“For I did not speak to your fathers on the day that I freed them from Egypt about offerings and sacrifices.” (Yirmiyah 7:22)
There are points in Moshe’s swan song that get technical. In perashat Re’eh Moshe details no less than 55 commandments that are to become part of Jewish life in the land of Israel. Among these is the prohibition against offering an animal that is lame, blind or ill on the altar.
Now if there be in it a defect, lame or blind, any defect for ill, you are not to slaughter it to G-d, your Lord. (15:21)
At first glance, it reads like any of the many other laws that pertain to korbanot (offerings). This one, however, seems to have been a particular challenge for the people. Curiously, 1,000 years later, we find the prophet, Malakhi, criticising the people for transgressing this very prohibition:
You present blind [animals] for slaughter [and say] ‘there is nothing bad in it’, you present lame and sickly [animals, and say] ‘there is nothing bad in it’, please, offer it to your governor! Would he respond kindly to you? Would he pay you any mind?! (Malakhi, 1:8)
Surely there were more serious transgressions that Malakhi might have pointed out. Why did this issue have him so concerned? It pointed to a deep breakdown in the people’s relationship with G-d. Moshe knew that when acts of care are obligatory in nature, they easily self-destruct. For example, gifts on birthdays and anniversaries, a daily kiss hello and goodbye, flowers on Mothers’ Day, are all institutions that are meant to show care, but all too often, they become habitually mechanical and lose the lustre they had at the beginning. Moshe spends the first three parashot of Debarim illustrating, in beautiful prose, what it means to have a relationship with G-d. He charges us to embrace this divine bond with passion. Telling us:
Hold G-d, your Lord, in awe, walk in His ways and love Him…cling to Him…He is your praise, He is your G-d. (10:12,20-21)
Moshe is not describing a religious observance here. He is describing a human relationship with the Creator, complete with love, respect, reverence and commitment — all elements we would expect to find in a genuine loving relationship. To see the charge of Moshe regarding the condition of sacrificial animals as nothing more than an imposition by G-d on humans to pay Him tribute, is to miss the point of Torah’s intention. Moshe stresses here that G-d is not interested in having people simply complete tasks in His name. The interest is in sharing, caring, and mutual investment in building a productive, viable and beautiful world together.
When religion becomes predominantly about completing tasks rather than enhancing one’s passion and dedication through mind as well as deed, the soul suffers. The act that was meant to be a means of caring interaction steadily deteriorates into nothing more than a cold, obligatory tribute. We know that in our human relationships a single, pristine rose given with a full heart to a loved one who adores flowers, is invaluably more precious than a bouquet presented out of apathetic obligation. We are meant to learn from our human relationships and relate them in the way in which we engage in our relationship with G-d.
Thus, Malakhi completes his rebuke by suggesting that the people take the offerings with which they aim to appease G-d, and present them to the local governor. Would the governor recognise it as a worthy gift? If one wouldn’t offer it to an important human, why deem it appropriate for G-d? Moshe teaches us here that our prayers, our mitsvot, and all that we do in our Jewish lives are aimed at building a loving relationship with G-d. Religion that lacks the care of the human heart has failed G-d and humanity. Torah is not meant to discipline humanity into glorified robotics. Torah’s purpose is to teach the Jewish people never to sleep in the lap of indifference.