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.

Vayikra (Haftarah)

After a month of almost uninterrupted special sabbaths, accompanied by their special haftarot (and this author attempting to do justice to two, or at times three, different haftarot in one issue of Hitzei), we return to a “normal” Sabbath with one Torah scroll and one haftarah. (But not for long: next week we shall need to discuss the Sabbath of Passover Eve, the First Day of Passover and, if I am to do justice to my self-imposed task, the haftarah for the Second Day observed in Diaspora, etc.) In keeping with the systematic presentation of the various sacrificial offerings that is the theme of our Torah portion, this week’s haftarah, Isaiah 43:21-44:23, begins with a reference to sacrifices.

But that is not really the main theme of the haftarah. The first theme is sin and repentance—teshuva. It begins with the statement that Israel, “this people whom I have formed for myself,” in whom God has placed so much hope, are filled with iniquity. They do not serve Him with prayer and praises, nor offer Him sacrifices, but instead “weary Me with your iniquities (vv. 22-24), without these being exactly defined. Nevertheless, He assures them of the power of His forgiveness. “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and will not remember your sins” (43:25).

There may also be an association here with the idea, possibly expressed here in an explicit way in the Bible for the first time, that atonement is not an automatic mechanism, activated by the bringing of sacrifices, but a freely-willed act of God, independent of sin-offerings and the like.

It is interesting that one of the main themes of Christian missionary polemics is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of this point. Their arguments often seem to be based on the assumption that Jews believe they need the blood of sacrificial animals to atone for sins. As the possibility for bringing offerings of absolution no longer exists—thus runs the argument—the situation is ripe for the solution of vicarious atonement, through the “mysteries” of christology. Yet already by the time of the earliest apostles, and certainly by that of Paul, the concept of teshuva as a parallel course to Yom Kippur atonement was well-known among Hazal (see, e.g., the final mishnah of Yoma).

This section concludes with the prophet’s assurances that, after erasing their sin, God will bless Israel, “like water poured out on thirsty ground,” and fill them with his spirit (44:1-5).

The second major theme of the haftarah is the folly of idolatry and, by contrast, the exclusivity of God’s rule. There is a detailed portrait of idolatry, ridiculing those who make and worship idols, through a detailed description of how they are fashioned by human beings: how from the same piece of wood used to make an idol he may make a fire with which to warm himself or barbeque a steak (vv. 9-20). In striking contrast to this, the God of Israel transcends time and space. “I am first and I am last, and other than me there is no god” (v. 6).

The haftarah concludes by returning once again to the theme of God’s forgiveness of sin—“I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist” (44:22)—and how the very mountains and trees will rejoice in the redemption of Israel (v. 23).

Vayikra (Midrash)

The Atoning Power of Sacrifices

Although the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus), which we begin reading this week, focuses upon sacrifices, and various matters relating to purity, the Temple, the priests, etc., the classical aggadic midrash on this book does not focus overly much on these issues, but as often as not uses its verses as a pretext for discussing a whole range of issues concerning God, the Jewish people, general ethical questions, the nature of mankind, etc., etc. One midrash which does discuss atonement, and the role of the sacrifices in this process, is found in Leviticus Rabbah 3.3:

[“When a person offers a meal offering to the Lord” (Lev 2:1).] “Let the wicked man abandon his way, and the man of violence his thoughts; and let him return unto the Lord, that He may have mercy on him, and to our God, for He is abundant in forgiveness.” [Isa 55:7]

R. Baibay bar Avina said: How ought a person to confess his sins on the eve of Yom Kippur? He should say: I acknowledge all the evil that I have done before You; I have stood in a bad way; and whatever I have done, I shall not do its like again. May it be Your will, O Lord our God, that You forgive me for all my transgressions, and pardon me all my iniquities, and atone me all my sins. Of this it says: “Let the evil man abandon has path…”

In Rabbinic times, before the editing of the classical compendia of prayer about a millennium years ago, which were in turn the precursors of the Siddur as we know it, there were an abundance of different formulae for the various prayers, including the Confession that forms the heart of the Yom Kippur liturgy. Unlike the Vidduy familiar to most of us, with its elaborate double alphabetical enumeration of sins, this confession is brief and totally general, and does not involve specific enumeration of sins. Prof. Moshe Halbertal of the Shalom Hartman Institute once spoke of this and other texts of this ilk appearing in the Yerushalmi, in Siddur Rabbenu Saadyah Gaon, and elsewhere. He suggested that this may reflect a different psychological approach to Yom Kippur: one so aware of the human proclivity to sin, so overwhelmed by the impossibility of fully confessing all the failures and shortcomings committed during the course of a year, that it preferred a general confession of total inadequacy, what the Rav once described as a “declaration of bankruptcy.” Then, too, perhaps there was a sense that there would be something arrogant in too-detailed a confession of sin, as if one were saying to God: “These are the things I’ve done wrong; in everything else I’ve been OK.”

R. Yitzhak and R. Yossi son of Hanina spoke of this. R. Yitzhak says: It is like a person who joins together two planed boards and attaches them to one another. R. Yossi son of R. Hanina said: Like a person who joins together the two supports of a bed and attaches them to one another. “And He shall return to the Lord and He will have mercy on him.”

This passage is based on a rather obscure bit of word play, based upon the similarity of and possibility of substitution among the consonants “L,” “M,” “N,” and “R,” as in the proverbial Chinese waiter who offers his customers “flied lice.” R. Yitzhak replaces the “R” in the word veyerahamehu (“He shall have mercy on him”) by “L” to produce “vayelahamehu” (“He shall join him”); R. Yossi bar R. Hanina substitutes “N” to produce “vayenahamehu” (“He shall comfort him”). In the former case, it simply means that God will “join” or “attach” the former sinner to Himself, like two elements in a finely finished piece of carpentry. Whatever one makes of the rather farfetched pun, the idea itself is a profound one: namely, that there are no bars to the repentant sinner drawing close to God, to becoming as beloved and precious in His eyes as one who had never strayed from the high road, if not indeed more so (see Rambam, Hil. Teshuva 7.4, 6). The second passage, that of R. Yossi b. Hanina, is based on a long defunct bit of halakhic practice: that in olden times, one of the main signs of mourning during shivah was to dismantle the mourner’s bed, and for him to sleep on the ground, perhaps on a straw pallet. The end of the week of mourning was signaled by one of the comforters reassembling the bed frame, a function perhaps similar to that in contemporary practice of the one who at the end of shivah extends his hand to the mourner and tells him to “rise.” Here, too, the message is one, not only of Divine forgiveness, but of God comforting the former sinner of his own feelings of sadness and regret.

The Rabbis and R. Shimon b. Yohai. The Rabbis said: The Holy One blessed be He showed Father Abraham all of the atonements [i.e., various types of sacrifice used for atonement] apart from the tenth of an ephah. R. Shimon bar Yohai said: The Holy One blessed be He even showed Abraham the tenth of an ephah. It says here: “[that is made of] these [things]” (Lev 2:8] and it says there “[and he took all] these” [Gen 15:10]. Just as the word “these” here refers to the tenth of an ephah, so does the “these” there refer to the tenth of an ephah. R. Judah b. Simon in the name of R. Zeira said: the Holy One blessed be He added for him an instrument of forgiveness of his own. And what was that? The tenth of an ephah.

This section requires a bit of explanation. The term “tenth of an ephah” is used here as a generic term for the grain offerings, which forms the subject of Leviticus Chapter 2, the starting point for this midrash—probably because that is the smallest measure of flour used in grain offerings. The allusion to Abraham refers to the “Covenant of the Pieces” (Genesis 15), the night vision in which God appears to Abraham to reveal to him the destiny of his offspring—specifically, the enslavement in Egypt and the eventual redemption and Exodus. In that same encounter, Abraham was commanded to take a group of animals and fowl, which he was to slaughter, cut in half, and place in a row on the ground. God, in the form of a flaming torch and smoke pot, then passed between these pieces. The midrashic tradition (cf. Gen. Rab. 44.13) sees this as a foreshadowing of the future sacrificial use of these animals—which included all the basic species used in offerings: bulls, lambs, goats, doves and pigeons—by Abraham’s children, the people of Israel. There may also be a sense in which Abraham’s act was a kind of initiation of these species as suitable for Jewish sacrifice, so that every sacrifice in turn hearkens back to this mystical moment.

The question asked by our midrash is: Where do the grain offerings fit into the scheme of things? The Rabbis take a commonsense approach: if they are not mentioned in the text of Genesis 15, then they weren’t there; perhaps, as R. Judah b. Simon suggests, God gave them to Israel later, as a special gift. R. Shimon b. Yohai, by contrast, insists that, in order for grain offerings to form part of the repertoire of sacrifices, they must have already been present at the Covenant of the Pieces and, if not mentioned specifically, are surely alluded to obliquely by the use of the word “these” (aileh) in both cases.

What is the dispute about? Perhaps, beyond the idea of the pre-visioning of sacrifices, this midrash picks up on the discussion conducted elsewhere about the role of the grain offerings, the only offerings brought from vegetable matter, in the overall scheme of sacrificial worship. Despite their simplicity, despite their being so much less expensive than even the cheapest animal or bird, they are in no way inferior. Whether they were shown to Abraham, or whether they were added later as a special addition, they are precious in God’s eyes and efficacious in achieving atonement. Of such things it is said, “It matter not whether it be much or little, provided that one turn his heart to Heaven” (m. Menahot 13.10).

Wisdom given to Animals

Last week, in my discussion of Exodus Rabbah 48.3, I puzzled over the passage which, on the basis of the play of ba-hemah / behemah, stated that God placed wisdom in both man and beast. Mark Kirschbaum, in a response sent all the way “from out here in New Orleans,” suggested that this alludes to:

The total elevation of universal consciousness. It’s a theme that appears many times among the mystics, most recently and well known [in] Rav Kook’s argument for vegetarianism, in which there will be animal korbanot, but only when the animals themselves, in a state of higher consciousness, offer themselves up. This concept, whereby the total world karma is jacked up a notch, is found all over the place. I mention it in Mishpatim [i.e., in his Parshah sheet, “Radical Readings”], where the Izhbitzer says that if you maintain civil law, it will transform even your animals.

Vayikra (Hasidism)


Parshat Vayikra opens the Book of Leviticus with a summary of the sacrificial offerings—first and foremost the olah, the burnt-offering which is completely consumed on the altar, representing the total surrender of the individual to the service of God. It is thus an apt time for us to study some texts about the concept of bittul, self-negation, which is so central in Hasidic thought.

