Parshat Tsav

Torah Reading for Week of March 21 – 27, 2010

“Arrogance: Reactions to Parshat Tsav”

by Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon
AJRCA First Year Rabbinic Student

Is this really what Moshe and the Holy One were chatting about, up on Mt. Sinai – kidneys and blood and the oozing fat of sacrificial animals? I prefer the more famous accounts of their conversation, from the book of Exodus: keep the Sabbath, don’t steal, treat your slave with some degree of dignity. Compared to this week’s parsha, Tsav, the Ten Commandments of Parshat Yitro and the civil law code of Mishpatim seem so much more advanced, more becoming of the loftiness of Sinai. But Tsav also claims to emerge from that high place: “This is the Torah of the burnt offering, and the meal offering, and the sin and guilt and consecration and peace offerings, that Hashem commanded Moshe on Mt. Sinai, on the day he commanded the Israelites to bring their sacrifices to Hashem. . .”

I sit in a coffee shop, pondering how to extract some spiritual essence from the gore of this week’s parsha. I lick the foam at the top of my mocha latte. I love the way the bubbles melt on my tongue. Hard to believe this airy stuff is milk! It’s even harder to believe that milk comes from cows: extracted from hairy, pink tits by a metallic sucking device. I wonder how many cows contributed milk to this one cup of latte? I wonder if any of them ever suckled their own calves?

I warm my hands on the paper cup, inhaling the smell of coffee and chocolate. How would an Israelite have felt walking to the Tabernacle, dragging an animal he may have raised since birth? At the last moment before the end, he was required to place his hands on the animal’s head. He could feel its hair, the thinness of its skin, the hardness of its skull. Would he look into its eyes before he took the knife and slit its throat?

How did the Priest feel, watching this same ritual, over and over? How did he feel, sticking his hands into each warm, wet corpse and removing the kidneys to place on the altar? The Priest and the Israelite, did they like the smell of the meat roasting? Did they enjoy eating it in the courtyard?

I don’t suppose I’ll ever really know how they felt. My seven year old son is a self-proclaimed vegetarian, except occasionally he eats hot dogs. I am definitely not vegetarian. I love corned beef sandwiches, and spicy kebabs, and any kind of boneless chicken cutlet. But I’m not fond of chicken on the bone, and I don’t like dark meat, especially legs. The variegated color of leg meat disgusts me: the dark crimson bits, and the juiciness, and the chewy cartilage cap at the top of the bone.

Were any of our ancient ancestors vegetarian, they who understood what they were eating? If yes, I suspect they were only so de facto, of financial necessity; the poor person’s offering was flour. But I prefer to pretend my meat grows in plastic wrap and my milk originates in cartons, and to wonder that anyone could have believed in a G-d that desired animal sacrifices.