Weekly Torah portion: Parshat Vayikra

Torah portion Tuesdays: Parshat Vayikra

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Torah portion Tuesdays is our weekly feature where Cantor Matt Axelrod humorously breaks down each week’s passage so that budding bar and bat mitzvah students can better understand and relate to the text.

I have two words for you — blood and guts.

Welcome to this week’s parsha: Parshat Vayikra!

If you were looking for a touchy-feely story about Moses or the adventures of the Israelite people, you have come to the wrong book of the Torah.

Now let’s cut in!

A couple thousand years ago, before we had synagogues, prayer books, and bar mitzvah lessons, there was one central Temple (notice the capital “T”) that stood in Jerusalem. If you have ever visited that city and stood next to the Western Wall, that’s about as close as you can get to where that Temple once stood. In the Temple, there was a guy called the High Priest who was in charge of everything that went on.

Jews would make journeys from all over in order to visit the Temple and make sacrifices. That meant that they would bring some of their animals to be slaughtered by the High Priest, which would then be burnt up on the altar — kind of like a barbeque but way less fun.

And what was the reason for this very strange ritual?

The key lies in the meaning of the word “sacrifice.” By definition, this meant taking something that was very valuable and giving it over to God.

Today, people have nice cars in their driveways and big-screen TV’s in their dens. Back then, wealth and possessions were measured by how much cattle and livestock you had. So on certain occasions you were required to pick out some choice animals — no mangy or weak ones, but rather the very finest specimens you had — and hand them over to God.

Okay, fine, but why do we need to read about this? These passages seem downright gross, like an ancient version of the Food Network — but instead of watching the chef delicately chop food on a cutting board, you get to imagine the High Priest literally ripping apart animals.

Yum.

Plus, reading about ancient sacrifice in modern times might seem irrelevant. A Jewish Westminster dog breeder isn’t going to sacrifice her finest shih tzu to appease God. That’s just silly. And illegal. So, why is this stuff even in the Torah?

Think about it this way: when are we most inspired to pick up a prayer book and read the words inside? How about when we’re thankful and want to show our gratitude, when we have done something wrong and want to express our guilt and remorse, or when we feel that our community might be in trouble and want to join together.

In fact, these were precisely the different emotions that ancient people might be feeling during this week’s parsha, and it’s why the Jews felt they had to bring sacrifices to the Temple. They looked around at everything they had and realized that they owed it all to God. Giving up some of their wealth was a way of putting their money where their mouths were.

This is a lesson that is especially important for bar and bat mitzvah kids to learn. Yes, you are working very hard towards your bar mitzvah, and yet you’re also going to have a fun party afterwards. Therefore, doing something selfless, like a mitzvah or other charitable project, is a great way of giving back to God and the community for the grand ole time you’re about to have.

Isn’t that better than sacrificing Fido?

And I bet sitting through services doesn’t sound so bad anymore, does it?

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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