Vayikra (Individual & Community)
For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to the blog at March 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Two Foci of Holiness
This week’s parashah begins the book of Vayikra, or Leviticus. While still concerned with matters of the Temple and sacrifices, the focus here turns from the structure of the Tabernacle/Temple as such to the sacrificial offerings made on the altar. This week’s reading, specifically, is a kind of introduction to the sacrificial order, describing the various kinds of offerings made on the altar: olah (burnt offering), minhah (grain offering), shelamim (whole offerings) and the various kinds of hatat (sin-offering). (For a typology of these as a kind of vocabulary of religious emotion, see HY I: Vayikra)
In fact, the portable Mishkan in the desert, and the fixed Temple which followed it, had two focii: the Ark of the Covenant, or the Holy of Holies, which was, so to speak, the earthly home or resting place for the Divine Presence; and the altar, which was situated, in the language of numerous passages in these chapters, “at the entrance to / opposite the Tent of Meeting” (petah / nokhah ohel mo’ed). What is the significance of these two foci, each one of which, in its own right, is a “sacred center”?
The Ark, and the innermost chamber in which it was housed, embodies or symbolizes God’s Presence. It is, so to speak, His secret place, entered by human beings only once a year, on the holy day of Yom Kippur, by the holiest individual in the people of Israel, the High Priest—and even then with great fear and trembling, awe and trepidation, after intense and lengthy preparation. I use the words “embodies or symbolizes God’s Presence” advisedly: can one truly speak of any place on this earth as a dwelling place for the infinite, transcendent God? As Solomon put it in his dedicatory prayer of the Temple: “The heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain You; how, then, this house which I have built” (1 Kgs 8:27). There is something paradoxical, absurd, perhaps even arrogant and hutzpah-dik, in imagining that we finite, mortal, humble creatures of flesh and blood can possibly build a home for God. Hence, this holiest place of all, described as the center of ten concentric regions of ever-greater sanctity—dark, inaccessible, containing both the whole and the broken tablets from that unique day of revelation when the human and the Divine touched one another, crowned by the mysterious figures of the cherubim (some say: a pair of human lovers in embrace; as if to say: the union of man and woman is in some mysterious way a key to the secret of Divine Indwelling on earth)—is itself a symbol of the inscrutable mystery of the Divine. It is, if you will, an earthly counterpart to the hidden recesses of the Ein Sof in which God as He is in Himself is ensconced (אל מסתתר בשפריר חביון); in Kabbalistic language, the hidden place beyond all the Sefirot, that which precedes the very first emanation, in which God dwells as pure Will, or pure Wisdom.
The altar is something else again. It is the focal point of human worship; a place where the impulse to serve God, through giving of that which is precious to one, is realized. The blood of the sacrificial offerings is sprinkled against its base; on its top, fires burn on which the flesh of the sacrifices is consumed, its smoke ascending heavenward as “a sweet savor to the Lord.” The altar thus symbolizes religious enthusiasm and passion, devekut, the desire for closeness to God—and it, too, is a sacred center. The altar is the focal point for the festal procession of Sukkot; for seven days it is adorned with tall willow branches, to cries of “Beauty to you, O altar; For you and for God, O altar.” It is, according to the midrash, the axis mundi, the holy center from which the Creation began, and from which Adam was created. In an uncharacteristic digression in the midst of an halakhic passage, Maimonides states that the location of the altar was “exceedingly precise,” then goes on to say that at that same site all the pre-Sinaitic figures offered sacrifices : Abraham at the Akedah; Noah when he disembarked from the ark after the Flood; Cain and Abel, in their day; and Adam himself just after he was created. “We find, that the place of his atonement was the place of his creation” (Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah 2.1-2; on all this, see HY XI: Hoshana Rabbah [Aggadah] and HY V: Yom Yerushalayim [=Rambam]).
Interestingly, the architecture of the traditional synagogue revolves around two foci: the Ark, containing the Torah scrolls, in a fixed, often elaborately decorated cupboard on the eastern wall; and the Bimah, or Reader’s Desk, from which the Torah is read. In more traditional synagogues, this is often placed on a raised platform, to which those honored with an aliyah literally ascend on three or four steps, and located in the center of the synagogue. (During the nineteenth century, one of the subjects of controversy between Orthodoxy and early Reform concerned the latter’s moving of the Bimah to a raised dais in the front of the synagogue, together with the Ark and the rabbi’s pulpit.) In some very old-fashioned synagogues, in Europe and in Tzfat, there are four pillars at the four corners of the Bimah, supporting the dome of the synagogue, perhaps symbolizing that the Torah is the “pillar of the world.” The tension between these two foci parallels that in the Temple: between the closed place where the holiest object is kept, covered by a veil (also referred to as parokhet, like the veil in the Temple), and the focal point of human religious activity, in the center of the structure—which like the altar is the focus of festal circumambulations on Sukkot (and Simhat Torah).
But unlike the Temple, in which the Divine presence was itself seen as dwelling in the Holy of Holies, the Ark in the synagogue contains the scrolls of the Torah—reflecting, no doubt, the concept of the Torah, both as a book and as a metaphysical entity, serving as a kind of bridge or intermediary between man and God. (And indeed, the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy Temple contained the tablets of the covenant: the text of the Ten Commandments inscribed by the Divine hand and given to Moses—the earliest physical embodiment of Torah!)
Interestingly, it is the reading (and, by extension, teaching) of Torah that is done from the Bimah, rather than prayer, which is often seen as the latter-day counterpoint to the fixed animal sacrifices. In some modern synagogues, the Shaliah Tzibbur or Prayer Leader stands on the Bimah, but in more traditional synagogue architecture he stands before a smaller stand, known as the amud, in front of and often slightly to the right of the Aron Kodesh. A “just so” conjecture—perhaps the amud ha-tefillah, as a third focal point of the synagogue, corresponds to the mizbah ha-ketoret, the incense altar. After all, as I noted a few weeks ago (HY XII: Tetzaveh), prayer is compared to incense!
I will conclude with a few words about our subject for this year, the tension or balance between the community and the individual, as it pertains to the altar. On the one hand, the altar is the site of the tamid, the fixed twice-daily offering made in the name of and on behalf of the entire community, purchased from the communal funds accumulated from the half-shekel given equally by all Israelites each year. (Indeed, this is the first function of the altar, when it is first introduced in Exod 29:38 ff.: “this is what you shall make upon the altar….” In addition, various additional sacrifices, musafim, were offered on behalf of the public to commemorate the Shabbat and festival days—each special day and its appropriate musaf. Certain other public sacrifices were made on other special occasions as well.
On the other hand, the altar was the site of a wide variety of private offerings: ranging from the offering made by a woman after childbirth; that of a Nazirite who had competed the term of his vow; sin-offerings, brought by an individual plagued with guilt about one or another transgression; the special festival offerings, olat re’iyah, hagiggah and shalmei simhah, brought by pilgrims on the three great festivals; todah, an offering of gratitude to express joy and thankfulness to God for the good things that happened in one’s life. Then, too, a person might choose to bring an offering for no special reason, or to fulfill an oath he had made (neder or nedavah). All these, interestingly, were framed by the two daily fixed offerings, morning and evening, with which the daily schedule at the Temple opened and with which it concluded (with the interesting exception of the Pascahl offering, which we shall discuss in some detail in Aharei–Shabbat Hagadol). Thus, just as the Temple was the focal point for the prayers of each individual, in all times of trouble and need, as eloquently expressed in Solomon’s prayer, so too was there room for each person to bring his offerings to mark the events, happy and sad, in his or her own private life.