Drash on Parashat Tzav (HaGadol)
Cantor Michel Laloum
Temple Beth Israel
St Kilda, Victoria
Transitioning from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice to prayer: a Jewish evolution
If we think of this evolution as beginning with the story of Akedat Yitzchak or the sacrifice/binding of Isaac (Gen 22), then this is the biblical text that rejects human sacrifice and embraces animal sacrifice instead. While the impact of this text may be lessened when read with modern eyes, human sacrifice was common in this era and this part of the world. According to Joseph Hertz, Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, child sacrifice was actually "rife among the Semitic peoples" and he suggests that "in that age, it was astounding that Abraham's God should have interposed to prevent the sacrifice, not that God should have asked for it." Hertz interprets the Akedah as demonstrating to the Jews that human sacrifice is abhorrent. In Akedah the evolution begins with this transition from human to animal sacrifice.
Similarly, with the destruction of the second Temple, animal sacrifice evolves into Avodat halev or the words and work of our hearts – what was ultimately to progress to prayer as means of connecting with God.
Parashat Tzav focuses on sacrifices to be made in the Temple in Jerusalem. According to Rabbi Joshua ben Levi: “prayers were instituted to replace the daily sacrifices,” following the destruction of the second Temple. The sages instituted prayer in place of the sacrifices and prayer times emulated the times set for the animal sacrifices: Evening (Maariv), morning (Shacharit or dawn), and Minchah (afternoon). In addition, on festivals and Shabbat, the supplementary sacrifice was replaced by the Musaf service. Throughout the generations, these prayers, which were originally replacements to animal sacrifices, transitioned into the rich variety of prayers which ultimately became our Siddurim. The core of which and the replacement to sacrifices became the Amidah.
What is the purpose of prayer? If prayer is intended to be a petition or request, then it assumes an anthropomorphic God who is not already aware of our needs. Do we truly believe that an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent God requires us to articulate these in prayer? And, is it necessary to remind God three times a day?
Clearly prayer, which has such a central role in religious Jewish practice must have a dramatically different purpose. Perhaps prayer is to remind us of God’s omnipresence and generosity? (Rambam on Ex 13:16) Perhaps prayer is to help us focus on our ‘Godly or Godlike’ behaviour and on strengthening our relationship with God?
This concept of prayer resonates in the Hebrew root of the word. Prayer in German, French and Russian means to request or petition - (beten in German, prier in French and Молитва in Russian.), whereas in Hebrew the root pey, lamed, lamed, means to call to mind or bring to attention (see Gen 48:1). Jewish tradition has a number of different interpretations when it comes to the purpose of prayer. Rambam explains that the purpose of prayer is “to cause us to recognize our utter dependence on God” (Guide for the Perplexed 3:32).
According to Psalms, it is through prayer that we draw nearer to God, and we could also say that our prayers are being answered, “as for me, nearness to God is good.” (Psalms 73:28) The idea of prayer bringing us closer to God also resonates in one of the Hebrew words for sacrifice or offering - ‘korban’. This concept implies that in making and offering (originally a sacrifice but now a prayer), the person brings their soul closer (mekarev) to God (Rashi). Being near to God is the benefit that comes from prayer.
While this week’s Haftarah from Jeremiah 9:22-23 also touches on sacrifices, it concludes with focusing not on prayer but on our actions: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom, nor the strong man boast of his strength, nor the rich man boast of his riches. But let him (or her) that boasts exult in this, the he(/she) understands and knows Me, for I am God, who practices kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth: for in these things I delight, says God”. (Jeremiah 9:22-23). Without the practice of these acts, prayer is incomplete.