The Service of Sincerity
With the conclusion of Sefer Shemot, the Mishkan narratives are similarly finished. The portable edifice, a gilded receptacle for the Ark of the Testimony as well as for the other precious vessels, was funded by the contributions of the people, completed by the craftsmen, dedicated by Moshe and the Kohanim, and filled with the manifestation of God's presence:
The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and God's glory filled the Mishkan. Moshe could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it, and God's glory filled the Mishkan. When the cloud would lift off of the Mishkan, the people of Israel would then journey. But if the cloud would not lift, then they would not journey until the time that it did. The cloud of God would be upon the Mishkan by day and fire by night, in sight of all of the House of Israel during all of their journeys (Shemot 40:34-38).
A PROLEPTIC PASSAGE
The final image of Sefer Shemot, then, is of the Mishkan filled with God's glory while His cloud hovered protectively above it. The above passage though, is strikingly proleptic, for it describes events that did not take place at all until the people journeyed from Mount Sinai more than a year later, as described in the Book of BeMidbar:
On the twentieth day of the second month of the second year, the cloud rose from upon the Mishkan of Testimony. The people of Israel journeyed according to their stations from the wilderness of Sinai, and the cloud came to rest in the wilderness of Paran. Thus, they FIRST traveled, by God's word and by Moshe's hand (BeMidbar 10:11-13).
In point of fact, all of Sefer VaYikra, that opens with God's call to Moshe from the Tent of Meeting (1:1) and concludes with a summary statement that all of the book's commands were communicated to Moshe at Mount Sinai (27:34), takes place BEFORE the first of the journeys that the end of Sefer Shemot describes! Moreover, the majority of the wilderness journeys to which the end of Sefer Shemot alludes did not happen until after the debacle of the Spies (see BeMidbar 11:35; 12:16; 14:25; 33:16-49) and hence were avoidable. Therefore, it must be the case that the Torah overlooks the strict chronological details and related narratives in order to emphasize an overriding theme.
THE SYMBOL OF THE CLOUD
The passage that concluded the Book of Shemot and thus introduces the Book of VaYikra hinges upon the movements of the mysterious Divine cloud that symbolizes a manifestation of God's presence. That cloud is mentioned no less than five times in those five concluding verses, while all of the subject matter of those verses directly relates to its whereabouts. When the cloud rested upon the building, God's glory was emphatically there. When it lifted, the people would journey; when it came to rest they would encamp. This cloud, and its fiery nocturnal counterpart, was associated always with the Mishkan, IN THE SIGHT OF ALL OF THE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL.
In other words, the Torah wants to highlight that what invested an otherwise lifeless and material building with purpose, what inspired its otherwise mechanistic rituals with meaning and spirit, was the cloud, the symbol of God's presence. Take away that Divine presence and all that remained was an empty shell filled with the glimmer of gold and enveloping spaces filled with dull silence. It is as if the Torah wanted to indicate in no uncertain terms, as the essential introduction to its most formalized and ceremonial legislation – the sacrificial service – that there are formal and physical deeds of morality or ritual and then there is sincerity and intention, spirit and authenticity. Now, it is true that the absence of the latter does often not disqualify the former, though it may mar and cheapen it. For example, one who assisted the poor by contributing funds towards their upkeep, but did so filled with grudging reluctance, nevertheless helped relieve their plight and is to be commended for the act. One who abstained from "melakha" activities on the Shabbat, while mentally counting down the minutes until its conclusion, nevertheless acknowledged the sovereignty of the Creator and receives reward.