One Habad teaching (Likkutei Torah, Vayikra, s.v. adam ki yakriv) in this vein speaks of this offering as symbolizing the submission of the nefesh ha-behamit, the animalistic soul, to God, noting that the various kinds of animals mentioned in this passage, cattle or sheep, represent different kinds of human dispositions. One person is dominated by aggression and hostility, like a goring bull, while another is gentle and passive, his weaknesses expressed primarily in a propensity to surrender to physical pleasures, like a fat little sheep; in a sense, the dichotomy of Eros and Thanatos, the libidinous and destructive impulses, which Freud saw at the core of human personality.

The following two passages from Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Amud ha-Tefillah, in which the essence of prayer is seen in terms of self-negation, are particularly strong:

§131. A person must consider himself as if he is nothing, and forget himself completely, and in all his prayers ask only on behalf of the Shekhinah. Then he may transcend the level of temporality, that is, ascend into the World of Thought, were all are the same: life and death, sea and dry land. And for this reason it is written in the Zohar (Beshalah, II.48a) “’[This is] my God’ [Exod 15:2]—specifically; for it depends upon the Ancient One [‘Atika; i.e., the Kabbalistic realm of Wisdom]. That they needed to abandon themselves and forget their own troubles so as to arrive at the World of Thought, where all is equal.

Here the goal of prayer/meditation is not only knowledge of God, but entering into what is called “the World of Thought,” where the person’s perception is transformed into that existing within the highest levels of the Godhead Itself. There is a mystical vision here of a place where all is one; of a radical monism, in which even the division between good and evil ceases to exist. But no Nietzschean or Promethean vision this, in which the “Übermensch” sees himself in his own self as beyond morality, but rather a negation of self, of ego, in which he somehow sees the universe from the purview of God: the sense that, in its divine root, all existence is good, by definition, simply because it is part of God. Somehow, even the moral universe and innumerable other distinctions made by the Torah are for the mundane, “sublunar” world, but not an essential property of any acts.

But leaving aside the transcendence of the moral, the idea is expressed here that the highest religious goal is hishtavut, equanimity, indifference to what will befall oneself. A strange story is told about this by Rambam. (Incidentally, I suspect that those modern rationalist Jewish thinkers who see in him their hero and model fail to appreciate how utterly different his celebration of intellect is from the pragmatic, eudaemonic rationalism of post-Enlightenment man). He recounts approvingly a story told in “one of the books of good qualities (sifrei hamiddot)” about a “pious man” who was travelling in the hold of a ship, wearing rags, and one of the wealthy passengers, a merchant, urinated on him in contempt. This pietist then relates that he did not feel any pain or shame on account of this incident, but was utterly indifferent to what had been done to him. To the contrary, he felt great joy (“it was the happiest day of my life”!) because he had reached such a perfection of humility. (Commentary to the Mishnah, on Avot 4.4) In brief, total detachment from the ego, seeing one’s self with detached, transcendent eyes. Who among us would even want to achieve such detachment?

But this is not the case so long as he is attached to the corporeality of this world, for then he is attached to the division into good and evil, that is, to the Seven Days of construction. And how can he go to that place that is above temporality, where there is perfect unity? For when he considers himself to be something, and seeks his own needs, then the Holy One blessed be He cannot be embodied within him. for He, may He be blessed, is infinite, and no vessel can contain Him. But this is not the case when He considers himself to be naught.

This passage concludes with an explanation that this self-abnegation is also necessary so as one may become a “vessel” for the Infinite God. The Kabbalistic “address” of the World of Thought referred above is the Sefirah of Hokhma, “Wisdom” or Atika, the “Ancient of Days.” Hence, the Israelites addressed God in the Song of the Sea by that name, specifically. By contrast, the ordinary, mundane world of corporeality, of selfhood, in which we ordinarily live, is identified with the “Seven Days of Construction,” i.e., the seven lower sefirot, through which the divine is filtered down and emanated into the concrete world.

§132. I heard it said, that when the Holy Rabbi, our teacher R. Gershon [Kutover; the Baal Shem Tov’s brother-in law] once spoke to our master the Baal Shem z”l in the following words: So long as you are still able to pray and to say, “Blessed are Thou,” with your own will, you have not yet attained the intention of prayer. For a person needs to be so much in a state of casting off [i.e., incorporeality] that he has neither strength nor mind to speak the words of prayer.

And yet, he nevertheless prays. The idea here seems is that the worshipper should be in such a state of transcendence of his own selfhood, of his own will, that he davens, not so much in an automatic way, but in such a manner that he is unaware of any effort will. One is reminded of the Eastern (Taoist? Zen?) description of the archer who is so totally at one with his bow and arrow that he does not see these tools as anything separate from himself (or himself from them). This same idea was translated into ‘60-ish American idiom in Robert M. Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Or, to return to Hasidic terminology, the fascinating words of the psalmist: “And I am prayer” (ve-ani tefillah; Ps 109:4), may be read as stating that the person himself IS his prayer.

* * * * *

What are we to make of all this? At first glance, this ideal of bittul seems one of two things: either impossibly inhuman, cruel, masochistic, “life-denying,” etc., etc.; or else, utterly unrealistic, arousing suspicion that those who claim to be practicing it are deceiving wither themselves, others, or both. Living in an age of popular psychology, we find it hard to take such extremes of piety at face value. There thus comes to mind, for example, from Christianity, such examples as Simon of the Desert, who stood on a pillar for twenty years , to conquer “temptations” and was regularly plagued by lewd and lascivious visions, products of his fevered imagination (a lot of help his asceticism did him, the Jewish folk sage would say). But to this I would also add the example, known to me personally, of a baal teshuvah friend who devoted himself so intensely to prayer and fasting that he eventually died of malnutrition.

Many of us who seek a new religious path want one which affirms the value of the individual, which enables an integration of individual expression with feelings of religious awe. Many young religious Israelis today speak of the need for hithabrut, for feeling connected to a particular mitzvah, for the sense that its contents somehow serve as a vehicle for their own expression. They would like to feel that being religious does not center upon a constant war between individual identity and the external authority of the halakhah, but rather upon a sense of unity, of joy in the cosmos, of harmony within the universe in which we live.

What lessons can we bring to this from the idea of bittul, of self-abnegation? Is there any way to redefine or understand bittul in a “healthy,” non-dualistic light? First and foremost, the message is that God and not the individual is the center. This is, to my mind, the irreducible, ineluctable essence of any and all religious experience. (I would therefore be critical of those who make “being connected” a sine qua non of their own observance.)

This carries with it, as I see it, a rejection of certain features of modern culture, personified for many in American culture, with its obsession with fame, success, physical beauty and youth, wealth, and pleasure. The fast pace of this type of modern life, in which making lots of money and “success” are the primary life goals, leaves little room for quietness and introspection, not to mention goodness and compassion for others. The old-fashioned path of Jewish tradition, however one interprets it, is very different from competitive, individualistic feel of US culture, where being “sexy” is the highest compliment. At times, I see high-wired Yuppie types—lawyers, managers, financial advisors, accountants, computer experts—coming into shul, and wonder whether they realize the profound change demanded for them to get into tefillah, to “enter into the word,” as the Baal Shem Tov put it, beyond merely mouthing the words. Seems almost impossible.

The following passage, from a different cultural context, expresses what I am alluding to. It is from a book by young American woman of half-Korean parentage, who describes her own journey to her forgotten ancestral homeland:

There was a specific atmosphere in the restaurant then which baffled me. I’d also felt it in the hotel the previous day. It was Koreanness, or at least an Orientalness. I felt it everywhere, but what was it? A calmness combined with bustle? Not exactly. It was something more subtle; a feeling of great energy, but without spiky neurosis; without the uneasy sexual striving and competition I felt in the streets of Western cities. There was a quality of benign sisterliness in Korean women when they looked at you or went about their business that felt rather shocking. There was no hostile eyeballing—judging your looks, clothes and status with men. There was a sense of warmth and tolerance. There was a wholesomeness about public places. Families went out together with their children. Businessmen drank together, and women met up separately. There were no visibly sexed -up single couples displaying their designer wardrobes, cars and bodytone. People were well-dressed, but modest. It felt extremely odd. At first, I wasn’t sure I liked it. To one conditioned to such strife, the atmosphere lacked edge.

The comment about the “sisterliness” she felt among the women is reminiscent of the kind of remark sometimes made by outsiders observing the frum community. Some 20 years ago, one of the editors of Rolling Stone magazine, whose brother had become caught up in the scene at Yeshvat Eish Hatorah, visited him in Jerusalem, ready to condemn that world, especially the oppression of women within Orthodoxy; instead, she was overwhelmed by the warmth and closeness and mutual support she found among the women.

A second point related to the concept of bittul relates to activism and passivity, or what medieval man called via activa and via contemplativa—the active as against the contemplative life. Our own culture celebrates activism, and at times seems to make an ideal of almost constant activity. “Activism” is seen even as a religious value. Classical Reform sometimes identified Judaism almost exclusively with social action, which it identified with prophetic Judaism or “ethical monotheism.” For others, Zionism, and Zionist activism, are almost inextricably identified with religious identity. Even the great contemplatives, Habad Hasidim, have been transformed into a missionary and messianic movement, marked by lots of noise, hysteria, and constant running around. How can one daven or even think calmly and deeply in such an atmosphere?

The point is not to denigrate such activities as such, but to note that there is another side to the picture. There is a certain quietness of the soul that is related to bittul. The medieval understanding of life saw contemplation as an ideal, independent of any practical benefits it might create. The intellect was seen as a tool for reaching pure, eternal truths, especially cosmic, religious truths: the “Active Intellect.”

It is also important to note that the contradiction between “reason” and “mysticism” is in a sense a modern projection back to those days. Traditionally, philosophy was also concerned with religious ends; Kabbalah and medieval Jewish philosophy arguably had as many or more points of conversion than they did differences (e.g., a multi-tiered picture of the universe).

In Eastern religions as well, especially Buddhism, the ultimate goal is quiet apprehension of the “eight truths”—that is, a state of wisdom and depth insight attained through quiet contemplation and reflection. Similarly, in Hasidut, bittul atzmi is both a goal, and a means for achieving the proper religious consciousness (da’at).

All this, as said, involves a radical change from our usual way of thinking. To be religious, in this sense, entails tremendous reorientation of all of our thinking about life —far deeper than simply becoming observant and starting to keep Shabbat, kashrut, etc., with all the upheaval that involves. Ultimately, it means a radically different kind of life, with radically different goals and values, largely alien to Western, and especially contemporary, culture.

