By Rabbi Aaron Gol...
March 25, 2012
Today we begin the book of Vayikra, or Leviticus, and it is a time we rabbis dread. It is almost all about sacrifices, not the biggest crowd-pleaser, so what in the world are we meant to talk about? Truth be told, however, that the sacrificial system in the Torah can tell us a lot about our nature.
I have often mentioned the words of the famous philosopher Maimonides, who found no intrinsic value in sacrifices. According to him, prayer and supplication were the only primary objectives of Jewish worship. However, Maimonides claims, when Judaism was being introduced, it was presented to a humanity accustomed to polytheistic cults revolving around animal and human sacrifices. If Judaism didn’t offer sacrifices, it simply couldn’t be called religion. The Torah therefore allowed for sacrifices, but in a very constrained and regulated way, with strict legislation and offered only to the God of Israel. It was a concession to human nature, which demanded sacrifice. This was a specific dispensation intended only to address the spirit of the time.
But what was it about sacrifices that so satisfied human nature? Bloodlust, if you ask me, the longing for that soothing and exhilarating liquid. Seen as more than a simple bodily fluid, in ancient times blood had complex levels of significance beyond the biological. First and foremost, it represented the essence of being, the repository of the spirit. As such, it possessed several qualities to the biblical mind:
Blood had the ability to expiate. The spilt blood of others could stand in replacement of my own blood, averting the death my iniquities solicited by transferring my fatal sentence onto another – be it the human or animal sacrificial victim.
Blood could also placate divinity. In crisis, when times seemed anything but propitious, shed blood quenched the thirst of the many gods or of the One God. The stench of the drenched, burning altar produced a “pleasant aroma” unto Adonai, Leviticus tells us (17:6). Furthermore, the Book of Samuel (2 Samuel 21) narrates that there was famine in the time of King David. When David inquired of God as to the reason, God answered him that the famine was because of King Saul and his massacre of the Gibeonite nation. David approached the remaining Gibeonites to find out how he could atone for Saul’s deeds. They answered that only the life of Saul’s sons would suffice. Thus, David handed over to the Gibeonites 2 of Saul’s sons and 5 of his grandchildren, all of them innocent, who were subsequently “hanged in the hill before Adonai.” After this horrible act, we are told that “God answered the prayers for the land.”
From this story, we further learn that blood had the power to appease human beings. In biblical law, an intentional, convicted murderer was handed over to the deceased’s kinsman, the Redeemer of Blood, to carry out the execution and thus find respite. In biblical language, “atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it” (Numbers 35:33).
The Torah seems to be very accommodating to the visceral need for blood. Scripture (Numbers Chapter 35) tells us that if someone commits involuntary manslaughter in a way which is not prosecuted by the courts, that person is to find shelter within specially-designated cities of refuge to be protected from the Redeemer of Blood. But if that person ventures outside the city, the Redeemer of Blood is given full reign to avenge the blood of his loved one extra-judicially. Whilst in other circumstances the avenger would incur the full severity of the law for the killing, here the Bible exonerates him from all culpability in the realisation that the thirst for blood is simply too strong to contain.
One would have thought that thousands of years of advancement would have terminated our bloodlust, that somehow humanity would have evolved out of it, that we would have grown up. Far from it.
When I awoke on Monday morning, I arose to a nightmare I wished I could wake up from. The blood of children was splashed on the pavements of Toulouse: Miriam Monsonego, just 8 years old, almost the age of my eldest daughter; 6 year old Aryeh Sandler; his three year old brother Gavriel, who in a sickening irony was named after Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, who was killed with his wife Rivkah in the Mumbai terrorist attack.
Their blood was supposed to avenge the blood of Palestinian children, the monster who perpetrated the attack claimed. In his sheer lunacy, his bloodlust needed to be fed, with the viciousness of a feral animal. I applaud the words of the Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, who deplored blood being spilt in their name: “This terrorist crime is condemned in the strongest terms by our Palestinian people and children. It is impossible for any Palestinian child to accept crimes targeting innocent people. It is time for those criminals to stop exploiting the name of Palestine through their terrorist actions, or claim victory to the rights of Palestinian children, who only seek a decent life for themselves and all children of the world.”
What I certainly do not applaud were the comments made at the funeral by Israeli Orthodox Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the supposed spiritual leader of the Israeli people. Instead of offering the comfort which the situation demanded, he called for more blood to be shed. He placed the murders in epic, archetypal terms, speaking of the hatred of Esau, symbolising the non-Jew, towards his brother Jacob, the Jewish people. Non-Jews are always out to get us, he was saying between the lines. But then he called for God to avenge the spilled blood. In other words, only blood could appease us now.
Amar had his wish come true, Mohammed Merah was shot in the head. But somehow, the sanguine stains left outside his home certainly do not console us. We have not found the closure we sought. For what we truly needed was justice, for him to sit at a court and confront his actions, for him to have a whole lifetime to live with his actions, with the faces of the innocent children carved into the inside of his skull. In the first murder of our mythic history, when Abel’s blood was crying from the ground, Cain’s blood was not shed to silence its clamour. Rather, Cain’s punishment was to wander endlessly, bearing the brunt of his guilt for the rest of his days. That was true justice. Our animalistic desires for vengeance only create an inescapable cycle where blood will forever spout as from a bottomless spring. Let us rather long for the fulfilment of the prophet Amos’s vision: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing spring” (Amos 5:24).
I conclude with the words of Chaim Nachum Bialik, from his poem “On the Slaughter”:
And if there is justice - let it show
itself at once! But if justice show itself
after I have been blotted out from
beneath the skies - let its throne be
hurled down forever! Let heaven rot
with eternal evil! And you, the arrogant,
go in this violence of yours, live by
your bloodshed and be cleansed by it.
And cursed be the man who says:
Avenge! No such revenge - revenge for
the blood of a little child - has yet been
devised by Satan.