Thursday, March 30, 2006

Vayikra (Torah)

Sacrifices as a Lexicon of Religious Emotions

With this weeks’ portion, we begin a new book, Vayikra, known in English as “Leviticus” (a strange name, as the Aaronide priests, rather than the tribe of Levi as a whole, play the central role here; the Levites as such only emerge as a group with a distinct role much later, in Numbers 3). Here, following the detailed description in the latter half of Exodus of the Sanctuary as a locus for the indwelling of the Divine Glory, we begin the description of its active function as the center for a variety of ritual activities. At the heart of this week‘s portion is the systematic presentation of the various kinds of sacrifices and their specific laws.

To ask R. Ya’akov Yosef of Polonnoye’s perennial question: How are these commandments relevant and meaningful to every person, in every time? My own answer is that the sacrifices may be read as a kind of lexicon, providing a vocabulary for a variety of human religious attitudes, experiences and moods.

To illustrate: this portion presents three basic types of animal sacrifices: olah (burnt-offering; Ch. 1), shelamim (peace-offering; Ch. 3), and hatat (sin-offering; Chs. 4-5). In addition, there are meal or grain offerings (minhah; Ch. 2) which supplement all three types, as well as being offered in their own right. The olah, as its name implies, is completely consumed by the fire of the altar: everything—flesh, suet and innards—goes up in smoke (before the term acquired a new and grisly meaning in the 20th century, it was referred to as a “holocaust”—that which is wholly burnt or consumed).

The shelamim, or peace-offering, is essentially consumed as a sacred, festive meal in the sacred precincts of the Temple or in the adjacent courtyards of Jerusalem, by its owners or those who bring it. Certain sections are given to the priests; the blood is poured out at the base of the altar; and certain fats and inner organs are burnt on the altar.

Hattat, the sin-offering, is brought to atone for transgressions and misdeeds. The same fats and inner portions are again consumed on altar; certain selected parts are given to the priests, who eat them, so to speak, as representatives of the holy realm (“the priests eat, and the owners are atoned”); and the bulk of the flesh is taken outside of the sacred space of Temple and Jerusalem, where it is burnt, not as an offering to God, but simply to destroy the flesh. (Interestingly, this practice is the origin of the Hebrew term “Gehinnom” for Hell: the valley [Gai] of Ben Hinnom, and the hillsides on its outer side, were the site of constantly burning fires to consume the sin offerings; hence Gehinnom became known as the place of eternally burning flames).

Other types of sacrifices are mentioned in conjunction with the hatat: the asham, usually translated as “guilt offering”; the me’ilah, or “trespass offering,” a kind of penalty imposed for misuse of sacred property; asham taluy, the ”conditional” sin-offering, etc. For our purposes, all these may be considered under the general rubric of the family of sin-offerings.

Besides the specific rules governing each kind of offering, there were certain general rules applied to all of them: semikhah, the laying of hands by the owners on the head of the animal, symbolizing that it was intended to be offered in his name and on his behalf; zerikat hadam: the sprinkling of the blood upon various parts of the altar, symbolizing the return of the life element to God; and haktarat ha-evarim: the burning of part or all of the animal’s body on the altar, i.e., the essential sacrificial act.

How is all this to be understood?

Shelamim symbolizes joy, celebration, fellowship: it expresses a sense of overwhelming contentment and wholeness and peace with God. The archtypal example is the Paschal sacrifice, eaten by Jews on the Seder night, and crowned with song. The todah, the offering of thanksgiving brought to express gratitude towards God on fitting occasions, is also a form of shelamim. 19th century Orientalist Robertson Smith saw this offering as an expression of the simplest, most uncomplicated religious emotion: of feeling together with our God in one “communion.” One is reminded of the amazing scene in Exodus 24:11, when the nobles among the Israelites “beheld God, and they ate and drank.” In post-Temple Judaism, the se’udat mitzvah, the festive meal as a sacred act, may be seen as akin to the shelamim.

Hatat reflects the opposite pole: guilt; shame; a sense of disharmony, of wrongdoing, of having upset the relationship with God and requiring propitiation and conciliation. Hence, one brings a gift to God, without partaking of it at all; but neither may it be offered whole on the altar, like the burnt-offering of pure love, because the relationship is not yet whole. One first needs to repair the breach. Symbolically (in Kabbalah and Hasidism this point is made especially strongly), the sin-offering represents the self; specifically, the “animal soul” within oneself that causes sin. So one must cast it away, burning it outside of the holy place.

The archetypes for the hatat are the two goats and bullock that play the central role in the atonement ritual of Yom Kippur (Lev. 16): on the one hand, the scapegoat, bearing the sins of all Israel on its head, that is sent far off into the desert; on the other, the goat and bullock, whose blood is sprinkled to expatiate and purify the Holy of Holies.