The Atoning Power of Sacrifice—and of Shabbat

The Sefat Emet has some interesting things to say about the meaning of the Temple worship. In a torah on Parshat Tetzaveh (5661, s.v. zayit ra’anan), he draws a comparison between the candles lit in the golden candelabrum in the Temple and those lit in Jewish homes at the onset of Shabbat. Somehow, both of these candles signify a place of kaparah, of Divine forgiveness and purification. In the Temple, teshuvah and moral cleansing, actions which affect kaparah, are a prerequisite for offering a korban. This is difficult, because the paradigmatic expiatory offering is actually the korban shogeg (found in this week’s portion, Lev 4:27-35), the sacrifice offered for inadvertent or unintentional transgression. Yet, he explains, even when offering sacrifice for sins committed in a state of shogeg a person needs to do general teshuva for all his sins, including those committed deliberately (the zedonot as it were “take a tramp” on the shegagot). Hence, the Temple is seen as a place of spiritual purification.

Interestingly, there are certain echoes of this in the Roman Catholic practice of confession as a prerequisite for participating in the sacraments, such as Eucharist, etc. (a fact that appears in innumerable works of fiction by the likes of Graham Greene and Andrew Greeley). This is so because the sacraments are conceived by Christianity as an exact substitute for the Temple worship, enabling the faithful to participate in the general expiatory effect of their mysteries of Incarnation and Crucifixion. (This theme is also used by some very primitive Evangelical missionary tracts, which seem to imagine that contemporary Jews actually wander around worrying about how they can be atoned without the blood of the sacrifices, not realizing the central role played by teshuva, by the power of inner turning, in our thinking about such matters.)

To return to the Sefat Emet: he goes on to describe Shabbat as a substitute for the Temple service, even in the sense of its atoning for sin (as in the Sabbath hymn “Barukh El Elyon”: mehallo = mahul lo; he who keeps the Shabbat is forgiven all his sins” ). This is one more striking example of the central role played by the Shabbat in Sefat Emet’s thought.

Vayikra (Rambam)

Maimonides on Sacrifices

This week, as we begin to read Sefer Vayikra (the Book of Leviticus), we turn from the construction of the Sanctuary—which was both the home for the dwelling of the Shekhinah, and the physical framework for the service of God through sacrifices—to the actual details of those sacrifices, which served as the heart of the Divine worship—a worship often referred to simply as avodah, “Divine service.” This subject is perhaps the single most difficult subject in all of Maimonides’ oeuvre, as there are seemingly diametrically opposed attitudes towards the sacrifices in his halakhic works—the Commentary on the Mishnah, Sefer ha-Mitzvut, Mishneh Torah, etc.—and in his great philosophical work, the Guide for the Perplexed.

As we have noted several times during the course of our studies this year, one of the hallmarks of Rambam’s presentation of the halakhah in the Yad is its comprehensive nature, including the fact that he incorporates laws of the Temple and the sacrifices, notwithstanding that these had ceased to be operative more than a millennium before his birth. Three of the fourteen books of the Yad—the eighth, ninth and tenth—are devoted to the sacrificial system and its offshoot, the laws of purity. He describes there in loving detail all aspects of the Temple and its sacrifices. In this, he differs from the other major legal codes, such as Rif, Tur & Shulhan Arukh, which extract from the Talmud only those laws that are applicable in the post-Destruction era in Jewish history. Similarly, the Talmudic hiddushim (novellea) of such major rishonim as Ramban and Rashba pass over the bulk of Seder Kodashim, including such major tractates as Zevahim & Bekhorot, not to mention Temurot, Arkhin, etc., and focus on those tractates that are of direct contemporary relevance—meaning, in the case of the last two orders of Mishnah, Hullin & Niddah. Rambam those looms particularly large in the study of these tractates, by dint of the absence of others. The Temple service, and the concept of avodah, also enjoy a position of particular honor in Sefer ha-Mitzvot, as we shall explain in a forthcoming study.

It is difficult to interpret this as expressing merely a compulsion for comprehensiveness. The entire Yad seems suffused with a sense of longing for the restoration of the ancient glory of the Jewish people, with the Temple, priesthood, king, Sanhedrin and prophecy serving as central factors in its life. And, lest one suspect that Rambam writes of these things in merely antiquarian or nostalgic terms, it should be noted that he states explicitly at the beginning of his chapters on messiah (Melakhim 11.1) that the King Messiah will rebuild the Temple and reinstitute the offering of sacrifices.

Moreover, Rambam treats the institutions of the Temple sacrifices as part and parcel of the halakhic system. Thus, to take a timely example: in his description of the Passover Seder he states, in quite matter-of-fact tone, that, after reciting the blessing over matzah and marror, one eats the “festive offering of the fourteenth day” and the Paschal sacrifice, with the appropriate blessings, and then adds, almost as an afterthought, “And nowadays when we don’t have the sacrifice we do such-and-such…” (Hametz u-Matzah 8.7-8). Similarly, in stipulating the requirements for conversion to Judaism, he includes the proselyte’s obligation to bring a burnt-offering, adding that, if one converts today, this remains as an outstanding obligation, to be brought when the Temple shall be rebuilt (Issurei Biah 13.5).

Thus far Maimonides of the halakhic works. When one turns to the Guide of the Perplexed, one encounters a completely different picture. In Guide III.35-49, Rambam puts forward a systematic theory of the rationales for the mitzvot, preceded by several chapters concerning those mitzvot that are particularly difficult to understand. Among these, he devotes III.32 to the subject of sacrifices, which seem to defy reason and common sense. He prefaces his explanation with an analogy to an infant, who nurses from his mother’s breast until his limbs are set and he is strong enough to eat solid food. It is thus that he seems to explain animal sacrifices: as a process of weaning from the forms of worship known to the Israelites at the time they left Egypt, from the culture of the surrounding nations. Had they been told at the time to abjure the practice of animal sacrifices, they would have been unable to accept the notion. He writes:

At that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon the people to worship God, would say: “God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.” (Pines, p. 526)

As the essential thing was to wean them from belief in idolatry and to inculcate belief in the one God, they were commanded to offer sacrifices, but to do so as an act of worship of the One true God alone. Rambam describes this, quite candidly, as a “divine ruse” and as a manifestation of “His wisdom and wily graciousness,” through which the memory of idolatry was eventually effaced. He goes on to describe this aspect of the Law as due to a “second intention” rather than a “first intention.” That is, these commandments were not intended for their own sake, as a direct expression of the religious ideal, but for the sake of something else. How are we to bridge this seemingly irreconcilable gap within Rambam’s own words? Presumably, one can dismiss the theory of those who suggest that the third part of the Guide was a forgery, or written by Rambam when he was already senile; the clarity of thought and mastery of the material in this section are every bit as evident as anywhere else in his writings.

Some years ago, an old friend from my days at the Bostoner shteibel, Russell Hendel, wrote an interesting article on this topic in the journal Tradition. His basic thesis was that this chapter was essentially apologetics: that is, Maimonides wished to present Judaism in a coherent, attractive, and reasonably rational and “enlightened” manner for a readership whom he assumed to be more or less alienated from and bereft of any a priori commitment to Torah and halakhah.

On the face of it, this seems a convincing and neat answer, particularly given that the alternative is to assume a deep ideological “schizophrenia” within Maimonides’ soul. Hendel marshals an impressive array of arguments. He notes that the use of partial or misleading arguments in defense of Judaism is not unknown to the tradition. Thus, he quotes the deliberately lame or false arguments offered by various rabbis in polemics with heretics or idolaters (Rabbi Simlai in Gen. Rab. 8.9 and Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai in Num. Rab. 19.8; interestingly, their disciples then asked, “Rabbi, him you sent off with a reed. What answer can you give us?”), and the deliberate mistranslation of a dozen or so awkward passages in the Bible by the seventy sages called by Ptolemy to translate the Torah into Greek (Megillah 9a-b and parallels). He mentions Rambam’s obvious and deep involvement in the sacrificial system. In addition to the sources I mentioned above, he invokes the Mishnah Commentary at Avot 1.2, where Rambam interprets avodah (one of the “three pillars of the world”) as “sacrifice” rather than as “prayer”; the Introduction to Seder Kodashim, where he stresses the importance of studying the laws of sacrifices and bemoans the widespread ignorance in this area; and Meilah 8.8, where he includes korbanot as a prime example of hukkim, the inscrutable laws whose rationale is not known to us, but which we must nevertheless accept and for which the Divine Lawgiver had sound reason (we will discuss this and cognate passages in our paper for Korah or Hukkat).

Hendel also mentions Nahmanides’ harsh criticism of what he describes as Rambam’s “prophylactic-preventive” explanation of sacrifices (see Ramban al ha-Torah at Lev 1:9); in a similar vein, Rabbenu Bahye (on Exod 30:1) criticizes Rambam’s functional explanation of the incense. Hendel suggests, on the basis of a turn of phrase in Ramban, that he well understood that Rambam’s intention was apologetic, but nevertheless felt that a more traditional, midrashic type of explanation would go over as well while being less derogatory to the Torah. Albeit, in truth, the difference between the two might well be explained on the basis of their different milieus and the differing educational tactics these necessitated: the Provençal Jews among whom Ramban lived and wrote were deeply rooted in midrash and internal-Jewish mystical thinking, whereas the Spanish or Egyptian Jewries that Maimonides addressed half a century earlier were more deeply affected by Greco-Islamic philosophy, and would have been less receptive to such an approach (not to mention the fact that Maimonides himself was hardly enamored of the type of Kabbalistic rationales advocated by Ramban).

Unfortunately, Leo Strauss, in his otherwise excellent “Introduction to Reading the Guide” (printed in the Pines translation of the Guide), does not address the issues raised by the chapters on the commandments. Was Guide III.32-49 in fact Maimonides’ final word on the subject of ta’amei hamitzvot, with regard to both the sacrifices and other matters, or may such passages as Meilah 8.8 be read as hinting at another, more “esoteric” interpretation of the mitzvot, intended only for a select circle of cognoscenti, which he deliberately refrains from explaining in writing?

On the whole, I tend to agree with Russell’s reading of this issue in Rambam. But, if only for the sake of closure and completeness, I must ask whether this is the only possible, coherent interpretation? David Hartman, in his book Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest, outlines four possible ways in which an individual may attempt to reconcile the conflicting pull of reason and traditional authority. He calls these insulation, dualism, rejection, and integration: that is, giving the upper hand to one or the other; living with both, but compartmentalizing one’s mind so that one never really confronts the conflict; and the attempt to harmonize, to arrive at a deeper understanding that embraces both positions. Thus, just as Hendel sees Maimonides as rooted primarily in Torah, there are others who assert the opposite: that Maimonides gave primacy to reason, seeing sacrifices as a primitive, lower form of religious worship, and that he fully believed what he wrote in the Guide. Yet this does not seem to square with the evident love and commitment to the Temple and the sacrificial system, as an integral part of the Torah as a whole, betrayed in almost ever word of Sefer Avodah & Sefer Korbanot.

