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Two Minutes of Torah

>Two Minutes of Torah: Vayikra (Leviticus 2:7-3:18) – The Power of a Touch

>I know that some people have ethical issues with zoos; but as a child I loved London Zoo. I thought it was one of the best places in the entire city, filled with an amazing selection of animals. I enjoyed watching them from a distance, or through wire fences, my favourites were the sea lions and the gorillas. But I was also fond of the children’s zoo (I think that is what the section was called) where you could walk amongst the animals. I always wanted to touch them and to stroke them, but I was also nervous about how they might react to physical contact. These goats and sheep were far less exciting than some of the other species in the zoo, but there was something exciting about the opportunity to actually touch an animal, it established a connection I could never have with the sea lions and gorillas.

This week’s Torah portion involves animals, although rather than being observed and enjoyed, they were being offered up as sacrifices according to the laws of the Tabernacle (and later the Temple). Leviticus shifts our focus away from the stories of Genesis and Exodus, moving immediately into the laws of the sacrifices expected of the people. Throughout the Book there are a multiplicity of sacrifices articulated and explained, with a variety of rules and animals necessary for the fulfilment of each one. As modern readers of the Book, and its laws, we may feel uncomfortable as we read the descriptions of the slaughter of animals as a means to worship God.

The section which we actually read begins innocently enough with the meal offering ‘baked in the frying pan, it shall be made of fine flour with oil’ (Leviticus 2:7). However, it is soon dealing with the subject of animal sacrifices in relation to what is required for a peace offering. The description of the process including the slaughter, and the ritual ceremonies around the blood and entrails is enough to make a vegetarian queasy. Blood is sprinkled, kidneys and livers are cooked all in order of producing ‘an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour to Adonai’ (Leviticus 3:5).

We may feel uncomfortable at the need for an animal to be killed so that God can enjoy a pleasant odour. However, there is one element which appears in the process of the animal sacrifice for a peace offering. Before killing the animal at the door of the Tent of Meeting, it states: ‘And he shall lay his hand upon the head of his offering’ (Leviticus 3:2). The animal is not just killed, but a physical connection is established between the Priest and the animal in advance of its slaughter. This may appear as scant consolation for the animal which will soon be finding itself the main course in a barbecue for God, but it must have been significant for the Priest and his relationship to the animal.

Through the act of laying hands on the animal’s head, it was in one sense consecrated for God, sanctified for its use as a sacrifice. But in another sense it ensured that the Priest performing the sacrifice had established a physical connection with the animal. This was no longer a completely random animal; this was an animal which had been touched by the Priest; an animal with whom the Priest had established a physical link.

As I read about the sacrifices and feel uncomfortable with the fact that God required animals to be killed and burnt as a way of relating, and praying, to God. I like to think that the laying on of hands was a way of making sure that there was a pause and a moment of recognition that life would be lost in the course of this process. I know that in the zoo as soon as I touched the animal a different relationship was established, and I like to think that this happened for the Priest as well. We all know that physical contact creates a different relationship from just observing someone (or something) from a distance. The physical touch ensured the Priest never forgot the awesome responsibility literally in his hands; towards the animal, the people and God.

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