Thursday, April 06, 2006

Tzav - Shabbat Hagadol (Rambam)

Maimonides on Sacrifices (contd.)

This week’s parsha being essentially a continuation and elaboration of the laws began in Vayikra, it is a suitable time to tie up some loose threads from last week’s sheet. At the end of last week’s discussion, I made some rather cryptic remarks to the effect that sacrifices may correspond to certain unconscious archetypes in the human soul, à la Jung. I would now like to expand upon this point. First, a brief caveat: by saying that a certain group of mitzvot correspond to human needs is not to deny their religious dimension or Divine origin. Rather, God understood the human soul, and designed the Torah to fit its depth needs.

Having said that, what are the psychological factors at play?

In almost all cultures (at least those that I know of) we find some form of sacrifice, in the sense of the person relinquishing or foregoing that which he owns or might otherwise enjoy, as an essential part of religious worship. This is the principle underlying animal sacrifices, but it is also a central element in giving alms to the poor, or in giving gifts of value to sacred places or people—whether something as insignificant as a candle, or objects of great valuable, perhaps of gold, silver, or precious stones. The Talmud says that “One who wishes to bring Bikkurim in these days should fill the bellies of Torah sages with meat and wine.” It is customary among North African Jews to bring food stuffs and so on to certain revered sages. My brother, who used to live next door to one such holy man, reported an almost constant stream of people bringing plates of food, drink, etc. to their home. This is also the principle underlying the concept of a neder, or vow: that I somehow sanctify myself by making an oath, either to refrain from certain pleasures, or to give something to the Sanctuary or to some other sacred cause. One may also consecrate certain periods of time to God. Many Hasidic texts speak of the hour of prayer in the morning as “giving the first part of the day to God,” its position within the day as analogous to that of the Shabbat in the week as a whole. The Shabbat itself, along with being a day of rest and pleasure, is also a day of limitations and of sacred service. And, as Yom Tov is approaching, we shall also note the interesting discussion in Beitzah 15b as to whether the festival days are to be devoted entirely to God, to “yourselves,” or half and half.

Refraining from certain acts or pleasures, even without making a gift of them to God, are intuitively seen by people as sanctifying acts. This is part of the pull of fast days or even, on another level, such practices as kashrut or taharat hamishpaha—the fact that I forego certain foods, or having sex at certain times, is itself experienced as a kind of sanctifying act. (This may explain, psychologically, the reaction one sometimes encounters against such things as pareve ice cream or kosher “shrimp” or “bacon bits,” etc.—that they make kashrut “too easy.”) In other religious cultures, institutions of monasticism, in which people forego family and the ordinary round of life entirely for the sake of God, are more extreme expressions of this same root emotion.

The ultimate expression of this idea appears in the idea of martyrdom, in sacrificing one’s very life for God—as manifested, for example, by those who died for Kiddush Hashem during the Crusades in Medieval Europe. Interestingly, this idea appears as a kavanah in some Kabbalistic prayer books, for example, for the Tahanun prayer: that one must be mentally prepared to give one’s very soul to God, to undertake mesirat nefesh, even if it does not occur in actuality. (See in this vein the profound reflection on the relation between prayer and the Binding of Isaac in Sefat Emet, Vayikra, 5643, s.v. beshem.)

On a very basic level, the underlying idea of all these practices is one: that if you don’t give something to God, are not willing to sacrifice or forego something of your own ego, your own self or that which pertains to it, you are not really serving Him. (This is reflected in the popular sentiment that, “if it’s too easy” or “if it doesn’t hurt,” than it can’t be a serious religion.) On some level, this “giving”—which is paradoxical, for it is directed to the One to whom it is in reality impossible to give, because He has no needs, and because He is in fact beyond the material realm—is the very essence of avodah.

This idea is encountered among mystical and Hasidic commentators: that in animal sacrifice, the beast is really in some sense a surrogate for the person (or, some say, for the “animalistic self”). The verse “Adam ki yakriv mikem, “When a man offers from among you an animal to the Lord…” (Lev 1:2) is interpreted to mean “when a man offers from his own self…”

We now return to Rambam, who in Guide III. 32 seems to hint at a gradation among several types of religious worship: from sacrificial offerings of animals, as the most “primitive” (“second intention”); to verbal prayer, fasting, and the like; to an allusive hint that silent meditation may in fact be the pinnacle of worship. But how is this to be squared with his evident commitment to the restoration of korbanot in the future?

I would like to propose the following: there are different levels of religious consciousness, which may be characterized as vacillating between separation and unity (these are also suggested by the images of “servants” and “sons,” as in, e.g., the prayer hayom harat olam recited on Rosh Hashana). For most people, at most times, the dominant sense is of God’s transcendence, of the profound duality between the Divine and the human realm. God is holy, distant, powerful, wholly other and unknowable. Man in turn sees himself as small, insignificant, unable to even begin to comprehend the vastness and complexity and profound wisdom of the Creator of All; in confronting God, he is keenly aware of his own sins and shortcomings, his own preoccupation with his own petty needs and drives (see Yesodei Hatorah 2.2). Many of the sacrifices, such as the sin-offerings (hatat), and perhaps also the burnt-offerings (olah), are intended to atone and to expatiate for these.

