By Rabbi Yosef Prupas
In light of current events, this Dvar Torah is very timely.
Orthodox Jews are often asked strange questions about the Jewish faith from those less knowledgeable in Judaism. Often these questions come from a basic misconception about religion. For many, being intensely religious means self-sacrifice. They may believe that the more they give up the more devout they are. The result is confusion of the basic tenets of other religions with Judaism and hence the strange questions. Most world religions follow Webster's definition of sacrifice, meaning "an act of offering to a deity something precious; especially: the killing of a victim on an altar." This leads some to infer that Judaism follows this approach as well. From this week's parsha we learn otherwise.
The Torah this week introduces various laws pertaining to animal sacrifices. Among them is the prohibition to slaughter an animal and its offspring on the same day and the obligation to wait until the calf is at least eight days old before one can use it as a sacrifice. What possible lesson is the Torah trying to convey with these commandments?
The Meshech Chochma explains that Hashem is revealing to us that the sacrifice process isn't based on the quantity of suffering. It is not true that the more one gives up and the more one suffers for sake of a god, the more that individual has demonstrated his devotion to that deity/religion. An extreme example of this is human sacrifice.
Although there is a need to sacrifice animals to G-d (for reasons that are beyond the scope of this Dvar Torah), it needs to be done in the most humane way possible. To grab a young calf from its mother immediately after birth is an act of cruelty. In the same vein, killing a mother and its baby on the same day gives the impression, as explained by the Ramban, that one is willing to annihilate an entire species. This is why Hashem required that sacrifices be taken only from animals usually found in abundance.
The Meshech Chochma goes on to say that similar lessons are found throughout Torah. We are commanded to sanctify the Kohein, give joy to the Levi, and benefit the Yisroel with one's wealth. We are warned not to sell a Jew, and if he is sold - to treat him with respect. We are obligated to sustain a ger toshav (permanent non-Jewish resident who according to some opinions has accepted upon himself the Noahide laws) and not to embarrass the Canaanite slave. We are not allowed to inflict pain upon an animal, and if we need to eat it, to slaughter it in the most humane way possible, etc. In sum, the Torah teaches us to show compassion, benevolence, and kindness, which are attributes of Hashem, and to follow in His ways.
The above lessons are so essential, for history is replete with examples of shocking rituals, depredation, and self infliction, in the name of religion. To counteract such notions the Torah concludes the aforementioned laws with the words, "You shall not defile My holy Name, and you shall sanctify Me..." The Torah is telling us that we are obligated to demonstrate compassion and sensitivity, and only by doing so can we sanctify the name of Hashem. It would be a disgrace for Hashem if we followed the "sacred" practices of other religions. May we take these lessons to heart, and let them impact our behavior, and as a result have a positive effect on our unaffiliated and newly affiliated fellow Jews.