WORSHIP OF GOD vs. OTHER MORAL OR RITUAL ACTS
But in the realm of worship and service, associated in the Mishkan with the highly ritualized and detailed sacrificial acts that the book of VaYikra introduces and discusses at such length, intention and authenticity are everything. Where sincerity is lacking, when the proverbial Divine cloud is absent from the endeavor, nothing remains but the grotesque sight of spilled animal blood and the stench of disemboweled carcasses. No wonder that in the world of "Kodshim" or "Holy Sacrifices", the thought alone of the officiating Kohen, the IDEAS that he entertains while he performs the critical stages of the service, can disqualify the sacrifice entirely, though there may be absolutely no empirical evidence of his transgression! If, for example, during the act of slaughter the Kohen mulls the thought of offering the sacrifice beyond the acceptable time frame, then the sacrifice is unfit and must not be presented upon the altar. This is the case even though for the outside observer, there is nothing that distinguishes this offering from its accepted counterparts (for a more involved discussion, see the mishnayot concerning disqualifying thoughts mentioned in Mishna Zevachim Chapters 1-4). Thus it is that in the realm of sacrifice, intention is paramount.
The commentaries detected an allusion to this theme in the book's opening verses that describe the category of sacrifices known as burnt offerings ("olah"):
He called to Moshe, and God then spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting and said: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them that when a man from among you ("adam ki yakreev meekem") offers a sacrifice to God, then you shall offer your sacrifices from domesticated animals such as cattle and sheep (VaYikra 1:1-2).
The Seforno perceptively comments:
The expression "when a man from among you offers a sacrifice to God" may be rendered "when a man offers OF HIMSELF" through admission of wrongdoing and humility. As the verse states: "let (the prayers of) our lips take the place of (sacrifices of) cows" (Hoshea 14:3), and "sacrifice to God consists of a broken spirit" (Tehillim 51:19). God has no desire for the sacrifice of fools who present their offering without any prior humble change of heart. As our Sages have remarked: the expression "from among you" implies "not all of you." Thus, the verse comes to exclude the case of the apostate (from whom we do not accept sacrifice).
In other words, the Seforno understands that the word "meekem" that literally means "from you" is to be read as if it indicates not a sacrifice FROM the supplicant but rather the sacrifice OF the supplicant, that is to say "self-sacrifice." It as if the true sacrifice that one offers is not the dumb beast but rather the self – "yakreev meekem" rendered "bring sacrifice of yourselves." Seforno relates his novel reading to the tradition of the Sages that not all sacrifices are to be accepted. According to the Oral Law, tenuously associated with the text of our verse but nevertheless constituting an independent and freestanding tradition, a sacrifice offered by an apostate is to be rejected. Seforno surmises that the disqualification is due to the assumption that an apostate, who has rejected the God of Israel and His commands, lacks the sincerity of heart that the offering of a sacrifice necessitates. Any sacrifice similarly presented, any offering brought to the Mishkan that is not preceded by earnest and authentic soul-searching, is rejected by God. It is as if the service were to go on in a Mishkan bereft of the cloud, shorn of the spiritual vitality that alone can invest it with meaning.
THE PROPHETS' POLEMIC AGAINST SACRIFICE
The Seforno's interpretation, of course, has hoary antecedents in our literature. The writings of the prophets, from the earliest down to the last, contain much criticism of the sacrificial service as it was practiced at the Temple. A representative and somewhat lengthy selection follows:
"Shaul said to Shemuel: But I did listen to the voice of God and followed the path upon which He sent me! I captured Agag king of the Amalekites and utterly destroyed Amalek. The people took the best from the spoils, sheep and cattle, in order to offer sacrifice to God your Lord at Gilgal. Shemuel said: Does God desire burnt-offerings and sacrifices as much as He desires that one hearken to His voice? Behold, to hearken (to God) is better than sacrifice and to listen is preferable to the fat of rams! Rebelliousness is like the sin of sorcery and stubbornness like idols. Because you rejected the word of God, He has rejected you from being king!" (Shemuel 1:15:20-23; 11th century, BCE).
"What shall I do for you Efraim, what shall I do for you Yehuda, for your compassion is like the morning mist and dissipates like the dew! I therefore hewed them by the prophets and slew them by the words of My mouth, so that your justice may be revealed. For I desire compassion and not sacrifice, and knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings" (Hoshea 6:6; 8th century, BCE).
