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Introducing the Sacrificial Service

Rav Michael Hattin




Parashat Vayikra introduces the third book of the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses.  In content, this book contains relatively little narrative material and an unusually large amount of ritual and legal material.  In the main, its subject matter addresses two pivotal topics that are in fact intertwined.  These are the laws of sacrifices on the one hand and the laws of ritual fitness on the other.  Sacrifices include the entire range of offerings presented at the Mishkan or Tabernacle: private or public, voluntary or obligatory, domesticated animal, bird or agricultural produce, daily, seasonal or only intermittent.  Ritual fitness or 'Tum'a/Tahara' is a function of the various dead objects or bodily conditions that may render a person unsuitable to partake of sacrifices or to participate in the ceremonial of the Tabernacle. 


The common theme that links these two major components is of course the Mishkan or Tabernacle itself.  With the erection of this portable edifice, any sacrifice outside of its environs was outlawed.  At the same time, the primary consequence of being in a condition of ritual unfitness is that one is barred from the sacred compound of the Mishkan.  In many ways, therefore, the Book of Vayikra is a book about the Mishkan as a living reality, and by extension about experiencing the presence of God.




During the course of the coming weeks we will have occasion to discuss the sacrificial service itself, but it is useful to lay the groundwork for the discussion by referring to the larger context that informs the topic.  Let us briefly recall the concluding sections of the Book of Shemot, for they serve not only as the summation of the Exodus narratives but also as the necessary introduction to the twin motifs of sacrifice and ritual fitness that to a large measure animate the Book of Vayikra. 


After the Sinaitic revelation and the people's acceptance of its privileges and responsibilities, God communicates to Moshe the command to build a Mishkan.  The building, its vessels, and the garments of its ministering priests are spelled out in detail and at length, and Bezalel of the Tribe of Yehuda is Divinely appointed as the chief artisan.  The climactic thrust of the narrative, however, is abruptly and briefly interrupted by the sorry debacle of the Golden Calf, but after forgiveness is secured, it is resumed with Moshe's charge to the people to contribute the precious materials necessary for the Mishkan's construction.  The sincerely enthusiastic response of the people, who swiftly donate "more than is necessary for the work" (Shemot 36:5), is followed up with a lengthy restatement of the building process and by the concluding remark that "the people of Israel executed all of the work in accordance with all that God had commanded Moshe" (Shemot 39:42). 


We may summarize the structure of these relevant 'Mishkan' passages, that constitute a full final third of the Book of Shemot, as COMMAND – EXECUTION, in which the extensive and detailed blueprints of the building and its contents are followed by equally lengthy and thorough descriptions of the implementation.  As we stated earlier though, the almost seamless progression from the command to the execution is jarringly broken up by the episode of the Golden Calf. 




For some of the commentaries, this is an indication that in fact God's command to Moshe concerning the Mishkan was temporally interrupted by the fashioning of that idol.  Thus, as Moshe prepared to descend from his forty day stay on Mount Sinai, during which time God had communicated to him the bulk of His laws and ended His discourse with the design plans for His abode, the people below succumbed to unnatural despair and panic and busied themselves with the making of a molten image.  Moshe did come down bearing the twin tablets of stone but then dashed them, along with what had been his hopeful exuberance, at the base of the mountain.  Vengeance was carried out against the perpetrators, God's favor was secured again, and only then was the command concerning the Mishkan belatedly conveyed by Moshe to the people.  According to this view, then, the episode of the Golden Calf constitutes an unfortunate and disconcerting fissure between the Divinely-ordained command to fashion an abode for the Deity, and the human implementation of the command and its successful realization. 


According to other commentaries, in contrast, the Mishkan narratives are recorded entirely out of place, for the "incident of the Golden Calf preceded the command concerning the building of the Mishkan by many days" (commentary of Rashi, 11th century, France, to Shemot 31:18).   In other words, the lengthy chapters recording God's detailed commands to Moshe concerning the edifice of the Mishkan were not in fact communicated to Moshe until after the incident of the Golden Calf.  According to this view, the chronology is quite different: Moshe ascended to Sinai, the people in the meantime made the molten image, Moshe quickly interceded on their behalf and then descended to smash the Tablets and to punish the guilty, and only after God had granted forgiveness did He indicate to Moshe the particulars concerning the building of the Mishkan.  According to this view, there must be a very good reason why an otherwise cohesive passage should be broken up by the artificial insertion of the Golden Calf episode that properly took place beforehand.  Had the Torah adopted the seemingly more plausible organizing principle of chronology, then the Golden Calf episode would have been recorded as the aftermath of the Sinaitic Revelation and only then would the narratives of the Mishkan, God's command to Moshe and Moshe's communication to the people, have been introduced.


