By Shlomo Riskin
What is the Biblical definition of proper service of the Almighty? To what extent is the sacrificial cult a critical part of Jewish Divine service, and where do we place the sacrifices in our hierarchy of expressions of Religious devotion?
What is so striking is that our Biblical portion deals with the most fundamental sacrifices, both obligatory and voluntary, which the Israelites are to bring: the daily offerings, the various sin offerings and the different gift offerings. The prophetic reading opens with the glaring indictment:
“Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Cease your whole burnt offerings together with your sacrifices and eat (regular) meat. Because I did not speak to your ancestors and I did not command them on the day that I took them out from the Land of Egypt concerning issues of offerings and sacrifices’” (Jer. 7:21-22).
It is almost as though our sages are warning us against too great an involvement in the ritual of sacrifices which may lead to a depreciation of ethical and moral activities as the cornerstone of Divine service. Indeed, the prophetic reading continues:
“But it was this matter that I commanded them saying, ‘Listen to My voice and I shall be your G-d and you shall be My nation’” (ibid 7:23).
Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz directs us to a later chapter in the prophecies of Jeremiah whose parallel language and repetition of what God taught “on the day that He took them out of Egypt” clarifies the meaning. In chapter 34 of the Prophet Jeremiah we read:
“Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, ‘I made a covenant with your fathers the day that I brought them out of Egypt out of the Land of Slavery, saying: At the end of seven years every man must free his brother who has been sold to him’” (ibid 34:13-14).
Jeremiah is teaching us that on the day after the exodus, there was one basic command which the Almighty wished to convey to His people: do not enslave your brother, do not take advantage of your brother, do not manipulate your brother, do not make your brother a means for your personal end. Certainly, this means that we may in no way harm our brother – and since the Almighty God created us all and is our Parent in Heaven, we are all brothers and sisters.
To be sure, there is room for offerings to God, for an expression of total commitment to the Divine, for communal meals together with priest-teachers within the spiritual atmosphere of the Holy Temple. Indeed, the Hebrew word korban (usually translated “sacrifice”) actually means “to come near.” Apparently, the sacrificial rituals are a means to an end, a way of attempting to approach the Almighty and to be able to sense His nearness; the sacrifices must be viewed within the context of “And they shall make for me a sanctuary so that I may dwell in their midst” (Ex. 25:8). The sanctuary and the Temple, the sacrifices and the prayers, are all means to the ultimate end of walking with God and acting in accordance with His will. Unfortunately, there are times when the means are substituted for the end, when the magnificent edifice becomes a substitute for God Himself, when rituals become so central that there is little room left for the acts of kindness they are supposed to inspire. After all, our human definition of God is a “Lord of love and compassion, kindness, patience, and truth” (Ex. 34:6) – and having God in our midst means that we act in accordance with His divine characteristics!
Indeed the Mishna recounts a horrible event which emphasizes the tragedy that can occur when the Temple ritual is not placed in its proper context. Our rabbis have taught: “The story is recorded that there were two priests racing up the ramp of the altar in a contest as to who would perform the ritual of cleaning off the ashes when one seemed to be four cubits ahead of his friend, the other priest took a knife and pierced the heart of his opponent. Rabbi Zadok stood on the Temple steps and said, ‘our brothers of the House of Israel, listen well; if a corpse is found between two cities the elders must bring a sacrifice, we must all make atonement. The father of the fatally injured priest found his son still in the last moments of his life, he cried out, ‘may this be your atonement; my son is still in the agony of the death throttle and so the knife has not been rendered impure’ From this we see that the ritual purity of the vessels had assumed greater importance than a human life.” (B.T. Yoma 23a)
Jeremiah bitterly mourned the destruction of the Temple and even cursed the day of his birth because he had to be the prophet of destruction. He understood the value of the sacrifices if they were placed in proper context and were seen as a means to an end and not as an end in themselves. Hence, the prophetic reading which is usually read after our portion of sacrifices concludes with the verse cited by Maimonides at the end of his Guide for the Perplexed, a message which all of Jewish tradition understands is the central focal point of our faith. “Thus says the Lord: ‘Let a wise person not glory in his wisdom, let a strong person not glory in his strength, let a wealthy person not glory in his wealth. But only in this shall the one who glories glory: understand and know Me, because I am the Lord who does loving kindness, justice and charity on earth. These are the things I want,’ says God” (Jer. 9:23-24).
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.