One of the three required topics at the seder table and ingredients on the seder plate is the shankbone or Pesach, which shares it’s name with the entire holiday. In the “enlightened 90’s”, it’s often very difficult to talk about Karbanot, Animal Sacrifices, without some feelings of embarrassment or apologetics. When you’re vegetarian as we are, it’s the only time in the year meat is even at our table!
We often begin the discussion with a sense of historical pride that our Jewish tradition, beginning with the Akeda, the Binding of Isaac, initiated the transition towards a higher level of civilization, ending human sacrifice by substituting other animals. Rav Kook, first Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, taught that in the Third Temple, and let us forgo trying to understand that concept right now, sacrifices will be further refined and limited to the Karban Mincha, the meal-offerings. So, we can see this shankbone as a step along the way and, in fact, our most recent one.
Sacrifice, both in it’s literal meaning of “making something sacred” and in it’s vernacular meaning of giving something up, is an extremely inadequate translation of the Hebrew word and concept of Karban. As many of you know, the root of the word means to approach, to bring together. The spiritual function of the Karbanot was to bring humans closer to the Creator, to somehow become more complete, more fully human. This was achieved by the simple act of giving up something of significant value in order to feed those without resources, since we should remind ourselves that most karbanot weren’t merely slaughtered and burnt, but rather supplied food for the Cohanim, the Temple priests, who had no land or flocks of their own. It was also, in the case where the donors ate (as in the Karban Pesach), a way to heighten our awareness and refine our eating. Remember, in those days and throughout most of Jewish (and human) history, not only was meat a rare luxury, but food didn’t come pre-packaged and already prepared.
We now come to an interesting question which is why Aaron and his descendants were in charge of this process. Thankfully, for most of Jewish history, nepotism and dynasticism were not strong forces. Aaron was not chosen to be Cohain Gadol, High Priest, merely because his brother was the tribal leader, Moses, but because of his own unique personality and qualifications. The very little information we have about Aaron is that he was Ohev Shalom and Rodef Shalom, not merely “loving peace”, as who among us doesn’t, but actively trying to create peace, especially beyn ish l’ishto, between a man and wife. In other words, this overriding concern to bring people together, this gift to create peace, qualified Aaron to pursue this task also in the spiritual and transcendental relationship between man and God. (Much of this is based on writings of the Ramchal, Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzatto in the early 1700’s.)
All right, I’m feeling a little better about karbanot in general now. I don’t feel I must apologize for fondly remembering an ancient barbaric ritual. But I still haven’t started to explore this particular one, the Karban Pesach.
Rashi, the “Great Commentator”–really much more than that,he teases us throughout our studies with hints and clues to deeper meanings–begins his commentary on the entire Torah wondering why it starts with the Creation story and not with the initial preparations for the Karban Pesach which are the first commandments given to the Jewish nation. He hints, at least, that there is something very primal and essential about this karban. He points to further exploration.
I next turned to the Maharal, Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, a sixteenth century scholar and community leader who wrote a very illuminating book about the descent into and the redemption from Egypt. When he examines the Karban Pesach he finds that everything about it leads back to the concept of Achdut, Oneness. It’s eaten whole in one house by one family (or one group of families if there is too much food for a single family). It is eaten for one night only. It cannot be broken up in the preparation (even a broken bone disqualifies it) and is roasted rather than boiled in order to keep it from coming apart in a broth or stew. It comes from a Seh, a lamb or kid, one year old. He relates a beautiful rabbinic comparison of this small animal, this Seh (as opposed to a large animal such as a cow or an ox) with the Jewish People whereas if you pull one leg of this lamb, the entire animal follows just as when one Jew grows, all of us benefit and when one of us sins, all are brought down. In other words, this points to the oneness of our people.
Finally we see this shankbone no longer memorializing a quaint custom but continuously focusing our attention on the idea of oneness.
The question arises, of course, what do we mean by One? Are we being inclusive or exclusive, universal or tribal or, as my wife described it, single or whole?
Both historically and halachically, we’ve looked at Jewish oneness as a celebration of our uniqueness but never as a template all others must follow. Rather, we’ve looked to a much more universal goal where each individual in their uniqueness, each group and family and tribe and nation in their uniqueness, is a necessary and organic part of a functioning whole, a universe in which we’re partners in Creation by the act of our re-creating, refining and evolving ourselves.
The Maharal goes even further when he reminds us that the Pesach, leading up to Oneness specifically, as we remember, through the act of Chesed, kindness, the karban, must be eaten with the Matzo and the Maror, the unleavened, simple bread and the bitter herbs, the symbol of freedom and the reminder of bondage. The possibilities, the experiences, the choices are all contained within the Oneness, the source of all.
We say Hag Kasher v’Sameach, a happy and kosher holiday. Let’s remember that kasher doesn’t mean only “according to Jewish dietary laws”, but fully-prepared. May we prepare ourselves individually, communally and universally for this next step.
Hag Kasher v’Sameach.