Olah, the “burnt offering,” expresses the emotion of love and awe of God. The pure, unadulterated yearning for Divine closeness, for connection to God without any ulterior wishes or expectations. The characteristic model for this sacrifice is the Tamid, the daily sacrifice offered in the name of the Jewish people as a whole, which opened and closed the daily routine of the Temple, “framing” all the private sacrifices that might have been brought during the course of the day. It symbolizes, quite simply, the steady, ongoing connection between God and man, like a lovers’ greeting.

Although we no longer offer sacrifices (whatever one may think of the millennial hopes for its restoration), these moods are to this day the basic components of human religious experience: the sense of contentment, gratitude, joy and peace with God; at other times, the sense of alienation, inadequacy, of unbridgeable distance, brought about through ones own human weakness and stupidity and evil impulses; and the mystical impulse to reach out to God, as an end in itself, without any thought of quid pro quo.


“By day the Lord shall command His loving kindness, and at night his song is with me; a prayer to the living God”—Psalm 42:9

As we begin Sefer Vayikra, the book devoted to Divine service, it is natural to address the subject of Prayer, the contemporary equivalent of the Temple worship through sacrificial offerings; like the sacrifices, prayer is known by the generic term Avodah—“service” or “worship.” “Prayers were fixed corresponding to the daily sacrificial offerings.” Just as sacrifices cover the gamut of religious emotions (see HY I: Vayikra), so does prayer, embracing song, praise, gratitude, joy; contrition, despair, beseeching, need; and simple love, yearning and desiring to draw close to God.

But in fact, the translation of the Hebrew word tefillah as “prayer” is something of a misnomer: the verb “pray” implies “to implore, beseech, entreat; to ask earnestly, to make supplication to God.” Petition, entreaty, requesting, even supplicating God for ones needs are, to be sure, a part of Jewish prayer, but they are only one of several elements. By contrast, the simplest halakhic definition of the concept of tefillah would be the Sifrei’s “service of God with the heart” or, according to Rav Hayyim of Brisk, “standing before God” (the closest approximation to this in Webster’s is the next-to-last definition: “any spiritual communion with God”). Essentially, prayer is the act of placing oneself in the posture, both physical and spiritual, of being in the presence of God, and addressing Him, whether in ones own words or in fixed words or texts, in the second person.

Thus, prayer is intended less (or not at all) to inform God of our needs, and more as, so to speak, as a spiritual exercise, in which the person praying relates himself, and particularly his sense of existential dependence or specific neediness, to the Divine Being; not that God needs articulation of our needs.

There are several interesting proofs of this: in a sugya in Avodah Zarah 7b that I recently happened upon almost by chance, R. Eleazar and R. Joshua debate the question as to whether a person should first “request his needs” and then “pray,” or vice versa—clearly implying that “prayer/tefillah” and “requesting ones needs” are two quite different things.

Second, it is a familiar fact that on Shabbat and festival days we are precluded from asking our needs; hence, the entire middle section of the Amidah, with its thirteen petitionary blessings, is omitted, replaced by a single blessing concerning the theme of the particular day. To be sure, even here we request certain things, but these are all of a purely spiritual nature: “sanctify us with Your commandments, give us a portion in Your Torah, purify our hearts to serve You in truth…,” etc.

Third, it is interesting that a person who is pressed for time—setting forth on a journey, etc.—or too preoccupied with his affairs to concentrate properly is allowed to recite the special, condensed version of the middle, petitionary blessings, Haveneinu, but must recite the full text of the first three and last three statutory blessings, conventionally referred to as Shevah (“Praise”) and Hodayah (“Thanksgiving”).

“God of Our Fathers”

A well-known novellum of Rav Hayyim Soloveichik of Brisk, founder of the famous Brisker school of Talmud and Rambam analysis, suggests an interesting insight on the matter of prayer. Two texts in Maimonides’ Laws of Prayer seemingly contradict one another: one (Hilkhot Tefillah 4.15) stating that kavvanah—“intention,” that is, “spiritual concentration”—is an essential / indispensable requirement for the entire text of the Amidah, while another (ibid. 10.1) states that it is sufficient if one has kavvanah during the first blessing alone. There is no contradiction here, says Rav Hayyim: the first text refers to a generalized kavvanah, to the consciousness that one is davening, that is, in a state of “standing before God”; the second, restricted to the first blessing alone, requires that one focus upon the meaning of the specific words one is reciting.

