When Civilization Begins

Photo by Adrien xplr on Unsplash
According to the Talmud, young children are supposed to start their Torah study with this week’s Torah portion, which is the beginning of the book of Leviticus. This has never made sense to me because this week’s Torah portion is all about animal sacrifice. It is a little bit gory and quite detailed as it goes into the preparation for the slaughter of animals that the ancient Israelites sacrificed as part of their worship. Would it not be wiser for a young child to start their Torah studies with the magnificent story of the Creation of the World or the inspiring stories of Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews?  What made the sages of the Talmud suggest that young children begin their studies with Leviticus?

Rabbi Peg Kershenbaum, a friend and colleague of mine, sent me a true story that I think can shed some light on the question. Years ago renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.

But no. Mead’s reply was that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was the discovery by anthropologists  of a leg that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You become food for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.

Mead explained, ‘A broken leg that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts’.

Perhaps the sages chose to teach a child about animal sacrifice first because children need to learn that it is through sacrifice that civilization endures. The person who helped his or her friend survive a broken leg so very long ago surely sacrificed a good deal in order to nurse them back to health. So too  these days, right here and now in our nation,  we hear and read about   countless numbers of   doctors, nurses,  first responders, ambulances drivers,  lab technicians and on and on  who report to work to care for the sick despite the dangers to their own health. We see it at so many levels, from the sacrifices of those who operate the cash registers in our supermarkets, to those who stock the shelves so that we can buy foods and essential supplies. We see it in the sacrifices of those who put themselves at risk to buy food for the more vulnerable in our communities. . We see it in the behavior of all of us who have  decided to adhere to the social distancing restrictions  thereby  sacrificing our need for human contact for the larger health and good of our towns, our cities, our country.  We will perhaps feel this sense of sacrifice most acutely as we sit down to our Passover Seders without the presence of family and friends who have gathered around our tables with us in years past. Fortunately, the amazing technologies of our times , at this moment, allow us to be connected with each nonetheless even if at a distance. For this we are grateful. We may be alone – but we are not lonely!

Yes, we are at our best when our sacrifices serve the need of others. Stay safe and healthy.