Animal sacrifices: bloody, barbaric, violent, primitive. Parshat Vayikra is filled with details of this ritual. The burnt offering, grain offering, and blood offering serve communal and individual purposes, both mandatory and optional. For instance, the hattat, sin offering is for failure to fulfill an oath, and the asham, guilt offering, is for unintentional violations and as well as committing robbery or fraud.
But why does the Torah emphasize the connection between killing animals and serving the Eternal? Instead, we might suggest that the creation of sacred community centers around appreciation of nature, ethical living, and family celebrations.
But our ancestors understood that the visceral nature of sacrifice offers a tangible sign of human experience. Sacrifice is bloody, it’s physical, it’s raw. If anything captures the uncontrolled nature of life, its tragedies, its emotional highs and lows, sacrifice does. As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson suggests, life is not neatly packaged, fully controlled or completely comprehensible. It is often volatile and unbridled. Humans are driven by jealousies and rage, staggering lows, and flaring tempers. We are taught to repress these drives and their expression, but the deeper levels of our psyche are non-verbal, impulsive, driven by lust, gratification, and survival.
Judaism offers life meaning precisely because it reflects the entirety of the human experience. It offers a sacred space to channel and express the range of our existence—confront our subconscious, relive our past, share our deepest anxieties, and express the depth of our sorrow or guilt.
Sacrifice horrifies and stuns precisely because it captures the rawness of life, our unconscious drives, and offers us a ritual when we sorely miss the mark. The hattat, sin offering enables us to atone for failure to fulfill an oath, and the asham, guilt offering, is presented to expiate unintentional violations.
We do not need to reinstitute sacrifice to benefit from the outlet it provides. The sacrificial system we inherit presents an opportunity to acknowledge and confront these deep struggles.
For instance, many of us experience angst, terror, unease about death. The sacrificial forces us to squarely confront this unease. We can consider the visceral experience of death within sacrifice to explore our own anxiety about the end of life and Jewish rituals surrounding death. In doing so, we uncover ways Judaism sanctifies loss of life and offers a structure and support system in the midst of tragedy.
Another example is the basic human condition of guilt. The asham, guilt offering presents a modality to acknowledge and atone for our errs and presents a space for personal cognitive processing. How might prayer help us to work through unfinished business, how could Jewish values propel us toward self-betterment?
Our ancestors may have sacrificed animals as an outlet to express deep rage, feelings of inadequacy, and guilt. The sacrificial rite could have served as a means to face their terror of death and the unknown. As Rabbi Artson suggests, through the sacrifice of animals, they could see their own frailty, their own mortality, their own bloodiness. Today, parshat Vayikra reminds us that Judaism still offers us other outlets for exploring and expressing these overwhelming feelings.
The sacrificial altar remains a part of our tradition. The shank bone on our Seder plate connects us directly to the sacrifice brought on the eve of Passover, and eaten on the first night of the holiday with bitter herbs and matzo. The Torah teaches that it was first offered on the night of the Israelites‘ Exodus from Egypt. It was the blood from this sacrifice that the Israelites sprinkled on their door-posts as a sign to God to pass by the houses of the Israelites, when slaying the first-born Egyptians.
When we re-enact the Exodus in two weeks, how can we embody the teaching the shank bone provides? We can recall times we felt terror, times we felt the Eternal’s providential care. These feelings can stir us to action addressing modern issues of slavery–such as appalling factory conditions for immigrant workers or human sex trafficking. The sacrifice of the Pascal Lamb provides an entrée into conversations about treatment of slaves, how we view “the other,” and what we learn from re-experiencing our redemption from slavery in Egypt.
Sacrifice connects us physically to the fragility of life and its inherent suffering. During the telling of the Exodus, our Haggadot include the reminder that the Transcendant heard the voices of our ancestors crying out in need. Expounding on this section of the Haggadah, Jewish author Franz Kafka addressed the rawness of human experience in his journal: “You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world. That is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.” How easy it is to disengage from the depth of our experience, to disengage from our world and its problems, to insulate ourselves from the painful realities that bellow for our attention and response. We have the freedom, and often exercise it, to turn away from suffering, to turn away from the uncomfortable or scary feelings we experience. However, as Rabbi Elias J. Lieberman suggest, when we hold ourselves back from involvement in addressing all the ugliness, all the suffering, we risk the greatest kind of suffering…the awareness that we are failing, fundamentally, to be the kind of people that Judaism calls upon us to be….“God-intoxicated” people who are inspired and compelled to engage in the healing of our world.
May Parshat Vayikrah remind us that our Judaism first provides a sacred space to acknowledge our darker sides and then offers us opportunities to construct altars to reclaim the goodness within and offer a space for God to dwell.
 Exodus 12:1-28.