On one level, this ruling is quite surprising: theoretically, one can (at least post factum, not as a description of the ideal prayer state) recite the words of prayer mechanically, so long as one is aware in a general way that one is engaged in a religious act or, more precisely, that one is in the presence of the Almighty. One is reminded here, rather ironically, of the Maggid of Mezerich’s “atomization” of the prayer text, which held that the words and letters of prayer themselves contain mystical, if not quasi-magical properties, so that even reciting them very rapidly is a praiseworthy religious act, so long as one is in a state of devekut, of attachment to God.

I would like to offer a certain gloss on this comment of Rav Hayyim: why is “understanding of the words” needed specifically for the first blessing? Because the first blessing establishes the essential “posture” or attitude that defines prayer in general; after reciting this blessing with proper attention and focus, one may from there on in “go” with this same sense.

A careful reading of the blessing confirms this. The opening phrases place the worshipping Jew in a historical continuum, approaching God squarely through the sacred history of the faith community: “our God and God of our fathers; God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob” (words reminiscent of Elijah’s prayer at Mount Carmel, in the great confrontation with the priests of the Baal; see 1 Kgs 18:36). There is an almost familial intimacy in these words: I am a great-great-great…. grandson of these men who loved You, and with whom You were so intimately engaged. (Albeit there is also a tension between the impersonal and historical “God and God of our fathers,” in which the patriarchs are lumped together as a group, and their subsequent mention by name, each one presented as a significant individual in his own right)

But then there comes an interesting turn. Ha-El hagadol hagibbor veha-nora … El elyon. “The God who is great, powerful, and awesome” (a phrase taken from Deuteronomy 10:17). As I discussed in my paper on Pesukei de-Zimra (HY II: Yahrzeit Shiur, near Shoftim), there is a certain reticence in Judaism about explicitly reciting God’s qualities. An ironic story in Berakhot 33b (cf. the parallel in j. Ber. 9.1 [12d] ) tells of a prayer leader who heaped one adjective after another in the praises of God, until one of the sages listening said, ”Have you quite finished?” God’s praises are so overwhelming that it is folly for man to even think that he can even begin to declare them. The four adjectives used here were chosen very carefully, and the Sages saw themselves as ”permitted” to utter them even in prayer only because of biblical precedence.

But then, there is yet another 180-degree turn: from the awesome, frightening, transcendent cosmic God, we return to the kindly, loving God who remembers the covenant with those from generations past, and chalks it up to their descendants credit: ‘He who does good acts of kindnesses… and remembers the kindness of the fathers of their children’s children, for His name, with love…”

This, then, is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of Jewish prayer: we stand before our Maker with confidence, with an intimacy borne of centuries of family ties, so to speak; and nevertheless, with fear and trembling before the Lord of the Cosmos. If I may be so bold, this may perhaps be likened to the contrast between the intimate, homely atmosphere of a Beit Midrash filled with tables and benches and walls lined with books, perhaps with windows opening upon a quiet tree-lined street, and the majestic solemnity of a Gothic cathedral, whose ghostly shadows evoke the sense of mystery and unbridgeable distance from the God worshipped therein.

Avot, Gevurot, Kedushot

But that is not all. This initial blessing does not only stand in its own right, but is the first in a group of three which, with minor variations and seasonal additions, constitutes the fixed prelude to the Amidah, the set known as Avot-Gevurot-Kedushot. On another level, these first three blessings define the fundamental relation of the Jew to his God.

Rav Soloveitchik, in his “Thoughts on Prayer,” propounds a scheme in which the first three and last three Amidah blessings form a chaiastic structure, matching one another in inverse order: the first expresses God’s hesed, His love; the second His might and action in nature; and the third, his inexplicable, wholly transcendent nature.

I would phrase it perhaps slightly differently. As God is by His nature beyond our words, “raised up above all blessing and praise,” these three blessings are frankly verbal images, tools through which human beings can somehow nevertheless imagine God, in terms that make Him somehow approachable. These may be seen as three images, each of which is only an approximation: 1) the first blessing—familial, intimate, protective, caring, almost motherly, perhaps like a kindly, indulgent old relative, but with a hint of the transcendent in the four words mentioned; 2) the second is an expansion of the few phrases of transcendence found in the first blessing—the conventional God of religion: powerful, majestic, holding the keys of life and death, performing mighty dramatic acts, ruling the rain and thunder and mighty forces of nature (David Flusser once suggested that the original conclusion of this blessing was Ba’al gevurot, “master of might”)—and thus also the one to whom people turn in sickness and poverty and trouble (in this sense, it paves the way for the middle, petitionary blessings); 3) the third—the God who is infathomable, remote, holy, beyond the mind’s perception, the sense of utter transcendence captured by the image of the celestial angels singing his holiness. At this point, paradoxically, we realize that all that we can think about Him is really human imagery—and we may wish to shift to another level of consciousness, beyond imagery.


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