Sometimes when I study Torah these days I get a little lost in the details of animal sacrifice and numbering and valuing people and animals.
My original purpose in this study was to try to understand what the Torah says comprehensively, pervasively, about our relationship to the planet and every other creature on it. Certainly there are verses here and there that I can draw on to make the argument for ecological sensitivity and veganism, but I wanted something more pronounced, something woven systematically through this carefully constructed, nuanced text.
The more I study the Torah, the more I regard it as the product of a unified consciousness. Its extraordinary construction, the parallelisms, the chiasms, the repeating themes and images, the nuanced vocabulary…all come together in an impressive architecture that makes an inspired and compelling set of statements about the meaning and purpose of our existence.
I still believe the comprehensive message I seek is there. I see tantalizing hints of it constantly as I study. And of course there are those strong, clear verses here and there, just the things my spirit needs to hear. The comprehensive message, though, seems ultimately to elude me as I read about things like the princes of Israel bringing hundreds of animals to the Tabernacle for slaughter. My imagination springs into life, and I lose my connection to the big meaning behind and under and throughout, as I try to understand the particular meaning within this bloody, terrifying spectacle.
Terrifying, at least, from the animal’s perspective. Was it terrifying for the priests and Levites? The Israelites in attendance? Was there supposed to be an aspect of terror? Of awe? Because certainly there is that dimension to life itself. Even in our modern, secular era, the existentialists identified that.
And what about responsibility, guilt, atonement, gratitude? Aren’t these all fully human experiences and emotions? If we are fully open to our human experience, if we are fully human in that experience, is it possible that experience can be without overwhelming moments of gratitude or of realizing the stark limits on living without causing harm?
Finally, at least at this point in my progress, I come back to the idea that a harmonious, beautiful vision is put before us, an ideal world in which there is no bloodshed and no violence in creation. Harmony reigns, not hierarchy, and there is a continuity between transcendence, creation and human beings. Ethical consciousness pervades everything.
And then there is the real world, the world in which we live, the only world we know. It is a world in which ethical dilemmas are almost always Gordian knots. There is no escape from the reality of life, no deus ex machina, no magic. G-d’s compassion in the Torah is to teach us how to navigate through that real world, how to keep that picture of an ideal world in our sights, but at the same time stay focused on what is and find joy in it.
Even if the surface language of blood sacrifice seems contradictory to the deep language of the Torah, I still believe the message is consistent throughout, although I cannot yet detail how that works. It’s like holding two ideas simultaneously in my consciousness, an extraordinary beautiful ideal and a real world where good enough is our best hope.
As a former employer liked to say to me of our plans for the organization, “there is the ideal…and then there is the real.” The Torah gives us an ideal to keep in our hearts and imagination as we live in the moment, striving to extend holiness in a very real world. There is a message in the sacrifices that still escapes me, although from time to time I grasp pieces of it, like torn bits of brightly colored fabric floating over the abyss.
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