The Sacrificial Service
This week we begin to read Parashat VaYikra. In early Rabbinic literature, the book is known as Sefer Cohanim or the 'Book of the Priests,' and many of its words are in fact directed towards the Cohanim. The Ramban (13th century, Spain) expands on this theme in his introduction to the Book:
"This Book tells of the laws pertaining to the Cohanim and Leviim (Levites) and it explains the precepts of the sacrificial service and the rules of maintaining the sanctity of the Mishkan. The previous Book (of Shemot) described the first exile and the redemption from it and was completed with a description of the Tent of Meeting and of how God's presence filled that place. This Book continues this theme by describing the sacrifices and the laws relating to the protection of the Sanctuary so that those sacrifices can achieve atonement for the people, and their transgressions will not bring about the disappearance of the Shekhina (God's presence manifest)... Most of the Book is devoted to the sacrificial cult and pertains to the offerings themselves, those that are fit to offer them, as well as where those offerings may take place. A few other mitzvot relating to this subject are also enumerated... the laws of 'Tum'a' ('impurity') and 'Tahara' ('purity') are also conveyed because of their relevance to the Sanctuary..." (Ramban, Introduction to Sefer VaYikra).
The twin topics of Sacrifice and Tum'a/Tahara, both of which revolve around the Mishkan, are not only the major subjects of Sefer VaYikra, but also among the most conceptually difficult subjects in the Torah. Their importance, though, cannot be underestimated, for although we have ceased to practice them in the aftermath of the Temple's destruction almost two thousand years ago, these two subjects nonetheless constitute a significant part of codified Jewish law and lore. A full two of the six orders of the Mishna are devoted to their laws, and it is therefore a grave mistake to dismiss them without so much as a second thought as necessarily archaic, antiquated, primitive and irrelevant. In the coming weeks we shall view some of these laws through the prism of Rabbinic tradition and commentary, and attempt to understand their profound significance and ongoing pertinence.
Insights for Eternity
As we begin our investigation, let us bear in mind the discerning words of the Abarbanel (15th century, Spain) in his closing remarks to Parashat Teruma (Shemot 27:10):
"Do not think for a moment that the descriptions of the Mishkan, its vessels and its construction, the sacrifices, the offerings of the Princes at its dedication, the priestly garments as well as the rest of the ordinances that were practiced in antiquity, have no relevance for us today in our present state of exile. Indeed, one may be tempted to ask concerning the above, as well as regarding the agricultural laws that pertain to the land of Israel, or with respect to the laws of Tum'a and Tahara, all of which are no longer practiced: what purpose do we achieve by studying and knowing them today?!
"The answer is that one must realize that any matter that is related in the Torah merits its inclusion because it constitutes supernal wisdom and divine knowledge. Anyone who possesses spiritual and religious sensitivity studies these matters in order to achieve perfection of his soul. The verse therefore states: 'You shall observe the matters of this covenant and perform them, in order that you might be successful ('yaskilu') in all of your endeavors' (Devarim 29:8). Our Sages remark: "'Observance' refers to study, and 'Performance' refers to practice." Those singular individuals who strive to achieve perfect wisdom act in accordance with prior study and learning, and for them there is no appreciable difference between a matter that is applicable and one that is not.
"Therefore what we can understand about the Mishkan and its vessels today is as meaningful now as when it was fully practiced. In this sense, the sacrificial service has not been suspended (although in practice it no longer exists), for study of those matters need not cease. Through comprehending their eternal message, a person can yet achieve subservience and closeness to God, as the verse states: 'A contrite and broken spirit is true sacrifice to God' (Tehillim/Psalms 51:19)."
For the Abarbanel, as well as for countless other commentaries that have faithfully kept alive the memory of traditions and truths that would have otherwise been lost, the primary aim of the Torah remains the perfection of the human personality. Although as committed Jews we understand that the possibility of this perfection is fundamentally a function of deeds, namely the mitzvot of the Torah, Abarbanel indicates to us that the truest and most meaningful deeds are those that are predicated on knowledge and understanding. That being the case, it is still possible to 'offer sacrifices' on the non-existent altar or participate in the now-defunct 'Temple ritual' by studying the relevant (but no longer performed) laws, not only in the sense of their practical application but also in light of their deeper ethical, spiritual and religious truths. This aspect of the Divine potency of these laws is thus forever germane and within our reach.
The View of the Rambam
No proper discussion of the sacrificial service can begin without mention of the Rambam's (12th century, Egypt) explanation of its origins. Rambam, in his broader attempt to understand the mitzvot of the Torah according to rational criteria, provides a general overview of the sacrifices that is striking in its originality, remarkable in its candor, and seemingly attuned to modern sensibilities. It is an explication that has not ceased to stir up controversy and contention, as other commentaries both early and modern have either embraced it as a genuine expression of religious thought or else have rejected it as a dangerous and futile idea that undermines the very service that it seeks to defend.
The Rambam's thoughts on the matter are contained in his 'Guide to the Perplexed' and we shall quote from this work at length. Those who are familiar with the gist of his approach are frequently unfamiliar with its larger context, but this material is critical to appreciating the full scope of his idea. It is important to bear in mind that the Guide is a subject for discussion in itself. Let it suffice to relate that its circulation aroused great strife and dispute in the Jewish world of the Rambam's day and in the centuries afterwards, for the work raised the larger question of the relevance and role of philosophical reason in the explication of the Torah.
