We may find the particular mitzvah strange, but that also applies to the whole series of mitzvot. The whole realm of ritual sacrifice that plays such a large role in Sefer VaYikra is alien to us. This week in chapter 17 we find:
1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 2 Speak unto Aaron, and unto his sons, and unto all the children of Israel, and say unto them: This is the thing which the LORD hath commanded, saying: 3 What man soever there be of the house of Israel, that killeth an ox, or lamb, or goat, in the camp, or that killeth it without the camp, 4 and hath not brought it unto the door of the tent of meeting, to present it as an offering unto the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD, blood shall be imputed unto that man; he hath shed blood; and that man shall be cut off from among his people. 5 To the end that the children of Israel may bring their sacrifices, which they sacrifice in the open field, even that they may bring them unto the LORD, unto the door of the tent of meeting, unto the priest, and sacrifice them for sacrifices of peace-offerings unto the LORD.
Essentially, all meat that was eaten by Israel in the desert had to be prepared in the mishkan. (Tabernacle) This rule no longer applied after Yehoshua brought them into Israel, as the distances were prohibitive. People could then kill and prepare an animal for non-ritual purposes. The only restriction then was that any ritual sacrifice had to be performed at what eventually became the Temple in Jerusalem. What was the purpose of this temporary rule for the generation of the desert? Presumably, it will not even be applied in the future Temple. Why do we even need to know about it? What does it teach us about sacrifices in general?
I recently attended a couple of events where people reacted negatively to the entire idea of animal sacrifice. The first a book reading, where the author was presenting his perspectives on Jewish History. He discussed the major changes in Jewish practice since the fall of the Temple. In passing, he remarked that he assumes no rational person expects the primitive cultic ritual of animal sacrifice to ever return to Jewish life. This drew chuckles and nods of assent from most of the crowd. Needless to say, I did not sympathize with the sentiment.
More recently, I attended the screening of a documentary about tensions in the Samaritan community. The few remaining Samaritans living in Israel still offer their version of the Paschal sacrifice. When the film showed the preparation and execution of this ritual, the audience cringed. This time, watching the butchering of the carcasses, I cringed right along with them.
To be perfectly honest, we find the idea of animal sacrifice disturbing. It feels primitive. How do we wrap our minds around the idea that we pray to return to an area of ritual that we instinctively feel is better left behind? (rumors to the contrary, there is no position in normative Orthodox Jewish philosophy that says we will not bring back animal sacrifices, at least for a time, during the messianic era)
But why does it seem strange to us? In a supermarket age, the process of turning living animals into dinner is completely hidden from us. We pick up our meat in neatly wrapped packages, bearing little resemblance to the creature they once were. Farmers have a much more intimate perspective, as did our very recent ancestors. Have we made the process more moral and civilized? As a matter of fact, writers from Upton Sinclair to Jonathan Safran Foer have argued that modern industrialized meat production is less so. This negative assessment relates to the treatment of the animals, the workers, and the safety of the meat. Although we feel more civilized than our forebears, this is hardly the case. We have improved the aesthetics of meat consumption, rather than the ethics, by hiding its crueler and bloodier aspects. The thin cellophane veneer that covers our purchases in the store shelves, also supports an illusion of modern superiority.
We have, in fact, changed little. Except for vegetarians, we generally consider meat meals to be more fancy and celebratory. We love to invite friends and family to a barbecue, which is generally a festive bonding experience. Essentially, that is what sacrifices are. When Jews feel the need to express something in their relationship to God, or when He invites us to come and meet with Him, we head to Yerushalayim for a barbecue. Usually, parts are burned, and parts are eaten by cohanim and the sacrifice bringer. It is a way of taking one of today's common social meal experiences, and adding a religious element. If it lacks the emotional distance of the supermarket shelf, perhaps so much the better.
The mitzva in our parsha describes the unique situation in the desert. Since the tribes lived in such close proximity to the mishkan, it seems wrong to have a cook out and not share the experience with Hashem. If we're in the neighborhood, we should really do lunch together. In this way, this particular rule, for that particular generation, at that particular time, shows us one of the underlying themes of all sacrifices. Essentially, the Beit HaMikdash is the original Jerusalem grill, raising the religious level of the culinary experience.
Perhaps there is also an inherent acknowledgment that God has given us a special dispensation in allowing us to kill and eat His creatures, and so we must approach for permission and to give thanks. This less than optimal assessment of meat eating has been expressed by Rav Kook, and re-articulated by Rav Aviner. Minimally, we may want to approach the future return of the Beit HaMikdash and its sacrifices with a bit less sqeamishness and a bit more understanding.