real challenge for me. Sin appears an ambiguous subject in contemporary society often crossing the line between the subjective and objective because although the commands are explicit, it is up to the individual to interpret them within their particular framework. One person’s sin can be another’s mitzvah as it is sometimes hard to be completely aware of our exact point of free will and what is appropriate for us individually. The title of this parsha is Achrei Mot which means ‘after the death’ referring to Nadav and Avihu in parshat Shmini and I still have trouble with why their enthusiasm was so harshly punished. So I look to the Sages who define sin as ‘missing the mark’ in the sense of an archer shooting an arrow and missing the target. By studying Torah perhaps we can see the target more clearly, strengthen ourselves and focus our aim and avoid such violent consequences.


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