But on another level, the human being, notwithstanding his own limitations, sees him/herself as part of the cosmos; from the perspective of this higher, unitive consciousness, his own ego is simply obliterated and unimportant, at least so long as he/she enjoys this insight. Rambam (in Teshuvah 10) speaks of a kind of disinterested love, without any ulterior motivation or desire, as the highest service of God. All he wishes is to love and to know God, without any desire of reward, as an end in itself, as the ultimate Good. Rambam did not use mystical language; if he did, he might have described this same phenomenon in terms of the self, in this state of ecstasy, merging into the Self of the Life of the Universe. On this level, not only animal sacrifices in particular, but the whole principle of sacrifice, of foregoing, of renunciation as the essence of religious service, becomes irrelevant and even meaningless, because the individual ego is has somehow been left behind. Perhaps it is this that Rambam was alluding to in those remarks—but, as we commented last week, he knew full well that this is not a path for the many, at any time.

Moreover, the various sacrifices themselves correspond to different kinds of religious consciousness. Some years ago I wrote (see Vayikra (Torah)) that the various classes of sacrifices may be read as a kind of lexicon of the religious emotions: hatat, corresponding to guilt, fear, rigor, guilty, expatiation; olah: yearning for closeness to God; and shelamim—harmony, wholeness, the sense of joy in fellowship with God, as it were; sitting down to a common meal with God, “eating from the table of the Most High.”

The Paschal Offering and the Sacrifices

The archetype for the latter type is Korban Pesah, the Paschal sacrifice—which, interestingly enough, opens Sefer Korbanot, the Book of Sacrifices in Rambam’s Yad.

A brief comment about the organization of the two books of the Yad dealing with the Temple service. The first book, Sefer Avodah, “The Book of Service,” contains details of certain sacrifices, but its guiding principle is that it describes the Temple as a locus of Divine service and outlines the collective service performed there on behalf of the Jewish people as a whole. It may be divided into three main sections: the overall framework of the Temple per se, its vessels, the priests who serve therein, and rules governing its entry (Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah; Kelei Mikdash; Biat Mikdash); general rules about sacrifices, their preparation, and factors rendering them unfit (Ma’aseh hakorbanot, Issurei Mizbeah, Pesulei ha-Mukdashin); and the communal offerings, namely, the daily, weekly and seasonal round of public sacrifices: Temidin u-musafin, and the special, sui generis atonement ritual performed on Yom Kippur: Avodat Yom Hakippurim. It concludes with Hilkhot Me’ilah, the laws of the trespass offering brought by an individual to atone for offenses committed specifically against the sanctity of the Temple or the holy things.

Sefer Korbanot, by contrast, deals with the various offerings brought by individuals, on fixed dates or on certain life occasions. These begin with Pesah, which lies at a kind of juncture between the public and the individual: it is never brought by a single individual, but by a haburah, a group of people, usually a family or families or clan, that band together to bring it together—a kind of microcosm of the nation, befitting what is in a sense, communal celebration. Moreover, as an offering of the shelamim family, it represents a higher, more harmonious consciousness than that of the hatat family, which are born in alienation and sin. This is followed by laws of the general festive offerings brought on the pilgrim festivals (Hagiggah), laws of the first born (Bekhorot) and only then those of the sin offerings brought for sins committed in error, or for certain types of ritual impurity (Shegagot, Mehusrei Kippurim), and is concluded by the technical rules of what to do if one animal is inadvertently or willfully substituted for another (Temurah).

Shabbat Hagadol: On Eating & Consciousness

As we have mentioned several times, Rambam was a master of logical organization; one can often learn a great deal simply from the order in which he presents and describes a topic. The laws of Pesah, for example, are divided between those of the Passover sacrifice, mentioned above, and those laws applicable today, which are organized in a treatise entitled “Laws of Hametz and Matzah.” Following the opening chapters, which describe the various prohibitions of eating and owning hametz, defining the various kinds of hametz, hametz derivatives, and hametz mixtures, the time frames preceding Pesah, etc., he defines the two positive mitzvot that pertain to the night of the Seder: the obligation to eat matzah (Chapter 6); and to relate the story of the Exodus (sippur yetziat mitzrayim; Chapter 7). The final chapter brings together these two threads, presenting the order in which the mitzvot of this night are to be performed (Incidentally, I find it interesting that the word Seder, “order,” serves as a leitmotif for the two holidays of Pesah and Yom Kippur. On Passover we have Seder Pesah, Leil ha-Seder, or simply, in popular parlance, “the Seder”; on Yom Kippur the liturgical recounting of the atonement ritual performed in the Temple of old is called Seder ha-Avodah {“The Order of Service”). These two mitzvot correspond to two central levels of being: the one, the act of eating, is emblematic of our physical, bodily experience—man as biological being; the other, the act of narration, the verbal transmission of tradition and collective experience—man as cultural being, whose life centers on his mind and intellect.

