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Wendy Zierler





On Sacrifices and Life: Wholeness Dismembered but Re-membered



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Wendy Zierler





On Sacrifices and Life: Wholeness Dismembered but Re-membered






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On Sacrifices and Life: Wholeness Dismembered but Re-membered

A burnt offering, must be whole (תמים), after which it is dismembered (נתוח) and offered to YHWH. In the wake of the loss of my parents, I have come to appreciate how this process mirrors the creation story and life.


On Sacrifices and Life: Wholeness Dismembered but Re-membered

Lying Bull, Franz Marc, 1913. Wikimedia

For the past year and a month, I have been saying Kaddish, first for my Dad and now for my Mom (דוד שלמה בן אברהם ולאה ומרים אסתר בת זאב ושרה, David and Marion Zierler). Their lives were torn apart last March by my Dad’s tragic death at the hands of a distracted driver. Far sooner than any of us would have imagined, they were brought back together in the eternal world at the end of January, when my mom passed away after an extended hospital stay.

The life and death of my parents, and their respective personalities (see postscript), inspire me to read the opening chapter of Leviticus in a new, reconstituted way.

Wholeness (Tamim)

The opening chapter of Leviticus specifies what type of animal can be brought as an olah (burnt offering):

ויקרא א:ג אִם עֹלָה קָרְבָּנוֹ מִן הַבָּקָר זָכָר תָּמִים יַקְרִיבֶנּוּ
Lev 1:3 If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall make his offering a male tamim.
ויקרא א:י וְאִם מִן הַצֹּאן קָרְבָּנוֹ מִן הַכְּשָׂבִים אוֹ מִן הָעִזִּים לְעֹלָה זָכָר תָּמִים יַקְרִיבֶנּוּ.
Lev 1:10 If his offering for a burnt offering is from the flock, of sheep or of goats, he shall make his offering a male tamim.

In biblical Hebrew the word tamim (תָּמִים) means “complete” or “perfect.” The specific point here is that it should be without any physical blemishes, but the imagery is one of wholeness. In fact, this requirement of wholeness is applied throughout the sacrificial laws in this parashah (lectionary unit), applied to male and female animals alike. Anthropologist Mary Douglas (1921–2007), in her book Leviticus as Literature, explains the requirement for wholeness in relation to two other core biblical concepts, namely, the perfection of creation and the perfection of justice:

Leviticus is teaching the people of Israel to honor in their lives the order of creation, and by doing so, to share in its work…. Only the perfect body is fit to be consecrated, no animal with any blemish may be sacrificed, no priest with a blemished body shall approach the altar… (Lev 21) Leviticus makes physical blemish correspond to blemished judgment, the scales that judge weight, length, quantity in the market invoke the scales of divine judgment. The smallest case miniaturizes the cosmos, but it is always the same cosmos, constructed on the same principles.[1]

According to Douglas, Leviticus presents us with concentric circles of correspondence and symbolism. In the same way that God’s created world is an unblemished whole, so too our work in that world has to be characterized by unblemished integrity and judgment, and both of these are symbolized by unblemished priests (Lev 21:16–21) offering unblemished sacrifices.

Adam’s Sacrifice

Douglas’s creation-oriented framework is anticipated by a midrash in Leviticus Rabbah 2:7, interpreting the opening phrase of God’s first command in Leviticus:

ויקרא א:ב אָדָם כִּי יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קָרְבָּן לַי־הוָה
Lev 1:2 When a person (’adam) from among you brings an offering to YHWH

In his homiletical reading of the verse, R. Berekhiah reads the first word אָדָם not as a simple noun “person” but as a personal noun, Adam:

אמ[ר] ר' ברכיה: אמ[ר] לו הקדוש ברוך הוא לאדם זה, אדם יהא קרבנך דומה לקרבנו שלאדם הראשון. מה אדם הראשון שהיה כל ברשותו לא הקריב לא מן הגזלות ולא מן החמסין, אף אתה ש[אין][2] הכל ברשותך אל תקריב לא מן הגזילות ולא מן החמסין.
R. Berekhiah said: The Holy Blessed One said to this person: ‘Let your offering be ‘Adam’s’—[meaning] like the offering of Adam the First [Human]. Just as Adam the First, who had all things in his ownership, never offered anything acquired by robbery and violence, so too you, who [do not] have ownership over everything, should never offer anything acquired by robbery or violence.

Like Douglas, this midrash links the Levitical sacrificial system back to the beginning of the world and of human life. The perfect sacrifice is the one offered by the first human being, created by God. Moreover, the midrash also emphasizes the connection between sacrifices and justice inasmuch as an animal acquired by theft or violence is also not really tamim.

To be sure, there is a fantastical or wishful element to this midrash, insofar as the Bible makes no actual mention of Adam bringing sacrifices. In fact, the first mention of sacrifices in the Bible occurs in Genesis 4 in the context of the story of Cain and Abel, in an incident that culminates with the first act of murder in human history. This highlights the other aspect of sacrifices: the animal begins in wholeness, but the process inevitably tears it apart.