Perhaps the answer is to be sought in a quasi-sociological understanding of how Rambam saw the relationship between the intellectual elite and the ordinary folk. As he seems to hint in the passage we quoted earlier, not only sacrifices, but even verbal prayer, are not the real essence of religion. As he says in many places, the ultimate aim is knowledge of God, elevated religious consciousness. Thus, the hypothetical “prophet” referred to there might be a kind of alter-ego of Maimonides, for whom meditation on the Godhead is the pinnacle of religious life.

But he knows that this is only possible, in any society and at any time (except in the messianic Eschaton; cf. Teshuvah 8-9), for a small minority—for a tiny elite who can undergo the long, rigorous and demanding training and self-work, intellectual, scholastic, moral, and finally contemplative, required to reach this goal. Yet the Torah is a Torah of life, a Law given for an entire people. Moreover, he deeply believed in its divinity, and its eternal validity. Thus, the various forms of worship taught in the Torah, whatever their origin, are not only formally binding, but are valid, authentic forms of worship. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether it is accomplished through sacrifice or through verbal prayer; different external acts are suitable at different times, in accordance with external circumstances.

And who knows? Perhaps he also saw sacrifices as having a deeper rationale, beyond what he writes in the Guide. Perhaps he understood that sacrifices answer a profound human need, corresponding to a subconscious archetype, even beyond ancient times. There are things in the behavior and emotions of people, even today, that suggest that this may be so. And I cannot develop the idea further at this point. What then is the difference between Rambam and Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor“?

First, that he was not a hypocrite. He accepted, with love and a priori commitment, that the Torah in all its details is incumbent upon all. (When I used to visit Lubavitch, many years ago, the Hasidim would note that the Rebbe and the simplest Jew both wear the same tefillin and are obligated in the same practical mitzvot; the difference between them is reflected in their inner experience, that the Rebbe has a deeper knowledge and understanding, penetrating to endless levels of meaning, more profound devekut, etc.) Second, Rambam had a deep love for the Jewish people. His pastoral epistles (Iggerot) are infused with tenderness, with concern and sensitivity for the dilemmas of the ordinary, unsophisticated Jew. He did not stay aloof in an ivory tower—but, in addition to this popular level, he lived his own religious life on another plane, that of the ever-ascending pursuit of knowledge of God.

One concluding thought. Bible scholar Israel Knohl, in his book Silent Sanctuary, posits that the priests during the First Temple period had an unexpectedly sophisticated, sublime understanding of the Temple rituals. The silence that accompanied the performance of the animal sacrifices suggests a kind of inner meditation, a whole world of kavvanah, of sacred solemnity. Perhaps it is this which is hinted at in the emphasis placed by the Mishnah on the priests’ thoughts during the performance of each step of the ritual, and the possibility that the offering may be disqualified by wrong thoughts. Some of these thoughts are technical, but others point towards profound religious ideas: leshem Ha-Shem, lesham ishim, leshem reah, leshem nihoah—“for the sake of God, for the sake of the fires, for the sake of the fragrance,” etc. (m. Zevahim 4.6). This, too, is a rich philosophical vein, deserving of further study.

Vayikra (Psalms)

Psalm 50: “For Mine is the Entire World… Beasts on a Thousand Hills”

This week we read the opening section of the Book of Leviticus, Parshat Vayikra, which outlines the basic laws of the sacrifices offered in the Temple. As is known, there are found in the Tanakh divergent views about the role of animal sacrifices in the religious life. Thus, in the haftarah that would be have been read this week in ordinary years, were it not Shabbat Zakhor (Isa 43:21-44:23), we read: “It is not for Me you have brought your sheep for burnt offerings, or me you have tired with your sacrifices. I have not burdened you with offerings, or wearied you with frankincense… But you have burdened me with your sins, you have wearied me with your iniquities” (vv. 23-24). Similarly, in many other places we find it implied that God doesn’t really desire sacrifices, but rather righteousness and decent, ethical behavior. For example: “Add burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat flesh; for I did not speak to your fathers nor command them, on the day they went out of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices” (Jer 7: 21-22); “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriad rivers of oil?” (Micah 6:7); “Who asked you to trample My courtyards… I cannot abide iniquity and solemn assembly… I hate your new moons and sabbaths… when you stretch forth your hands I shall hide my eyes” (Isa 1: 12-15; see our discussion of these in HY II: Tzav; Devarim).

These and other passages were adapted by Reform Jewish theologians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to support the argument that the prophets totally rejected the sacrificial cult, and on this basis to propound a Judaism totally bereft of ritual and based almost exclusively on “ethical monotheism.” But was this in fact the intent of the prophets and other critics of the Temple rite, or was their message more complex and nuanced?

We shall return to this question at the end of our discussion. First, as is our self-imposed charge this year, I would like to present that psalm which deals most directly with the issue of korbanot: Psalm 50, “A Psalm of Asaph.” This psalm, which Amos Hakham speculates may have been written for a sort of annual covenant renewal ceremony, opens with a vision of a Divine epiphany (vv. 1-6). This begins with an unusual invocation of a three-fold series of Divine names—“The Mighty One, God, the Lord (El Elohim HYWH) spoke and called to the land…. from Zion… He appeared”— and a manifestation of God, surrounded by fire and storm, in which He announces that He is about to judge his people.

In the central, longest part of the psalm (vv. 7-15), God addresses and admonishes the people. The basic idea: that God doesn’t “need” sacrifices for Himself. With biting sarcasm, He says that He cannot hold them to task for failure to bring sacrifices, but the exercise is rather pointless for “I need not take cattle from your homes, nor goats from your folds; for all the beasts of the forest are Mine; cattle [grazing] over a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the mountain [or: air]… If I am hungry I will not tell you, for the earth and its fulness are mine” (vv. 9-12). But of course God does not “eat.” Instead, our psalm continues, “Offer to God [your sacrifice of] thanksgiving, and honor your vows to the One on High” (v. 14).

In the final section, God addresses the wicked (vv. 16-22), denouncing the hypocrisy of the person who “talks about My laws, and has My covenant on his lips” (v. 16), yet hates rebuke, and keeps company with thieves and adulterers (or, by implication, is himself one of their ilk).

What, then, is the message of this psalm? I would like to return to verse 14, which seems to sum up the quintessential idea of the whole psalm: “Offer to God [your sacrifice of] thanksgiving, and honor your vows to the One on High” (v. 14). The idea is two-pronged: first, that the ideal sacrifices is one brought voluntarily, out of a spirit of fullness and thanksgiving to God, perhaps in the framework of a vow. Note the numerous places in the Psalms where a person, after being saved from disaster or severe illness (“and call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall honor me”–v. 15), promises to bring an offering of todah to the Temple. Second, do not bring sacrifices because you think they will serve to atone or cover up for your sins (this is implied by the immediate mention of pious evildoers), or because you fear that failure to do so will be held against you (v. 8).

Thus, this psalm is not opposed to sacrificial offerings per se. Rather, the idea implied here, one that is more fully articulated throughout Hazal, is that all the ritual acts performed by people to attain atonement—whether, sin- and guilt-offerings in the days of the Temple, fasting on Yom Kippur, or reciting the formula of Confession (Vidui)—are inefficacious in themselves without teshuvah, without profound and sincere inner regret and resolve to change. The only exceptions to this rule are certain cases of technical ritual transgressions (meilah, asham), of unintentional acts (hatat), or certain relatively minor infractions which are, so to speak, wiped clean by Yom Kippur through a kind of mystical clemency granted collectively to the entire people of Israel.

There seems to be something in human nature which seeks to be excused of wrongdoing through formal gestures, rather than through the hard work of repairing wrongs. That is why the Mishnah also repeatedly stresses that one who sins while saying to himself, “I will sin and then repent” or “I will sin and Yom Kippur will atone for it“ (m. Yoma 8.9), is not forgiven.

In this context, I have a certain mixed feeling about the phenomenon of “Yom Kippur Jews.” On the one hand, there is something touching about those who, at least one day a year, come to the synagogue so as to “stand up and be counted” as Jews. On the other hand, one wonders if they aren’t acting on a kind of atavistic belief, that this somehow compensates for their not being a part of Jewish religious or communal life, nor living as Jews in any meaningful way in their private life, all year long. The joke is told that many Roman Catholics, when going to confession and hearing the priest tell them, “go and sin no more,” don’t hear the last two words. There are many Jews who are much the same way.

In answer to our original question, I would like to reprint some things that I wrote on this question some years ago, in my studies of the haftarot:

What he [i.e., the prophet] critiques here is the kind of thinking that sees the essence of religion in pomp and ceremony, in solemn ritual gatherings and external gestures of piety, while “your hands are filled with blood”: the people and their leaders neglect the most elementary principles of justice, of ordinary human decency and concern for ones fellowman, oppressing the weak and defenseless, typified by the orphan and widow…

What then did the authors of the Massorah [in assigning these haftarot to parshiyot dealing with sacrifices] have in mind in juxtaposing two seemingly diametrically opposed readings? Perhaps they saw the two moments—the Lawgiver who went into painstaking detail about the proper procedure for offering the sacrifices, and the prophet who thundered “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriad rivers of oil?”—as somehow complementary… We noted earlier [HY II: Ki Tisa] the overlapping of priestly and prophetic functions in the persona of Elijah.

Likewise, the vision of the prophet Ezekiel seems inextricably mixed of his consciousness of the Temple, of the demand for purity, both formal-bodily and spiritual, of his own standing as a member of the priestly clan, as well as his stringent moral demands. I would like to suggest that the two moments—the priestly and the prophetic—ultimately stem from the same or a similar source… the consciousness of, and sensitivity to, the presence of the Divine, in a concrete, tangible manner. … What moved them was not only… the somewhat cold, distant, abstract conviction of ethical principle, but an overwhelming passion for justice that came from clear, tangible knowledge of being touched by God (see A. J. Heschel’s The Prophets, where he speaks of “divine empathy”).