I recently gained an insight into the relation between these two in an unexpected way. While studying Kuzari with my hevruta, Shalom Freedman, we turned to the issue of the validity of proofs of God. He commented that, if people knew for certain that God exists, there would no longer be any free will, for surely everyone would automatically do what they’re supposed to. To which I responded, “I know that this is not true, because I am obese, and one of my relatives is a chain smoker.” That is, it is a matter of everyday experience that intelligent, rational people regularly do things that fly in the face of their own interest, and which they know will cause them harm in the long run—such as overeating, smoking cigarettes, reckless driving habits, drinking alcohol to excess, etc. If this is so even in mundane, material matters, where the relations of cause and effect are obvious and not subject to any dispute, all the more so regarding such matters as the existence of God, Torah, and the like. Or, to put it in theoretical terms: there is an inevitable gap between our cognitive and experiential knowledge.

It occurred to me that, ultimately, the “cure” to obesity—and to the other ills mentioned—lies in the realm of consciousness. If a person were to be fully aware of the meaning and consequences of his actions, at all times, he would be unable to perform an act harmful to himself—or to perform any immoral act. Of course, this is an impossible ideal—but it seems to me that much of Judaism may be understand as an attempt to constantly elevate and refine human consciousness.

If one were fully aware, he would never sin, because he would see the folly of sin. Indeed, Hazal observed that “A person does not sin unless there enters into him a spirit of foolishness.” Properly perceived, the Yetzer Hara, the Evil Urge, may in almost all cases be understood as limited, short-term consciousness. Indeed, the Rambam, in describing of the prophet (whom, I maintain, is his model of the ideal human type), states that: “he is never overwhelmed by his Impulse regarding any thing in the world, but he always overcomes his Impulse” (Yesodei ha-Torah 7.1). The supremacy of the will over the impulse: that is the quintessence of conscious living.

The Torah and its mitzvot may be understood as a system for cultivating consciousness; for making a person more fully aware of the dimension of truth and depth within his/her life. All the practical mitzvot may be viewed as exercises towards this end.

Pesah, in particular, is a festival devoted among other things to the cultivation of knowledge and consciousness (lada’at ki ani Ha-Shem, “to know that I am God”), and as a means of driving this knowledge into our hearts. (For one pithy example: Sefer ha-Hinukh §20 interprets the seemingly inconsequential detail of the law, that one may not break the bones of the paschal lamb, as intended to inculcate proper character and values.) People often complain about the drudgery and hard work involved in preparing for Pesah, the innumerable restrictions and rules that need to be followed. But perhaps this is precisely the point: we experience a certain idea as important, not only through thinking about it, through hearing lectures and sermons, but through our bones and muscles—through the days spent in ridding the home of hametz, in cleaning, in purging those things that (within the symbolic rubric of the holiday) represent the negative force in our lives—and, in concrete, physical terms, renewing completely the food preparation system in our homes. All this in turn makes the verbal, intellectual contents of Seder night all the more meaningful and deeply felt.

One year Rabbi Soloveitchik devoted his Motzaei Shabbat Hagadol lecture to the theme of “The Meal”: that the Passover Seder is the embodiment of the meal, par excellence, in Jewish experience. He noted that, as a child, two nights of the year were imbued with a sense of mystery and wonder: Pesah, when the home is transformed by the unique atmosphere of the Seder table; and Yom Kippur, when the synagogue, on Kol Nidre night, assumes a special aura of holiness and solemnity.

He then contrasted the approach to the meal in Judaic and Greek, i.e., Western, culture. In Western culture, a meal may be marked by its aesthetics—elegant table-setting, gourmet cooking and presentation of the food, etc.—and by the etiquette of eating. In Judaism, by contrast, the focus of the meal is on the dimension of holiness, achieved primarily though two means: the laws of kashrut, in which self-limitation of that which is eaten helps to attain holiness; and through berakhot, by means of blessings which express and guide our consciousness to an awareness that one’s food is ultimately a gift from God. Then, too, the meal is a focal point for fellowship: for speaking words of Torah, as a focal point of the Masorah community.

Both of these aspects are exemplified in the Passover Seder, which is marked by special rules of kashrut, by special foods eaten as mitzvah acts, by blessings and hymns of praise, and by words of Torah—the Haggadah, focused on the theme of the Exodus from Egypt.

The Rav concluded his shiur on a melancholy note. After the first Seder in Egypt, and the Exodus, the Jews received the Torah—but a mere forty days later they strayed from their focused clarity of consciousness and made the Golden Calf. Moses sought mercy and forgiveness on their behalf, for forty and yet another forty days; in the end, God’s forgiveness was made known to him through the epiphany in the cleft of the rock, through the thirteen attributes of mercy give on the day that was to become Yom Kippur. Thus, the second day steeped in mystery is one in which the Meal, the elevation and consecration of the material world, is absent; instead, because of human failings and inability to maintain this higher awareness (resulting in what we might call second, post-teshuvah consciousness), it is devoted wholly to the angelic, disembodied consciousness of teshuvah and kaparah.


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