The Rambam's views on sacrifice are spelled out in Chapter 32 of the Third Section of the Guide: "...it is not possible to progress from one extreme to the other in a single moment. Therefore, it is not reasonable for people to abandon at once everything to which they have become accustomed. God sent Moshe Rabbenu to make us into 'a kingdom of priests and a holy nation' (Shemot 19:6) and this was to be achieved by coming to know and to understand Him...and by being separated and dedicated to His service. At that time, the universal practice was to serve the gods through the sacrifice of animals in the temples, by prostration and the offering of incense to graven images, and the Jewish people were much accustomed to these conventions in Egypt. Therefore, God in His wisdom and obvious guidance of His creatures, did not decree that we abandon all those forms of worship and completely relinquish them, for this would have been impossible to accept, according to our human nature that finds comfort in habit."
The Difficulty of Changing Human Nature
The underlying foundation of Rambam's thesis is the recognition that human nature cannot be reshaped and redirected in a single stroke of time. If a person has become accustomed to living their life according to certain beliefs and predicated on certain habits and practices, then these become ingrained. They cannot realistically be summarily shed, no matter how great the desire to do so or how lofty the impetus to change. To make the matter more comprehensible to his readers, Rambam offers the analogy of a latter-day prophet appearing with the following demand: "God decrees that you serve Him not through prayer, fasting or calling out to Him in time of need, but rather through pure thought alone." In other words, although it could be argued that the purest form of Divine worship is silent, wordless meditation on His essence, such a service would be unthinkable for most of us who have been raised on the ceremony and liturgy of a conventional prayer service.
Human nature being what it is, God therefore sought not to completely uproot everything to which the Jewish people had become accustomed, but rather to subtly and incrementally redirect it to proper ends. Therefore, "God allowed those forms of sacrificial worship to persist, but transferred them from being directed towards images and imaginary gods, to His name. He therefore commanded us to build a sanctuary to His name, to erect an altar to His name, and to offer sacrifice, incense and homage only to Him... in this way, the practice of idolatry was blotted out from among the Jews, and the great and true fundamental idea that God exists and that He is one was able to take shape in our minds. Our natures were not shocked in the process and we felt no strangeness or reluctance in having to relinquish modes of worship with which we were familiar, in order to adopt new ways."
Rambam detects faint echoes of his thesis in the language of the Torah itself: 'let them make for ME a sanctuary' (Shemot 25:8), 'an altar of earth shall you set up for ME' (Shemot 20:21), 'if a person desires to offer sacrifice TO GOD' (VaYikra 1:2). In all three cases, describing the building of a Mishkan, the construction of an altar and the bringing of sacrifice respectively, the directing of the action to God is stressed. This is not only a call to sincere worship, but also a subtle implication that the novelty of the sacrificial service consists in its being deflected away from idolatry and reflected towards the service of the one God.
The Precedent of the Exodus
In order to further bolster his claim that human nature is a significant factor in God's orchestration of events and in His promulgation of laws, Rambam reminds us of the events surrounding the Exodus. It will be recalled that when God took the people of Israel out of Egypt, the Torah relates that He did not direct them by "the way of the Pelishtim, though it was closer. For God said: '...lest the people be engaged in battle, and want to return to Egypt. Therefore, God caused the people to turn and go by the route of the wilderness of Yam Suf..." (Shemot 13:17-18). The most direct route from Egypt to the Promised Land is along the Mediterranean coast, by way of an important and well-trod road later called by the Romans Via Maris or the Way of the Sea. It would have been most reasonable for God to direct the newly freed Hebrews along that way, since the immediate goal was to enter the land of Canaan. Instead, surmising that the Hebrews would encounter the hostile coastal inhabitants enroute and be so frightened by the prospect of combat that they would abruptly do an about face and return to Egypt, God took them by the much more circuitous and less traveled route of the wilderness.
"Just as it is not within the power of human nature for a person raised in oppression and servitude, in hard labor of bricks and mortar, to hastily wash the clay off of his hands and then immediately engage the 'descendants of the giants' (Devarim 9:1-2) in battle, so is it impossible for one who was raised and nurtured on a multiplicity of modes of sacrificial worship to abandon them all in a single stroke." In other words, Rambam explains that the Primary Purpose of entering the land of Canaan seemed to be subverted by God when He instead took the people by way of a less direct route. In the end, though, this 'detour' turned out to be the most direct route imaginable, for had we instead gone by the alternative 'shortcut' of the 'way of the Pelishtim' we would have never succeeded in leaving Egypt at all. So too, the ultimate goal of coming to serve God is sometimes best served by methods that are not necessarily the most direct, particularly when issues of human nature are involved.
The Fundamental Question
Finally, Rambam raises a critical question. If God's ultimate aim is for us to achieve the Primary Purpose of serving only Him directly and without deviation, then why not command us to do so; let Him then inspire us with the strength to overcome our recalcitrant human natures that are reluctant to surrender more familiar idolatrous devotions and that are painfully slow to adapt? The Rambam broadens the question: why didn't God take Bnei Yisrael by way of the sea and then give them the fortitude to fight, if the goal was to enter the Land? Taken to its logical conclusion, Rambam queries, if God wants us to fulfill the words of the Torah and observe its precepts, then why not give us the spiritual strength to do so and thus render 'promises of reward or warnings of punishment' unnecessary? The answer in all three cases is the same: "although it is the case that God intervenes in the world to work miracles that change the state of nature, with respect to HUMAN NATURE God will never step in to alter it... not because it is beyond His capabilities, but because it is not His will now or ever." Since freedom of choice is at the core of the human personality, God never intervenes in a manner that would jeopardize that autonomy. To do so would be an abrogation of the basic tenets that govern the relationship between God and humanity.
Thus, Rambam offers an interpretation that is very much a function of understanding the predicament of being human. Often wanting to change, being expected to change, we are at the same time unable to do so except in small steps. At the same time, however, those small steps in the end make all the difference, for they can draw us away from even idolatry in order to be devoted to the service of God. Next week, we shall explore Rambam's view further, considering its difficulties and limitations, and investigating some heroic attempts to overcome them.