This selfsame experience of being overwhelmed by God’s Presence, of being swept up by the Divine, can lead to the priestly moment—the compelling need to engage in an act of worship or service—as a sign of appreciation and gratitude, of acknowledgement, of submission and self-abnegation, even, if one dare call it thus, fellowship with God in the case of the shelamim… Or one can look at the polarity between the “prophetic” and the “priestly” in terms of inner and outer work. The classical prophets are concerned with the external, societal dimension of human existence. The priests—under which rubric one may include, in the broad sense, men of halakhah, spiritual teachers, rabbis—are concerned with inner work—working on ones self, on the stubbornness of ones own heart and, ideally, changing ones heart to submit to God. There is thus, if you wish, a seamless continuum beginning with an almost mystical sense of the Divine Presence, leading to the prophetic moment of a passionately delivered ethical message, to the ritual moment of service of God in mitzvot, including the theocentrically-oriented mitzvot of the sacrifices—and returning full cycle to the start. (Note the combination of meditative and philosophical, cognitive moments in Maimonides’ description of the preparation for prophecy in Chapter 7 of Yesodei ha-Torah.)

I would like to conclude with some speculations about the reference made in our psalm specifically to todah and neder—that is, of sacrifices that fit under the general rubric of shelamim, of “peace-offerings.” In our discussion two weeks ago of Ki Tisa, we noted that the revelers brought, not sin-offerings, but olot and shelamim, whole-burnt-offerings and peace-offerings. Reading more closely, I noticed that elsewhere, as well, the Torah mentions only these two kinds of offerings: immediately following the Sinai revelation the people are commanded to build “an altar of earth” where they will offer olot and shelamim (Exod 20:21); later, the covenant is ratified through a ceremony in which they bring olot and shelamim whose blood is sprinkled on the altar and on the people (Exod 24:5). Perhaps in this earliest, more pristine form of worship, these were in fact the only form of sacrifice known: burnt offerings, expressing total devotion to God; and peace-offerings, symbolizing fellowship and community with God (see W. Robertson Smith’s Religion of the Semites; and my own discussion in HY I: Vayikra). Perhaps, if we accept the view that the more formalized, elaborate w orship conducted in the Sanctuary and later on in the Temple was only introduced after the sin of the Golden Calf, once the urgent need for atonement became apparent, then sin-offerings, too, were only introduced at this later date. This is consistent with the wording of Psalm 50 (but see also Maimonides’ historical reconstruction, with what he calls “first command” and “second command” in Guide 3.32).

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Vayakhel-Pekudei (Torah)

“And the Seventh Day Shall be Holy to You”

Although the main subject of this (and next) week’s portion is the actual construction of the Sanctuary, as instructed in Terumah and Tetzaveh, it opens with a brief section concerning the Shabbat. This fact prompted me to attempt an overview of the treatment of the Shabbat in the Torah generally. Of all the subjects appearing in the Torah, the Shabbat is perhaps the one treated most frequently, and in the largest number of separate parshiyot, each one of which presents a slightly different aspect of the Shabbat. As mentioned last week, the story of the Golden Calf and the “epiphany in the cleft of the rock” is framed by two brief sections on the Sabbath—and there are many more throughout the Torah. The obvious question is: why are there so many separate parshiyot on the Sabbath, and what does each one teach us? A close reading of each of these sections, and reflection on the unique resonance and nuance found in each one, may shed light upon this institution as a whole. What follows is a survey of the Shabbat portions in the Torah, with a brief comment on each one, in an attempt to gain an overall, synthetic picture of the Shabbat. I doubt that I have anything radically new to say: these questions have of course been dealt with extensively by Hazal, in the tannaitic midrashim and elsewhere; and, in totally different ways, by academic Bible scholarship. Nevertheless, their presentation may prompt new insights:

a) The Sabbath, or seventh day, appears as culmination of the Creation story, with the striking image of God ceasing from his labor and resting on that day (Gen 2:1-3), and both “blessing” and “hallowing” the Shabbat;

b) The story of the manna, with its strictures against gathering manna on the Sabbath and the double portion given on the sixth day, “that I might test them, whether they will walk in my Torah or not” (Exod 16:4-5, 22-27). Here, we already have the motif of Shabbat observance as a central religious discipline and “test” of loyalty to God, as well as the special character of Friday as the day of preparation for Shabbat, with its double portion of food held in readiness for the “non-gathering” day that follows. Interestingly, the Rabbinic tradition, in order to justify these sanctions, posits that the Shabbat must have been “pre-given” at an earlier point: namely, at Marah, where God “placed before them there statutes and law” (Exod 15:25; Rashi ad loc., quoting Sanhedrin 56b and Mekhilta);

c) The Fourth of the Ten Commandments given at Sinai (20:8-11) is of course central. It contains two or three striking emphases: ‘”do not do any labor… you or your son or daughter or your manservant or maidservant… because God made the heavens and earth in six days.” Three points seem particularly important here: the explicit prohibition against all labor; its applicability to all levels of society, even servants and domestic animals; and the explicit link of the Shabbat to the Creation, as a day “blessed” and “made holy” by God (two verbs already used about the Shabbat in the verses in Genesis; Rashi in Genesis notes the dialectic between “holiness” and “blessing” on the Shabbat, viz. the strictures and prohibitions coupled with the enjoyment and pleasure characteristic of the Shabbat).

d) A brief verse, in the condensed codex of laws sometimes referred to as the Book of the Covenant: “six days shall you do your work, and on the seventh you shall rest, that your cow and donkey may rest, and the son of your maidservant and the stranger may be refreshed” (Exod 23:12). One is struck here by the mention of Shabbat rest directed specifically toward those holding a subservient position within society: farm animals, servants, and strangers, without any mention of “you and your son and daughter.” As if to say: We know that the established “baalebatim” (householders) will take good care of their own rest; but one must take care for those who are less fortunate.

e) Exodus 34:21: another isolated verse, in a chapter roughly parallel to Exodus 23. This time, the explanatory phrase reads, “[even] in plowing and harvest time you should rest.” A phrase reinforcing the mandatory, unequivocal nature of the Shabbat, and saying “no exceptions for economic emergencies” (and who like us at the turn of the 20th century know of the dangers of workaholism?)

f) Exodus 31:12-17: a fuller section on the Shabbat, containing three or four important new concepts: the Sabbath as holy (and not only hallowed by God); stringent sanctions (i.e., the death penalty) for its violation or “profanation”; the Sabbath as a covenant, and the Sabbath as a sign. Two highly significant, pregnant theological terms.

g) Exodus 35:1-3. The mention in this weeks’ portion. See below.

h) Leviticus 19:3: A passing, three-word reference to the Shabbat in Kedoshim, the ”Holiness Chapter” or introduction to the “Holiness Code,” where it is paired with (equated to? contrasted with? weighed against?) reverence for ones parents.

i) Leviticus 23:3 —The basic components of the Shabbat are mentioned in the context of the various festivals or “appointed times” of the annual cycle. Is it perhaps mentioned here simply to make the point that it, too, belongs to this grouping?

j) Leviticus 26:2. Again, a one-liner, this time juxtaposing Shabbat with the Temple, and the reverence due it.

k) Numbers 28:9-10—The two lambs offered as an additional sacrifice on the Shabbat; listed here in the context of the festival cycle. It is interesting that, unlike all the other “appointed times,” no rams or bullocks are offered on the Shabbat, but only two lambs, as in the weekday tamid (fixed offering).

l) In Deuteronomy, interestingly, no mention is made of the Shabbat at all throughout the summary of law that forms the main body of the Mishneh Torah in Chs. 12-26, nor is it mentioned in the blessings and curses in 27:11-26, which include many “cardinal” sins, especially those that may be done in secret (as may Shabbat labor). It only appears in the recapitulation of the Ten Commandments (Deut 5:12-15), with two notable and much-commented changes from the version in Exodus: the use of the verb shamor (“observe”) rather than zakhor (“remember”); and the social rationale given for its observance: “and you shall remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt.”

To return to our weekly portion: the Rabbis ponder exactly why the Shabbat appears here. The conventional answer, given by Rashi, is: to teach us that the construction of the sanctuary does not override the Sabbath. Rav Soloveitchik once elaborated this, speaking in terms of the contrast between grandiose, elaborate, public ceremonials, and the modest, daily, concrete discipline of the mitzvot, particularly those that involve refraining from certain common actions or bodily pleasures (i.e., Shabbat, kashrut, laws governing sex). He noted that, unlike the tendency in certain schools in modern-day Judaism, which make the synagogue the center, Judaism has been traditionally based far more upon the latter.

But at the same time as it is counterpoised to it, the Shabbat also corresponds to the Temple. There is, perhaps, even a mystical correspondence: the 39 forms of labor that constitute the halakhic framework for the Shabbat are those required for the construction or ongoing operation of the Temple ritual (and possibly the gematria of 39, tal, dew, also alludes to the divine plenitude, symbolized by dew, so characteristic of the Shabbat). A. J. Heschel, in his beautiful little book on the Sabbath, indeed refers to this day as a “Temple in time.”

A Habad text takes note of the passive voice in the phrase, “tei’aseh melakhah”—“ six days labor shall be done by you.” The “Baal ha-Tanya,” the Rabbi of Lyady, comments that, if you observe Shabbat on the proper spiritual plane, your attitude to the world of labor is “by the way”— as if in an aside—and not as the center of life (Likkutei Torah).

The verse about refraining from Sabbath labor is followed here by the enigmatic addition, “you shall not kindle fire on the Shabbat day” (35:3). The Rabbis ponder why this particular act was singled out for mention in this way, suggesting that it may either mean that kindling fire is a lav and not the more serious sanction of karet (an unlikely conclusion, somehow); or else is intended to imply the legal principle of “division into [major categories of] labor.” But perhaps, more simply, it implies something else. On another, more basic level of meaning, fire is presented as an archetypal form of prohibited labor. Having such an abundance of uses—heat, cooking, illumination and, since the Industrial Revolution (notwithstanding the seeming anachronism), providing mechanical energy—it may be seen as symbolizing the human conquest of the material world, the very essence of the weekday, mundane spirit. It is interesting that many Sephardic Jews in Israel speak of “eish” as the most basic prohibition of Sabbath. This sometimes leads to such odd juxtapositions as a family of my acquaintance who think nothing of driving long distances on the Shabbat, but keep an electric kettle with water boiled before Shabbat so as not to ignite fire for their Friday night tea. On the other hand: both Ramban and Ibn Ezra suggest that this verse is brought to reinforce the prohibition of fire, because it is permitted on festival days: i.e., were the Torah not to mention it as specifically prohibited, one might think that it is permitted on Shabbat as well.

The ubiquity of the Shabbat in the Torah is reminiscent of such Hasidic books as the Sefat Emet, which ends virtually every individual homily with some sort of reference to the Shabbat. For him, it is both the culmination and pinnacle of a person’s Divine service, as well as the day when one reaps the spiritual harvest of the labor invested during the weekdays in the ”avodah” of Torah study and prayer during the weekday. (I once noted that the difference between Hasidism and Mitnaggedism is reflected in their prayer books: a Lithuanian Siddur, like the Gaon of Vilna’s Ishei Yisrael, is top heavy with commentaries on Shema, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; a Hasidic one, such as Otzar ha-Tefillot, is filled with commentaries on Shabbat.)