In either case, it is clear that the transgression of the Golden Calf is intentionally juxtaposed with the Mishkan narratives, and in particular, the distasteful passage is related at the critical juncture between the command and its fulfillment, between the concept and the concretization. 




Searching for the thematic prologue to the sacrificial service of the Book of Vayikra, which is so graphically described with startling forthrightness and seemingly without presentation of an underlying framework, we conclude that the missing introduction must be none other than the closing passages of the Book of Shemot, the thrust of which concern the people's readiness and fervent desire to concretize an abode for the presence of God.  Animal sacrifice may strike us as arcane and incomprehensible, but the underlying sentiments that it attempts to express are very real and charged with meaning.  The desire for closeness and communion with God, so eloquently suggested by the people's parting with their precious possessions in order to construct His house, so emotively implied by their prompt and exact fulfillment of His detailed pronouncements concerning the edifice and its vessels, is the true introduction to the sacrificial service.  There are neither sacrifices without a Mishkan nor is there any meaning to Tum'a and Tahara.  Therefore, the twin central pillars of Sefer Vayikra, sacrifice and ritual fitness, are actually founded upon the bedrock of Sefer Shemot's conclusion, the enthusiastic completion of the Mishkan. 




But at the same time, the end of Sefer Shemot contains a more ominous caution that also serves as the introduction to the sacrificial rites, for the sin of the Golden Calf is deliberately presented by the Torah as an integral part of the Mishkan narratives.  The fashioning of a molten idol, from the very same precious materials that were later lovingly employed in the Mishkan, constitutes the contrasting corollary to the sacrificial formula.  Ritual and ceremony, when divested of their higher meaning and perfunctorily observed as either futile rote or else supernatural magic, can be dangerous activities indeed.  The Golden Calf was nothing more than an expression of the people's desire for an impotent god who could revel in their ritual without imposing moral or ethical restraints upon their behavior.  As many of the commentaries understand the matter, the fact that Moshe's absence triggered the debacle indicates that the people of Israel sought a replacement for their vanished mentor, a symbol of guidance in the inhospitable and frightening environment of the wilderness.  But how instructive that their chosen replacement for Moshe, their new 'leader,' is an inanimate creature fashioned of glittering gold, a fitting expression of an exuberant materiality shorn of any more profound implications.  In the shadow of the Golden Calf the people of Israel dance and frolic, heaping up sacrifice upon sacrifice, but remaining pitifully unillumined by the experience: "[The people] arose on the morrow and presented burnt offerings and peace offerings. The people sat down to eat and to drink and rose up to make merry" (Shemot 32:6).  This too is a 'sacrificial service,' but quite unlike the ideal advocated in Sefer Vayikra.




In essence, the conclusion of Sefer Shemot offers two conflicting models, but only one of which will of necessity serve as the foundation for the sacrificial service.  The first model is that of the Mishkan's construction.  It is a model that is characterized by sincerity, devotion, and the heartfelt desire to fulfill God's word and to experience His presence.  Precious materials are contributed out of a spirit of benevolence and goodwill.  There is no hint of rancor or any shallow attempt to secure Divine favor by means of the contribution.  The golden gift is solely an expression of true 'sacrifice' or 'KoRBan' that means 'closeness' and 'proximity,' for by it the contributor seeks only one thing: God's immediacy.  The formal procedure that will be attached to the gift, as the gold is transformed into a ritual object, will incorporate that same sincerity and authenticity and point the way to the higher truth that animates the ceremonial activity.


The second model is that of the Golden Calf.  This model also requires the surrender of material riches as an expression of religious zeal, for after all, the "people cast off the golden rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aharon" (Shemot 32:3).  This model also involves the fashioning of a specific ritual object and the performance of attendant observances.  But in this facsimile of a sincere spiritual act, hollow performance takes the place of authentic religious experience and self-serving debauchery replaces the enlightenment that can only be born out of moral restraint.