"Hearken to the words of God you officers of Sodom, listen to the instruction of our Lord you people of Amora. What need do I have of your multitude of sacrifices, says God, for I am sated with burnt-offerings, rams and fat of sheep; I do not desire the blood of cows, sheep or goats…Do not continue to bring vain offerings, for they are like abominable incense to Me. The calling of assemblies on the New Month and the Shabbat – I cannot bear the iniquity with the gathering…Wash yourselves and purify, remove the evil of your deeds from before Me, cease doing evil! Learn to better your ways, demand justice, champion the oppressed, judge the orphan, take up the struggle of the widow!" (Yeshayahu 1:10-17; 8th century, BCE).
"I hate and despise your holiday offerings and will not accept your assembly sacrifices. If you present Me with burnt offerings and meal-offerings, I will not receive them, nor will I look upon your peace-sacrifices of fatlings. Remove from Me your multitude of songs for I will not hear the tunes of your flutes. Rather, let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream!" (Amos 5:21-24; 8th century, BCE).
"With what shall I present myself to God and show deference to the Lord of high, shall I come before Him with burnt-offerings and with one year old calves? Shall God desire thousands of rams and tens of thousands of streams of oil? Shall I give my first born as atonement for my iniquity and my child for my own sin? Man has told you what is good, but what God demands of you is only the doing of justice, the love of compassion, and walking humbly with your God" (Micha 6:6-8; 8th century, BCE).
"Thus says God of hosts the Lord of Israel: improve your ways and deeds, for only then will I allow you to dwell in this place. Do not rely on false words that say "the sanctuary of God, the sanctuary of God, the sanctuary of God are these!" If you improve your ways and deeds and do justice between a person and his fellow, if you do not oppress the convert, orphan and widow and do not spill innocent blood in this place, if you do not follow other gods to your detriment, then and only then will I cause you to dwell in this place, the land that I gave to your ancestors, forever. But behold you instead rely on lying words that bring no benefit. Shall you steal, commit adultery, swear falsely, offer incense to Ba'al, and follow other gods that you did not know, and then come and stand before Me in this House that is called by My name and exclaim "we have been saved!", so that you may continue to perform all of theses abominable practices? Is this House then, upon which My name is called, a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I have also seen, says God!" (Yirmiyahu 7:3-11; 6th century, BCE).
While it is easy for us to relate to the above sentiments since the notion of animal sacrifice is anywise removed from our experience, it is critical to note that the prophets did not disdain the sacrificial service per se, but only its insincere, shallow and hypocritical variations. In comparison, it may be pointed out that the same prophets also railed against meaningless and rote prayer (Yeshayahu 1:15; Yirmiyahu 14:11-12), phony observance of the Shabbat (Amos 8:4-8; Yirmiyahu 17:19-27), punctilious ritual observance at the expense of morality (Micha 3:9-12), and over-reliance on foreign powers (Hoshea 14:2-4; Yechezkel 29:6-7), all of them religious ills with which we can more readily identify. Admittedly, however, heartfelt and earnest worship of God during the period of the First Temple seems to have been the exception rather than rule!
How then to reconcile the wealth of detail and attention that the Torah showers upon the service of the sacrifices with the uncomfortable reality that it all seems to have been largely unsuccessful at penetrating the adamant human heart and transforming its recalcitrant character? The question of course could be just as easily asked concerning any area of the Torah's guiding instruction and legislation, all of it exquisitely detailed and involved, but observed in earnest by only a few while the rest wallow in material excess (or dream of doing so) and remain ignorant of man's capacity and necessity for spiritual growth.
The Torah, the prophets and the tradition do of course provide a resolution, so straightforward in its simplicity but profoundly difficult in its application. "Adam ki yakreev MEEKEM" explains the Seforno, echoing sentiments already embedded in the Torah's text that had deliberately introduced the Divine cloud to the golden but otherwise barren landscape of the Mishkan. Sincerity must come first, desire to be transformed before transformation, the service of the heart before the service of the mind or the body. The sacrifices may preserve a rich and complex texture of particulars that do in fact provide us with a fitting parallel to life's own complexity. But like life itself, in order for those "mundane" details to be meaningful, they must be lived out against a backdrop of spiritual commitment and desire to grow, for only then can they achieve the objective of drawing us closer to God.