“And the People Brought More than Enough”: Gifts to the Temple & Shabbat Shekalim

Vayakhel is concerned with the bringing by the people of gifts to the Sanctuary. One of its central elements is the scene in which all the people brought their stuff to Moses and Bezalel for this purpose. We are told that all those who were moved to do so brought gifts to the Temple. The Torah describes what seems to have been a vast popular outpouring of giving: the men and the women, who ever had various kinds of jewelry… dyes… silver and bronze… skilled women who knew how to weave…, etc. (35:21-26). On the other hand, certain wealthy individuals —the princes—brought the jewels and other precious items needed for the sanctuary (v. 27). In the end, Moses was told by the artisans “the people have brought enough and more,” and Moses issued a call, “Enough; we do not need anymore.” (As Rabbi Mutti Elon wryly commented on this on television: “Who can imagine a Jewish institution today saying that they have enough?”)

Some years (as in 2005) this Shabbat coincides with Parshat Shekalim: the first of the four special Sabbaths, on each of which a special portion is read as maftir, which fall during the month or so preceding Nissan, the month of Passover. Parashat Shekalim (Exod 30:11-16) describes the collection from each member of the people of the half-shekel, which served as a kind of levy originally imposed for the construction of the Sanctuary; thereafter, it became a tax used to pay for the regular sacrificial offerings made in the Temple on behalf of the people as a whole. As an annual tax, whose year ran from Nissan to Nissan, the communal officials used to announce it publicly one month earlier, to remind people of this obligation. It thus bears no direct connection to holiday season, but was simply an annual obligation.

More than anything, this institution symbolizes equality of all before God, the participation of all in the sacrifices brought in the name of all Israel. “The wealthy one shall not bring more, nor the poor one less, than the half-shekel” (v. 15). A private individual was not allowed to buy the korban tamid; it had to be a concrete manifestation of the sacrifices belonging of the entire people.

There is an interesting tension here between the democratic principle, in which the Temple is meant to represent the entire people (Knesset Yisrael as an halakhic- metaphysical entity); and the reality of wealth, and that there are inevitably those who are able to make impressive, dazzling gifts. The Torah seems to accept this fact, while placing definite checks on it, to prevent the Temple service becoming a domain dominated by a handful of wealthy individuals. And there is no need to elaborate the echoes of such problems in our own time and place.

Sacred Architecture: Plan and Execution

I will conclude with two brief observations about the “doubling over” of these portions. As we mentioned earlier, Vayakhel & Pekudai (Chapters 36-40 of Exodus) are almost a mirror image of Terumah & Tetzaveh (Chs. 25-31:11). There are nevertheless certain significant differences between them.

First, and perhaps most striking, the order. Terumah begins by describing the most sacred objects in the sanctuary: the ark, the table for the shewbread, the menorah; it then goes on to the physical structure used to house them: the inner curtains of fabric, the outer covering of animal skin, and the wooden frame; turns from there to the outer altar of burnt-offerings; concludes with the posts and curtains used to mark off the “sacred space” of the outdoor courtyard of the Sanctuary; and at the very end, in what seems almost an afterthought, even after the priestly garments, the incense altar. In Vayakhel, the sequence is largely reversed: first the superstructure of the inner building; then the sacred objects, including the incense altar; then the outer altar; and, finally, the courtyard. The logic seems to be: the initial command is based upon the relative importance and sacredness of each item: the ark of the covenant comes first, as the raison d’etre of the whole (“I shall dwell among you”). But when it comes to practical execution, the ark and other sacred things cannot be made until they have a home.

Second, and to my mind more interesting: in at least two places Vayakhel alludes to the special role played by women in he construction of the Temple. First, in 35:25-26, it mentions that the women wove the various colored fabrics, and “those women whose hearts were moved with wisdom spun the goats’ hair.” Rashi, rather bizarrely, comments that they wove the goats’ wool while it was still on the animals’ backs—a unique feminine talent? Second, it adds one item not mentioned in the main part of the original scheme: the water laver and base made from the “mirrors of the ministering women” (38:8).

An interesting midrash states that these mirrors were used by the women in Egypt to arouse their husbands, who were exhausted by hard labor. The women would coquettishly look into these mirrors (which were simply highly polished brass, without silver or glass) together with their men, until the husbands would go to them, thereby assuring the continuation of another generation. The midrash goes on to say that Moses, rather priggishly, objects to using such objects in the Temple, having been used to cultivate in the service of “the Evil Urge,” but God countered that, on the contrary, they were especially precious to Him (Rashi, quoting Tanhuma). We find here the age-old image of the puritanical, male religious leader who feels that attachment to the sacred requires building high fences against the instinctive, lustful side of life, lest it be flooded by undisciplined, chaotic impulses. God, on the other hand, articulates a frank, natural acceptance of this aspect of life too.

Temple/Cosmos — Microcosm/ Macrocosm

This portion, the final one in the book of Shemot (Exodus), completes those chapters concerned with the building of the Sanctuary, with which we have been concerned over the past four or five weeks. Several interesting points: As we mentioned in our initial discussion on Parashat Terumah, this is the culmination of Exodus: the structure of the book of Exodus leads from exile and bondage in Egypt, through the Exodus, to the Revelation at Sinai, and beyond that, to the human response of building a Sanctuary, a home for the indwelling of the Shekhinah, the Divine presence.

That this is the necessary completion of the Sinai Revelation is suggested by the ubiquitous discussions in Hasidic texts of “itaruta diltata” and “itaruta dil’eila”: “arousal from Above” and “arousal from below,” and their constant interplay. The relationship between man and God is seen as a constant sort of lover’s duet: sometimes God makes the first move, performing redemptive or miraculous acts, or revealing Himself, hoping to arouse man’s response. At other times, there is an awakening from the human side, a yearning for God’s closeness, to which there is then a response. The mitzvot generally are seen as a vessel for human “awakening from below.” The great-grandpa of them all, surely, is the construction of the Sanctuary/Temple: God appears at Sinai, manifests himself with his Indwelling or Glory—and guides man to response through commanding the building of the Mishkan.

The final sections, Exodus 39:32 - 40, describe the completion of the Sanctuary and its erection on Rosh Hodesh Nissan, the first day of the second year in the desert. This day is viewed as the greatest single day in the history of Israel, in this archetypal, almost mythical age of the desert. It continues as the “narrated present” through the Book of Leviticus and into the first part of Numbers, into and including the series of eight sections (parshiyot) that were given “on that very day” (including the priestly blessing), and the gifts of the princes (Numbers 7). But there is also an ironic, tragic denouement described in Parshat Shemini (Lev 9-10), whose antinomies of ecstatic, sacred joy and sudden death we shall get to in good time.

Several interesting turns of phrase appear here, suggesting a clear parallel between the Six days of the Creation and the erecting of the Sanctuary (I saw this idea in the late Nehama Leibowitz’s Studies). “Thus all the work of the tabernacle… was finished” (vetekhel kol avodat…; 39:32); “and Moses saw all the work, and behold they had done it… and Moses blessed them” (vayar Moshe… vehinei asu otah... veyevarekh otam Moshe; v. 43). The parallel to “Vayekhulu” (Gen 1:31-2:3), in which God sees all that He has done, and that it is completed, and performs an act of blessing [in this case, the seventh day] is striking. One is left with the strong sense that the Temple is a Microcosm of the Universe itself. (It would be interesting to see if there are any Kabbalistic speculations that draw a correspondence between the seven days of Creation and the seven sefirot or “building blocks,” and the artifacts of the Temple. The triad of Ark, Menorah and Shewbread Table is suggestive…)

Another theme clearly suggested by the wording of the chapter is the parallel between the manifestation of the Divine Glory at Mount Sinai and its indwelling in the Sanctuary —a point we have already mentioned (compare Exod 24:15-18 to 40:34-38). But this is a two-edged sword: on the one hand, there is something wonderful about the Divine making itself immanent to ordinary human beings in an ongoing kind of way (one might almost say: something very “Hasidic” in it, vis-a-vis the sanctification of the mundane); on the other hand, there are more than a few problems in “bringing down” the divine presence from the rarified mountain heights of Sinai to constant presence in an institution, a building overseen by a hereditary priesthood (even if not plagued by the problems of corruption, arrogance, self-aggrandizement, etc., that almost inevitably accompany such situations, from 1 Sam 2:12-17 to any morning’s newspaper)—and the problem is a well-known, perennial one (also viz. prophet and priest).

“As a hart longs for flowing streams, so does my soul long for thee, O God” (Psalm 42:1)

In our comments on Parshat Terumah we spoke of the Temple, and by analogy of prayer. Each person is obligated to ”build a Temple” in his own heart; the Temple of prayer. (It is interesting that some Kabbalistic siddurim speak of prayer as an inner journey within the Temple: moving from the outer courtyards, to the inner courtyard, to the Sanctuary, and from there to the Holy of Holies. Alternatively, it is described as a journey of ascent among the four Kabbalistic ”worlds”—but that is another story.) As the Torah deals here with the actual, practical construction of the Sanctuary, or Temple, so we will continue our discussion of prayer with some more practical aspects.

But first, I would like to add one more element to our theoretical discussion. Rav Soloveitchik, using the Brisker method of conceptual analysis, in which one arrives at an understanding of the Talmudic or other halakhic texts dialectically, by making use of sharply-honed distinctions, often spoke of the distinction vis-a-vis certain mitzvot between the “act of performance of mitzvah” (ma’aseh mitzvah), which is by its nature external, technical (for example: prayer as the recitation of a certain text, within certain time parameters, numerous technical laws governing its recitation and/or required bodily posture and state, etc.); and its “fulfillment within the heart“ (kiyyum shebalev). He spoke of this in reference to such mitzvot as rejoicing in the festivals, shofar, observance of mourning for the dead, and Keriat Shema (the recitation of Shema); but most of all, in terms of Teshuvah and Tefillah.

In retrospect, I see this as a very significant spiritualist move on his part: his aim was to make his modern Orthodox “flock” (which of course spanned the entire United States and more, and included rabbis as well as laymen) aware of the often neglected importance of the spiritual side, and anchoring it within the very heart of the halakhah. That this subject was close to his heart is illustrated by the way in which he more than once expressed his disappointment with Modern Orthodoxy, in the words: “They serve God with their minds and with their hands, but not with their hearts!”