Significantly, Biblical history affords us two other glaring examples of this very tension and of the terrible outcome that transpires when precious rituals becoming divested of transcendent meaning to metamorphose into grotesque shadows of themselves.  The first is from the opening chapters of the Book of Shemuel, the 11th century BCE prophet who bridged the difficult period of transition between the Judges and the beginning of the monarchy.  Shemuel's youth is lived in the Mishkan at Shilo, where he grows up under the careful tutelage of the aged Eli, the High Priest (Shemuel 1:2:11).  Eli's own children, like many of the people of Israel, have strayed far from their spiritual moorings and their performance of the 'service' at the Tabernacle is characterized by shallowness, greed, and disdain (1:2:12-17).  The menace of the Phillistines looms large on the horizon, and early on in the Book they mass their forces to attack the weaker Israelites (1:4:1-2).  Seeking Divine intervention, the people of Israel bring forth the Ark of the Covenant housed at the Tabernacle at Shilo, convinced that they are invincible as long as it is in their midst (1:4:3-5).  The Phillistines themselves are taken aback by the appearance of the Ark, for they paganishly regard it as the embodiment of the God of Israel (1:4:6-9).  Mustering their courage, they nevertheless attack, routing the Israelite militias, capturing the Ark, and destroying the center of worship at Shilo (1:4:10).


Clearly, while a full analysis of the above passage is beyond the scope of this essay, we may take note of the more obvious features.  Firstly, we see how the above passage introduces the catastrophe of the Ark's capture by indicating how the ministering Kohanim, Eli's own sons who are most expected to sincerely uphold the solemnity of the service, are themselves guilty of demeaning it by reducing it to empty ceremonial and meaningless rote.  Secondly, we appreciate how the people of Israel regard the Ark with the very same superficiality that characterizes their polytheistic foes.  Childishly, they believe that the mere presence of the Ark in their midst, though they woefully lack an authentic relationship with God, will bring them automatic victory.  Thirdly, the account makes it quite clear that the Phillistine triumph is a direct function of Israel's spiritual failure.


In essence, what the above passage describes is a 'Golden Calf phenomenon' in which a gilt and lifeless object is venerated in its own right as a handy substitution for a more direct and demanding connection with God.  The priests and worshippers alike practice the ritual of the Tabernacle that pivots around that Ark with corresponding pettiness, pedantry and venal indifference.   The destructive outcome is all but assured.




The second example is taken from the end of the First Temple Period, as the Babylonian Empire arose and became ascendant.  The Prophet Yirmiyahu, active in the sixth century BCE spends his tragic forty-year career attempting to forestall disaster and exile by bringing the people of Jerusalem to repent, but to no avail.  No personage or institution is above reproach by this most acerbic of prophets, who reluctantly rails against king, priest, and false prophet alike.  One of Yirmiyahu's harshest pronouncements occurs in the seventh chapter of his book, when he mockingly belittles the people's misplaced faith that God's House, the Temple at Jerusalem, would in and of itself save them from attack and exile.  Like some meaningless mantra, the people speak of "God's sanctuary, God's sanctuary, God's sanctuary!" (7:4).  Falling prey to a typical but extreme case of religious hypocrisy and misplaced piety, they "steal, kill, commit adultery, swear falsely, and offer incense to Ba'al…then come and stand before Me in this House bearing My name, saying 'we are saved!'…" (7:9-10). 


This time, it is not the Ark or another holy vessel of gold that serves as the focal point for the people's stunted faith, but rather the Temple building itself.  Quite serenely, they openly profess that true and authentic faith in God, honest and sincere attentiveness to His laws, is much less decisive than tenuous attachment to a lifeless edifice of stone.  Like modern-day 'worshippers' who somehow manage to bifurcate their sordid and immoral professional or personal lives from their devotional predilections that often amount to little more than superstitious incantations, Yirmiyahu's audience contentedly go about their daily business of cheating, thieving, and whoring, all the while self-assured of their salvation due to an absurd allegiance to a building rather than to God's Torah, and completely oblivious to the travesty of their situation. 




No wonder the Divine response to Yirmiyahu's Jerusalem echoes our very passage from the Book of Shemuel:


"Has this House bearing My name become like a den of thieves in your eyes?  I too have seen, says God.  Go to My sanctuary that was in Shilo, where I had first caused My name to dwell, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel…I shall do the same to the House that bears My name, the building in which you trust, the place that I gave to you and to your ancestors, just as I did to Shilo.  Thus, shall I cast you away from before My presence…" (7:11-15). 


The very same failings that led to Shilo's destruction at the hands of the Phillistines, the bartering of profound performance for farcical rote, the transformation of the golden Ark of God's Covenant into a golden calf that 'eats grass' (Tehillim 106:20), also were responsible for the First Temple's fall.  The struggle against empty formalism and misguided conviction, lukewarm commitment and insincere devotion, the inherent tension that concludes Sefer Shemot and introduces Sefer Vayikra, still awaits its resolution two millennia after the sacrificial service ceased being practiced.  May God grant us the strength of spirit to prevail in the struggle.


Shabbat Shalom


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