One of the major sections of the Torah portion of Pinchas comes in Num. chapters 28-29, which details the laws of the daily sacrifice offered in the ancient Temple, as well as the special additional sacrifices offered on each of the holidays. Like other sections of the Torah that detail sacrificial laws, this one can appear to be boring at first blush. We don’t offer sacrifices anymore (and we might be uncomfortable with the idea of doing so), and we may feel we already know the calendar. So what’s to gain by paying attention?

In the words of the literary critic Denis Donoghue, “Interpretation begins when someone decides to pay attention to a text.” (The Practice of Reading, p. 80) There is meaning here, provided we do in fact pay attention.

With the help of the good people at the Tanach Study Center (www.tanach.org) we can summarize the holiday sacrifices with the following table:

Pinchas sacrifice summary

As Rabbi Menachem Leibtag points out, three general groupings emerge from this chart. In the first group we have Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon festival, along with the Festival of Matzot (Passover), and Shavuot. All of these have the 2-1-7-1 pattern, and they are all thematically linked to the Exodus from Egypt: Passover for obvious reasons, Shavuot by its link to Passover through the counting of the Omer, and Rosh Chodesh from Exodus 12:1–the commandment to establish Rosh Chodesh was the first command of the Exodus story.

In the second group are the Tishrei holidays, with the 1-1-7-1 pattern: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, along with Shemini Atzeret. All three of these can be classified as judgment holidays: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for obvious reasons, and Shemini Atzeret as the time when the land of Israel is judged for the amount of water it will have in the coming year.

Sukkot is the last group, and has the most variety in its numbers. Rabbi Leibtag suggests that Sukkot is a combination of the other two groups, since it both occurs in Tishrei and commemorates the Exodus. This is symbolized in the way that the rams and sheep are added together to yield double the number on Sukkot (2 and 14, respectively, instead of 1 and 7).

When we turn to the cows offered on Sukkot, the same addition process would yield 3 daily cows to be sacrificed. Yet the number of cows starts at 13 and goes down to 7. If we add up the number of extra cows offered (13-3, 12-3, 11-3, etc.) we get 49 extra cows–a significant number corresponding to the number of days in the Omer and the number of years in the Jubilee cycle, and generally understood to connote ultimate completion. Likewise, the total number of cows sacrificed is 70, which the Rabbis understood as a symbol for the “70 nations of the earth.”

Sukkot marks the coming-together of two themes of the Jewish holiday cycle: the embracing nature of the Exodus story, which emphasizes God’s taking us out of one place and setting us on the journey toward a new home; and the challenging nature of the days of judgment, which emphasize teshuva, returning home from our journeys with a renewed sense of completion. Sukkot is the ultimate holiday of homecoming, when we reconnect with our original journey towards home and assimilate the journeys we have experienced into our consciousness.

Shabbat shalom.

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