Having said that as prelude, the question to be asked is: What is the inner counterpart to the external act of prayer, both in general, and specifically of “Tefillah,” i.e., the Amidah or Shemonah Esreh? More succinctly, what is the inner essence of prayer? I would say: standing before God—amidah lifnei HaShem—or, in terms of a concrete, do-able mitzvah imperative: placing oneself mentally in that situation. All kavvanah—focusing or concentration or mental guiding of oneself in prayer—is ultimately aimed at bringing the person to that state which might be called “being in the presence of God”; and from there, addressing Him from our own situation as human beings. This state eludes definition or even description, but once experienced a person surely recognizes it.

To avoid misunderstanding: I am not speaking here of some esoteric mystical state of Giluy Shekhinah, of personal revelation; our tradition sees these as rare gifts, with which only a few, highly developed individuals are blessed. I speak, rather, of the “opening of the doors” to a realized consciousness of that which surrounds us at all times—a simple, basic, ground awareness of the immanent presence of God in the world.

How does one arrive at that place?

First of all, community helps. There is a new spirit abroad in the land: a spirit of seeking spirituality, of seeking to breathe new meaning, new life and vitality into the old prayer rites. Living in Jerusalem’s German Colony neighborhood over the past year and a half, I have had the opportunity to participate on a regular basis in two highly spiritually conscious minyanim (Yakar and the once-a-month ”Leader minyan”), which make a conscious attempt to infuse prayer with meaning. In both these places there is a style of prayer which attempts to avoid the sliding into routine, the hasty, mechanical type of davening seen in so many shuls. And of course there are many other such minyanim throughout the Jewish world—including the plethora of “Shlomo minyanim” which have cropped up almost everywhere since the death of Rav Shlomo Carlebach. These new groups are infusing a breath of fresh air into the Jewish world. They seem to present an alternative, a kind of “third way,” offering an alternative to both the ordinary neighborhood synagogues, which may at their best be locii of fellowship, of learning, of acts of hesed (kindness), but which tend to have a dry, hurried type of prayer; as well as to the yeshiva and Hasidic synagogues and communities, in which one may find intensity of prayer, but which tend to be too sectarian, ingrown, and exclusivist for many.

Nevertheless, it is important to know two things. First, that even the worst minyan is in some sense a mystical embodiment of Knesset Yisrael, of the Jewish covenantal community. Indeed, there are times when I feel that davening specifically with a shallow, superficial minyan filled with unsavory types can be the most profund exercise in love of ones fellow Jew and ones fellow man. Second, that on the other hand even the best minyan cannot substitute for the inner work, the focusing of consciousness, ultimately a highly individual enterprise, that is the very heart and soul of prayer.

What have I learned about kavvanah in prayer? First, two related ideas: the bakasha aspect, that of petitional prayer, is important for seeing ones dependence on God, expressing awareness of the conditional, even ephemeral, non-self-sufficient existential situation of man. Second, and closely related to this, is the need when praying to abandon self-centeredness, the over-arching, over-bearing “modern ego.” Sometimes I walk into a synagogue, even one with a “spiritual” atmosphere, and see all the “young man on the run”—ambitious young lawyers and physicians and academics and businessmen, who fill both the Orthodox and general Jewish community—and feel in the set of their faces the great gap between their weekday social roles and consciousness, and what the tradition, the Siddur text and the halakhah, demand of them. (This problem is of course a particularly strong one for men; I believe that this is what people really mean when they say that women are “more spiritual” and less in need of the constant round of mitzvot: that, whether by nature or education, they tend to be less aggressive and ego-centered)

What else have I learned? Perhaps most of all, that davening must be taken unhurriedly. For me, reciting the introductory hymns of the Pesukei de-Zimra at the Leader Minyan, so often raced through in conventional synagogues, was a revelation: singing or chanting each psalm as a world unto itself, using slow, meditative melodies (from Carlebach or from the minor-key, chant-like maqam of Eastern Jewry), in a way that seemed to elevate the soul to unexpected heights. Suddenly, Ashrei (Psalm 145), a text that I have reacted three times daily as long as I can remember, took on new meaning, as a hymn of faith and trust and praise of God, through the simple expedient of finding myself taking each verse slowly, by itself, without rushing. The same holds true, only even more so, of the Shema and the Amidah, which are the very heart of the order of prayer. Even when davening in a conventional synagogue, where the pace is breakneck, it’s important to remind oneself that saying all the words simply to finish them not really the point, and try to slow down, at least for these central portions.

There are many other issues that could be raised. Some people have suggested that contemporary people do not have the patience for the lengthy, “long-winded,” and repetitious Orthodox liturgy, and that were the text to be cut in half synagogues would enjoy a renewal of vitality. But the experience of various reformist movements (i.e., changing prayer texts, shortening service etc.), who have done precisely that, on the one hnad; and the enthusiasm generated by a slow, meditative group such as the Leader Minyan, which takes the better part of six hours for an ordinary Shabbat morning service, on the other, suggests otherwise. Then there are those for whom certain passages or themes in the traditional liturgy raise ideological problems. My own predilection is more traditional, and where there are such problems I prefer reinterpretation or allegorization to deleting time-honored texts—but volumes can, and have, been written on these issues. Still others have serious personal problems relating to basic faith issues. I certainly respect these difficulties, and they deserve a longer discussion than is possible here. Hopefully I will do so on some later occasion—perhaps Parshat Va’etanan or Ekev, in relation to the reading of Shema.

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts. My soul longs, is faint, for the courtyards of the Lord. My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself….” (Psalm 84:2-4) One thing have I asked of the Lord, that alone I seek; That I may dwell in the house of the Loed all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the Lord, And to inquire in his temple. (Ps 62:1, 5)

“For honor and glory”

I will conclude with another brief insight about a little-noted correlation between the Temple and the Shabbat. Some weeks ago, on Parshat Tetazveh, I was puzzled by one of the verses used to describe the purpose of the special priestly vestments: “And you [Moses] shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for honor and glory” (li-khavod ule-tiferet; Exod 28:20). I then noted that the same phrase is used in a certain place in the liturgy: in the last of the four blessings recited after the reading of the Haftarah on Shabbat and festival days, these days are described as having been given li-khavod ule-tiferet. In the case of Shabbat, this phrase is preceded by the words, “for holiness and for rest” (li-kedushah vele-menuha); on festivals the phrase added is “for joy and gladness” (li-sasson ule-simhah). In both cases “honor and glory“ serves as a kind of common denominator.

The word tiferet belongs to the semantic field having to do with beauty: searching its biblical usages in a concordance, I found it used in conjunction with such terms as ateret, zvi, tehillah, etc., but only once, in the above-mentioned verse about the priestly garments. is it paired with the word kavod. The noun pe’er, taken from that root, refers to the crown worn by bridegrooms in ancient times. The connotation is thus one of beauty, of glory, of a halo, a certain visual radiance that attracts people aesthetically. Kavod, usually translated as “honor,” comes from a root meaning weighty, possessing a certain gravity, solemnity, dignity. When Rav Soloveitchik speaks of the demeanor of halakhic man in his essay of that title, he emphasizes his gravity and solemnity; he is calm, centered, not given to extremes of either ecstasy or melancholy. Then, too, kavod refers to the earthly manifestation or reflection of the Divine Presence: “and God’s kavod filled the Sanctuary” (end of Pekudei: Exod 40:34)

Thus, kavod & tiferet suggest a certain unique combination of these two qualities: aesthetic beauty, which appeals to the human senses, and by itself may be fleeting and external, combined with the gravity, seriousness, and truth of those things that are of eternal value. Matthew Arnold divided Western culture into Hellenism and Hebraism, seeing the “sweetness and light” of the aesthetic in the Hellenic sensibility alone. Our tradition suggests that both may dwell together, in the holy days and in the Temple.

“You shall not burn any fire in all your habitations on the Sabbath day”

This week (in 2002?) my grocer commented to me that “the Likud blew it.” By this, he meant that, as a result of the coalition agreement with Shinui (the secular, virulently anti-religious and anti-clerical “party of the secularists and the middle class,” who were the surprise spoilers of this past Jan 28 election), many of Likud’s traditional supporters among the working class and lower-middle class Sephardim feel angry and betrayed. In other words, notwithstanding that many of these Oriental Jews are not “Orthodox” in the usual sense of the word, they are fiercely attached to Jewish tradition and religious symbols as they understand it—a factor grossly underestimated by Sharon.

This casual remark set me to reflections about the “traditionalist” Jews in Israel. It’s easy for those accustomed to “full” observance to look askance at the “hypocrisy” and “inconsistency” of those whose Friday night consists of Kiddush and television, or whose Sabbath day involves going to the synagogue and to the soccer match. Another example of this type of Judaism involved my brother’s next door neighbors, who drove long distances on Shabbat, but left an electric urn going in their kitchen because “they don’t use fire on Shabbat.” To an ordinary Orthodox Jew such as myself, this behavior seemed ridden with anomaly, if not bizarre. And yet, beyond this “inconsistency,” one finds a great reverence for Torah and tradition: attachment to the synagogue and the celebration of the festivals; respect for hakhamim and rabbis, at times with an admixture of superstition and belief in the magical powers of Kabbalists, whose down side is a susceptibility to charlatans. Often, also, unlike Ashkenaziot, their women will observe taharat hamishpaha even if they are not particular about Shabbat observance.

Thinking further, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps these Sephardic traditionalists are simply observing Shabbat as their great-grandfathers did: just as their ancestors did not refrain from using automobiles, electricity, and telephones on Shabbat (because they hadn’t yet been invented!), so do they! In their own eyes, what they are doing is not a violation of Shabbat; they are “hyper-traditionalists,” whose Judaism is based entirely on inherited family traditions rather than upon the halakhic mentality of formal book learning, reflecting on new questions, and asking rabbis. They simply don’t bother to think about the innumerable things invented in the past hundred-odd years in terms of Shabbat. In a word, they have not “bought into” the consensus of modern pesak that prohibits the use of electrical appliances, telephones, automobiles, computers, cell phones, etc., on Shabbat—but they adhere devoutly to the definition of esh (“fire”) known to the nineteenth century world, or maybe even to their forebears in the mid-20th century, just before the Great Aliyah.