Dismemberment and Re-Membering

Once the animal is brought to the Tent of Meeting, and the person bringing it lays his or her hand[3] upon its head, the priests slaughter the animal and dash its blood around the altar, after which:

ויקרא א:ו וְהִפְשִׁיט אֶת הָעֹלָה וְנִתַּח אֹתָהּ לִנְתָחֶיהָ.... א:ח וְעָרְכוּ בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֲנִים אֵת הַנְּתָחִים... עַל הָעֵצִים אֲשֶׁר עַל הָאֵשׁ אֲשֶׁר עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ. א:ט ...וְהִקְטִיר הַכֹּהֵן אֶת הַכֹּל הַמִּזְבֵּחָה עֹלָה אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחוֹחַ לַי־הוָה.
Lev 1:6 And he shall flay the burnt-offering and dismember it into its pieces…. 1:8 and Aaron's sons, the priests, shall lay out the pieces… on the wood that is on the fire upon the altar. 1:9 …and the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to YHWH.

To use a mixed metaphor here, dismemberment is not a bug in the sacrificial system; it’s a feature. One takes something whole, dismembers it, and it thus becomes an olah, a whole burnt-offering, pleasing to YHWH. In other words, dismemberment of a whole is necessary in order to create a new whole.

If one thinks about the creation of the world as described in Genesis 1, this notion becomes clearer. When God creates the world we live in now, God begins with the world as it was before, a tohu vavohu (תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ), an undifferentiated mass.[4] And then, there is light, followed by a series of distinctions between light and dark, evening and morning, upper and lower waters, heaven and earth, land and sea, male and female. And so it is that the temimut, or undifferentiated wholeness of the primordial world is systematically dismembered, and gives way to a new wholeness, the created world.

In Human Experience

This process of dismembering a whole to create another is mirrored in human experience as well. Since the beginning of time, human knowledge, devotion, and life have been a continual process and effort of dismembering and subsequent re-membering, i.e., reassembling the sundered pieces into new experiential and cognitive wholes. The experience goes all the way back to the womb, where we are one with our mothers, differentiated from them at birth, and begin the process of growth that reconstitutes each of us a unique whole.

Human life, knowledge, and devotion may begin in wholeness, but almost immediately, this wholeness gives way to differentiation and a splitting off into constituent parts. Although there is pain in this, there is also hope, as each dismemberment leads to a new re-membering.

This is our human lot: to reach for wholeness in the face of inevitable sundering and loss, to think and analyze, and re-member our way into a new, reconstituted sense of second naivete, as literary critical Paul Ricoeur describes it,[5] or, in the language of this parashah, a form of reinterpreted, re-membered temimut. We may not know the precise words for it, but we re-member the images and declare the longing for wholeness and togetherness nevertheless.

A Poem of Wholeness and Dismemberment

As part of my own experience of dismemberment and re-membering, I’ve been giving a weekly devar Torah (brief reflection on a Torah passage) on prayer at the end of the morning prayer service I attend, a talk, in my case, built around modern Hebrew poetry. I’ve dubbed this practice, שיר חדש של יום—“New Poem of the Day.” [6]

In keeping with this, I would like to share a poem called תפילה “Tefilah,” that I feel connects with the theme of the devar Torah.[7] It was published in 1958 by Abraham Halfi (1904–1980), an Israeli poet made especially famous because the Israeli rock star Arik Einstein set a number of his poems to music.

The poem appears in Siddur Erev Shabbat Umoʿed, the prayer book of Beit Tefilah Yisraeli[8]—a congregation famous for their Friday evening Kabbalot Shabbat (“welcoming the sabbath” prayer) on the Tel Aviv Pier—as a provocative companion piece to Psalm 92, the traditional “poem of the day” for the Shabbat.[9]

In “Tefilah,” the poetic speaker who claims no knowledge of the language of prayer nevertheless prays. He claims he has no idea where the words of prayer come from, nevertheless, he uses words to describe a fleeting sense of radiance, joy and innocence that he wishes would never end. Pursuant to that hope, he kneels before an image (דמות) of the very God he claims has disappeared, asking that absent God to safeguard the temimim, the innocent, or whole.

אינני יודע מילים מהן נולדת תפילה
I know not the words from which prayer is born.
כל המילים אבדו בקולי והיו כאלמות אפלה.
All the words have been lost in my voice and become a dark muteness.
אך עדיין רואות עיני זוהר עיניו של ילד.
But my eyes still see the radiance in the eyes of a child.
ועוד רואות עיני: כוכב אין דומה לו בזוהר,
And my eyes still see: a star that has no peer in its radiance
ואמהות דאוגות פנים נוהגות אל האור ילדיהן הקטנים.
And worried-faced mothers guide their small children toward the light.
מה יהיה עליהם? מה יהיה?
What will be over them? What will be?
אינני יודע מילים מהן נולדת תפילה.
I know not the words from which prayer is born.
שמעו שמחתם הנושמת כאביב,
Hear their joy breathing like a springtime
שנדמה כי לא יחלוף עד עולם.
That seems to me might never ever pass.
כרוע אכרע לפני דמות אלוהים
Surely I shall kneel before an image of God
אף אם מעיני נעלם.
Even if that God has disappeared from my eyes.
אל נא תרע לתמימים.
Harm not the innocents (temimim), please.
הם אינם יודעים מדוע ברק פוגע בעץ
They know not why lightning strikes a tree
הנושא את פריו לתומו.
That naively bears its fruit [or “That bears its fruit to its conclusion”].
אל נא תרע לתמימים
Harm not the innocents (temimim), please.
הם אינם יודעים מדוע אדם מחלל את צלמו
They know not why a person profanes their image
אינני יודע מילים מהן נולדת תפילה.
I know not the words from which prayer is born.
כל המילים אבדו בקולי והיו כאלמות אפלה.
All the words have gotten lost in my voice and become a dark muteness.

