Wait ‘til you get to Vayikra,” my dad laughed, when I told him that I was starting a column called Parenting by Parsha. My mom laughed along with him. “Exodus is all stories,” she said, “but Leviticus is when it gets really tough.” My mom is a Cantor, and she’s chanted every Torah portion there is too many times to count. She’s the one who taught me to leyn, and my dad is the person I read the portion with every week at shul when I was growing up. He would always follow along with the text itself, but also pointed out the interpretations on the side of the page to me. They know a thing or two about Torah, and when they told me to look out for Vayikra, it seemed a little ominous.
So, here we are. This week’s portion is the first in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), and as promised, it’s icky. If I thought that Terumah was heavy on the blood and guts, this week takes it to a whole new level. The portion dives right in, no warning. “The burnt offering shall be flayed and cut up into sections,” says Leviticus 1:6, and the biblical author is just getting started. If you don’t like reading about entrails or pinching off the heads of pigeons (how is that done?), I recommend ducking out at this point.
When I read Vayikra aloud to my wife, who will gladly watch every episode of Criminal Minds while I avert my eyes, she made a face and said, “Thanks. Got it. You don’t have to keep reading.”
So. Let’s talk about blood and guts and animal sacrifice.
First, we don’t do that anymore. Although there are sects that broke off of mainstream Judaism that continue to practice animal sacrifice (the Samaritans come to mind), mainstream Jews suffice with reading about sacrifices. Prayer is considered the replacement for sacrifice, as it has been since the time of the exile by the Romans in 70 CE, more or less. Once the Temple in Jerusalem wasn’t available for sacrificing animals and the priests had been dispersed throughout the Roman Empire, the Rabbis adopted new forms of sacrifice. Avodah, or prayer, as well as tzedakah, helping those in need, are just two forms of modern-day sacrifice.
But the sacrifices described in these verses here are meant to atone for sins. The people who give up a pigeon, a turtledove, or a sheep to be sacrificed are giving up something of value, something that will make amends for a wrongful deed. How can prayer or tzedakah come close to seeing your best sheep dashed against the stones, “its blood against all sides of the altar”? (Leviticus 1:11)
It can’t. Praying does something different: less shock-and-awe, and more contemplative. Actually, in my modern-day eyes, the contemplation kind of makes more sense as ways of getting to the blood and guts of sin. While the shift to prayer and tzedakah was the result of historical shifts and not an intentional move, it may have been a happy accident. A fortunate simple twist of fate, as my little one’s favorite songwriter, would say.
As parents, we know that the consequence must fit the crime or it will have little to no effect. When my kid throws his toys out of the bath and I keep picking them up, all the while telling him not to throw them out, no change is likely to occur. Why would it? Conversely, if the bath toys get left on the floor until he has nothing to play with and he has to pick them up later, maybe the lesson will be learned. If not once, then the third or fourth time. Maybe. I hope.
Seeing the consequence in a very real way, coupled with an explanation about why the behavior isn’t a great choice, may inspire a form of contemplation that results in deeper understanding. Sure, seeing your prize bull “slaughtered before the Lord,” and “some of the bull’s blood [brought] into the Tent of Meeting,” and the priest dipping “his finger in the blood, and [sprinkling] the blood seven times before the Lord, in front of the curtain of the Shrine” has got to hurt. But does that kind of punishment really inspire deep and meaningful change? Or does it just make you smarter about not getting caught?
I was a kid who was very good at gaming whatever system I was in, and I was an expert at not getting caught. I cut my first class in fifth grade, once I figured out that the gym teacher took attendance in the classroom and then sent us outside without checking who made it to the dodgeball field. It was almost too easy. I definitely didn’t understand what value gym class had to me or what value I had to gym class.
I also suffered my share of punishments, from being grounded to losing my TV rights for a week. Thinking back on little me, I wonder if I had understood why my actions were, whether that understanding would have translated into different behavior going forwards.
Maybe not. I wasn’t very contemplative, as kids go, and I might have just avoided the exercise in deep thought. That being said, if I wasn’t just scared of not being able to watch MTV anymore I may have changed my behavior. At the very least, it would have opened up a new avenue for communication between me and the adults in my life.
Metaphorically, I think this approach actually gets to the blood and guts of a situation more accurately. If I want my child to understand a situation, the events need to be taken apart and peered at. Just like the sheep, bulls, and pigeons are in Vayikra.
If an adult had wronged me, I’d want that person to understand why I was hurt and how that changes the way in which they need to make amends. Why wouldn’t I want my kid to understand the same process? After all, children are just adults who haven’t been here as long. They’re people, too. As I get up each day and try to parent in the best way I know how, I try to remember what kind of adult I want my toddler to be one day.
Hopefully, he’ll be the kind of person who isn’t afraid to look into the belly of the beast and see a situation for what it is. Maybe, our toddler will grow up to understand how his actions impact others, and how to make amends in a thoughtful and meaningful way. For now, all we can do is keep explaining and try not to look away from the essence of the confrontations we encounter along the way.