Of course, this type of halakhic conservatism—simply not bothering to apply halakhic rules to modern inventions, of treating them “lekula” (leniently) by default—is incorrect, and possibly disingenuous. Not only does it go against the clear consensus of rulings of the leading Rabbinic authorities of our age, but it implies in principle a stagnant approach to halakhah, which prefers to ignore the new. (I will leave aside the religious-theological & communal issues of emunat hakhamim, a word I don‘t like much, and even more so the actual technical halakhic issues involved in the status of electricity, micro-electronics, etc., which requires knowledge of both physics and pesikah way beyond my competence, and merely say that I trust those who have dealt with these issues.) More important to me is that a Shabbat in which one uses all these things fails to create the island or “sanctuary in time” of which Heschel spoke, in which one withdraws from the noise and din of modern life. Nevertheless, it is important to engage in limmud zekhut—“finding merit”—for this population, imbued with a type of naive, if not overly rigorous or demanding, piety. They accept Shabbat as a traditional code, passed down by mimesis rather than by strict logical learning and inference.

All of which is by way of introduction to the reading, in this week’s portion, of the verse prohibiting fire in Shabbat, on which I would like to share the following thoughts. Our parsha, although it deals mostly with the Mishkan, begins with three verse on the Shabbat. “And Moses gathered together the entire community of Israel…. Six days shall labor be done, and the seventh day shall be holy, a holy Shabbat to the Lord…. You shall kindle no fire in all your habitations on the Sabbath day” [Exodus 35:1-3].

I cannot go into all the nuances of these few verse: how the Rabbis derive the 39 prohibited categories of labor from the words aleh hadevarim in the first verse; the Hasidic peshat that comments on the use of the passive voice in v. 2 (tai’aseh melakhah—“labor shall be done”), as pointing towards an ideal in which one’s weekday labors are done “by the way,” almost as an aside, a Jew’s real concern in life being the study of Torah and worship of the Divine; etc. What most exercises the Rabbis here is the seeming superfluity of the verse “you shall burn no fire,” after we have already been told that one should do not work on the Shabbat day. Is not kindling fire just one more form of labor? What does this verse add?

The Talmud, at Shabbat 70a, gives two answers to this question. R. Nathan says that the phrase “you shall not kindle fire“ is added lehaleik (“to divide”): that is, to—indicate that the division of prohibited Shabbat labor into different categories has major juridical significance: namely, that a person is held accountable for each separate labor he performs. Fire is mentioned separately merely as an example of this rule, as an archetypal representative of all the melakhot. R. Yossi, by contrast, says: le-lav yatza; that is, to indicate that kindling fire is an ordinary proscription of the Torah (lav), which is somehow less weighty or serious than the other categories of Shabbat labor, for which the death penalty or karet (“excision from the people”) is prescribed.

Intuitively, I am not satisfied by either answer. They are certainly valid as far as they go, within the rubric of traditional halakhic midrashic exegesis, but I cannot escape the feeling that there is some more basic, straightforward reason for its being mentioned here. This is strengthened by the feelings of the traditionalist Jews I mentioned earlier, for whom refraining from the use of fire is somehow a central act, emblematic of the Shabbat as a whole. Or note the familiar fact that fire plays a central role in the Shabbat ritual, the lighting of candles being used to signal both its beginning and end; or the fact that the ban on fire is one of the rules that distinguishes Shabbat from festival days, when fire may be used (albeit with certain limitations). Or that the use of fire lit before Shabbat was a central issue in the controversy of Rabbinic Judaism with the Karaites (indeed, Ibn Ezra’s “long commentary” on this verse relates to that polemic).

One may extend this analysis by noting another category of Shabbat labor specifically mentioned in the Torah (albeit midrashically): hotza’ah, carrying objects from one “domain” or type of space to another. The chapter about the manna that fell in the desert, with the concomitant proscription against gathering it on Shabbat, states, “Let no man go out of his place on the Shabbat day” (Exodus 16:29). This is interpreted by the Sages both as defining a certain “Sabbath limit,” beyond which a person is not allowed to walk on Shabbat, and as prohibiting carrying objects about (al yeitzei—al yotzi). Hotz’aah is conceived as one of the most basic, central melakhot. Interestingly, in terms of the amount of space devoted to them in the Talmud and the Codes, the three categories of kindling, carrying, and cooking, occupy an inordinate amount of space: perhaps more than half of the Talmudic tractate Shabbat (even more if one includes Eruvin). All three are likewise proscribed on Shabbat alone, and are among the labors permitted on festival days.

This issue becomes more interesting if we attempt to define conceptually the nature of these labors. The other Shabbat labors involve changing some material object in a way that improves or perfects it for use, an almost quintessential act of civilization: preparing the soil to grow things; harvesting fruit or produce; converting fibers into cloth; turning raw food into cooked; etc. In the act of hav’arah (kindling fire), by contrast, one destroys material (i.e., fuel: wood, oil, gas) to obtain an intangible benefit, such as heat, light, cooking power, or mechanical energy to run machinery. Similarly, hotza’ah, removing and carrying objects from place to place, involves no change in the nature of the object involved, but simply the extension of its use, by making it available in different places.

What do all these facts suggest about the nature of Shabbat? I have no systematic answer, but present these questions and reflections as a basis for further thought, with the feeling that they may help unlock the secret of the Shabbat. But see the next section for further reflections.

Shabbat and Weekday: Stasis and Dynamism

To continue the subject of Shabbat: Rashi on Genesis 2:2 states: “’And God completed on the seventh day the labor that He had done.’ What was the world lacking? It was lacking rest. When Shabbat came, rest came with it. The labor was finished and completed.”

This is a puzzling comment. Rashi raises an exegetical question: How can we speak of God as completing His labor on the seventh day, when we have just been told, at least seemingly, that He completed everything by the end of the sixth day? The answer: He created rest. But he is almost begging the question: What does it mean to create “rest,” which is an intangible entity rather than a concrete element of the corporeal world like the things mentioned earlier?

But in fact Judaism does conceive Shabbat, which is a unit of time, as a “real,” concrete entity. Moreover, various other abstract entities—or at least those that Western thought would classify as abstractions—such as the Torah, Teshuvah, and Yom Kippur, are likewise thought of as tangible entities. This goes against the grain of Western thought, suggesting that perhaps we need to rethink our ideas as to what is “real” or “unreal.” What, then, is the nature of the “rest” created by God on the seventh day? I would suggest the following interpretation:

A central debate in philosophy concerns the issue as to whether the world is essentially dynamic or static. Much of ancient Greek philosophy, and after it medieval philosophy, saw the world as essentially static; as arranged once and for all in an eternal, tranquil order. Of course motion exists, and living beings are born and die, but these are in some sense not “real”; they are pale, imperfect reflections of the “ideal” archetype or model of their species, which are reflective of eternal truth, partaking of the pure, perfect forms of pure Intellect. This idea is reflected, too, in the concept of the ideal Golden Age, in which all human needs are fulfilled.

An alternative view sees the world as dynamic, as in constant motion, constantly becoming, changing, altering its shape. This view is clearly the dominant one in the modern world. For modern physics the universe itself is constantly expanding; atoms and subatomic particles are constantly interacting and colliding; species themselves are not fixed, permanent entities, but constantly evolve, mutate, and change. Indeed, one of the challenges confronting those who wish to harmonize the scientific account of the development of universe with the text of the Torah, is not only how to deal with the Six Days of Creation (the standard answer, a symbolic interpretation in which “days” become aeons of time, seems to provide a coherent answer, one already found in the midrash), nor even with the issue of evolution (the concept of evolution betraying signs of a “guiding hand” at crucial junctures is one possible answer). A more basic question is: what was the Sabbath of Creation? If the story of the universe itself is one of constant dynamism, of perpetual change and evolution, what “stopping point” is there in this process (“And God ceased on the seventh day…”)? At what point can one say that there was a sense of closure, of completion, in Creation itself?

Which of these views represents that of “Judaism”? A case can be made for both views. In Chapters 2-4 of Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah, where Maimonides presents his own understanding of Ma’aseh Merkavah and Ma’aseh Bereshit, the esoteric teaching of the Divine Throne and the Creation, he paints a stately, static picture of the universe, composed of a series of fixed, concentric celestial spheres, majestically rotating in their respective places. In the Kabbalah, by contrast, one finds a dynamic picture, in which the Sefirotic tree or “Primal Adam” functions like a flow-chart of Divine energies carrying the Divine blessing down, stage by stage, from the highest worlds to the lowest. This, not to mention the drama of the primordial “breaking of the vessels” and the need for tikkun affected by man’s work in the mitzvot. Or, as Art Green has noted, the image of the Divine name itself as vowels sounds, “dancing” about in a state of constant dynamic motion.

Interestingly, the Torah itself may also be understood in both dynamic and static ways. Prof. Yochanan Silman of Bar-Ilan University has written a number of articles and books in which he develops a philosophy of halakhah based on viewing halakhic discussions through these alternate perspectives. The very title of his major book, Kol gadol velo yasaf, reflects this ambiguity. The title alludes to the verse (Deut 5:19) describing the “great voice” heard at Sinai which, in one reading, was “never repeated” and, in the other, “never ceased.” He thus speaks of the Torah of Israel as being either “Perfection” in itself, or as “Being-Ever-Perfected,” through the ongoing process of human creativity of the Oral Torah. He writes:

The tension in question reflects the universal dichotomy between the “classical” ideal (“Ethos”), in which greatest value is attributed to that which is actual, as against the “romantic” ideal (“Pathos”), in which the highest value is that of the process of creativity… That approach which sees the Torah as a static perfection would give precedence to the sages of earlier generations, while that which sees it as in a state of constantly being perfected would prefer the teaching of the more recent generations.

In this light we may return to the question of the Shabbat. The Shabbat—or, more properly, the tension or interplay in Judaism between Shabbat and weekday—may be read as a metaphor for the idea that the universe is simultaneously dynamic, unfolding, changing, renewing itself, and at the same time perfect and complete unto itself. Somehow, in a way we cannot comprehend, both of these contradictory positions are true.

The institution of the Shabbat, as a recurrent unit of time observed every seven days, is in a sense a translation into our human understanding, into temporal conceptions, of this cosmic truth. Perhaps, on a deeper level, the tension between Shabbat and weekday may be seen as existing within the Godhead at all times. After all, does not God, who “tells the end from the beginning,” exist beyond “the arrow of time,” in a trans-temporal realm that our minds cannot even conceive? Perhaps it is to this that the Kabbalah alludes when it equates the “Seven Days of Creation” (or “Seven days of Construction”; shivat yemei habinyan) with the seven Sefirot, representing the dynamic path by which Divine energy flows into our world. In this model, Shabbat, which corresponds to Malkhut, the vessel of receiving, of inaction, of passivity (which is in turn the source of contemplation, which I hope to discuss in HY IV: Vayikra), represents the static perfection of the universe. It was this state of “rest,” which the world lacked, that was created on, or through, or perhaps within, the seventh day.