Implied in these lines is that there is something in the divine order of things that threatens wholeness, compelling the poet to beg, paradoxically, for protection. The references in this stanza to Adam, to a tree and a fruit, and the use here and elsewhere of the verb “to know” (לדעת), all underscore this point.

The poet asks an absent God, who once planted a tree of knowledge of good and bad in the middle of the Garden of Eden, thereby preparing the ground for the loss of Adam and Eve’s innocence, not to do bad or harm (אל נא תרע) to those temimim who have no knowledge of the fundamental division at the root of human knowledge and have no understanding of why lightning strikes a tree or why it is that other human beings choose to profane God, the Godliness (צלם אלהים) within themselves.

“Pray brothers, do not act so wickedly”

In addition to these Genesis references, the poet’s twice-uttered plea of אל נא תרע also calls to mind two biblical episodes in which that same plea occurs.[10] The first, in Genesis 19:7, occurs when the men of Sodom beat on Lot’s door, demanding to “know” the malʾakhim (angels or messengers) who have come to save Lot and his clan, only to be told, אַל נָא אַחַי תָּרֵעוּ “Pray, do not act so wickedly,” and to be offered Lot’s virgin daughters as (sacrificial) substitutes.

The second, in Judges 19:23, is the grisly story of the concubine in Gibeah, in which a mob is similarly instructed אַל אַחַי אַל תָּרֵעוּ נָא “Pray brothers, do not act so wickedly,” only to be offered a virgin daughter and a concubine to do with what they will; the mob ends up seizing the concubine, “knowing her” and abusing her all night long.

Subsequently, the Levite dismembers the body of his gang-raped and murdered concubine​—וַיְנַתְּחֶהָ לַעֲצָמֶיהָ לִשְׁנֵים עָשָׂר נְתָחִים “and cut her up limb by limb into twelve parts” (Judg 19:29),—in order to send a message of outrage to the twelve tribes. This allusion only strengthens the connection between Halfi’s poem and the twin themes of wholeness and dismemberment at the center of my interpretation of the symbolism of the olah.

Halfi’s allusion to these two stories underscores the violence that underlies the sacrificial act of dismemberment, a notion intimated in the repeated references, at the beginning and the end of the poem, to אלמות (muteness), a word that is almost identical to the Hebrew word for violence, אלימות.

A Prayer that Undoes Itself

The irony of all of this is striking: here is a poet who pleads for the protection of temimut by way of a textual tradition that repeatedly and even violently, dismantles it, a poet who frames his poem at its beginning and its end with heresy and skepticism, and yet naively prays for wholeness to the self-same God responsible, at least in some measure, for its undoing. In this way, Halfi’s poem is a poignant example of wholeness that comes from dismemberment.

Personal Postscript: My Parents’ Temimut and Nituaḥ

My parents embodied respectively the two contradictory modes described in this devar Torah: those of wholeness (temimut) and dismemberment (nituaḥ).

My father was a tamim, a native optimist, who always said “It’s going to be good,” even when things were awful. He was born, it seems, with a natural twinkle or light in his marble blue eyes—a glint that sparkled especially when he would look at Mom or at the rest of his family whom he adored. He was a natural שמח בחלקו (“delighted in his lot”), even though he knew violent and tragic loss, having lost one brother to drowning, another brother to WWII, and his mother to a hit and run accident.

And then there was my Mom, practitioner of nituah: natively skeptical, analytical, given to doubts, misgivings, realistic assessments, wide-eyed clarity about religion, people, relationships, and her prospects of leading a life of independence and dignity in the face of her many health challenges.

My mother prodded my father to hold things and facts up to a scrutinizing light, in ways that he might not have done himself. My father’s native spirituality helped my mother re-embrace the stifling religiosity of her youth in a new light. My parents influenced and shaped one another. They were so different, were my Mom and Dad, but together, they constituted a unique, re-assembled or re-membered whole.


March 26, 2020


Last Updated

April 6, 2024


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Prof. Rabbi Wendy Zierler is the Sigmund Falk Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at HUC-JIR. She received her Ph.D. and M.A. from Princeton University, her MFA in Fiction Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, her B.A. from Stern College (YU), and her rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Maharat. She is the author of And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Hebrew Women’s Writing, and co-editor of Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History. Most recently she co-edited the book These Truths We Hold: Judaism in an Age of Truthiness.