Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Well, here we are again back at the book of Vayikra.  I'm so embarrassed to admit that I don't enjoy this material.  In Daf Yomi, we've been studying the tractates about the Temple offerings, and I find it torturous.  There's a tradition to teach this material to young children.  The usual reason given is that they are so pure, just like the sacrifices in the Holy Temple.  Part of me want to say that we teach this to them while they're too young to rebel against this mind numbing information.  I know that it's all Torah, and I should love it all equally, but I find it hard to enlist the same energy for this stuff.  These practices are just so alien to us that I'm actually uncomfortable with much of it.  Having said that, it's still our job to find meaning to our lives in these Torah readings.  And we'll try.

            As a general introduction to this topic, I want to first explain that there is no consensus on the role or purpose of sacrifices.  Maimonides expresses a very rational and cerebral approach to the problem of sacrifices within our Torah system.  He sees them as a way of keeping Jews away from paganism.  We have sacrifices to wean us from idolatry.  It is a gradual transition for our primitive ancestors, so recently freed from slavery, into ethical monotheism, in which abstract worship will eventually predominate.   On the other hand, this intellectual rationalism is countered by the metaphysical musings of other Torah giants.  Reb Yehudah Ha-Levi (1075-1141) wrote in his Kuzari that sacrifices form a bond between heaven and earth, between human and Creator.  He views the entire cosmos as a system run by Divine providence.  Sacrifices are a method for accessing that providence, so that we can be plugged into the universe.  Major discrepancy of opinions:  are sacrifices a pragmatic, pedagogic teaching aid or a sublime spiritual reality? 

            I don't know.  But worse than that, I don't even know which answer to root for.  Part of me wants to be sophisticated to the point that I find something uncouth about sacrifices.  You know that part of me which reads the New York Times and wants to sound smart.  But another part of me is cheering for the mystical, spiritual approach, because the Torah spends so much time and space on sacrifices, I want them to be meaningful and eternally significant.  Of course, we could take the position of that famous curmudgeon Professor Yeshaya Leibowitz (1903-1994).  He was opposed in principle to trying to explain the reasons for the commandments. In his opinion, one should not seek such explanations, since the commandments were not intended to answer our needs, be they psychological or educational, nor to provide us a mystical experience or the ability to influence higher spheres.  For him, the purpose of all sacrifice, like all the other commandments concerning the relationship of human beings to God, is service of the Lord for its own sake alone.  But to me that's not a very satisfying philosophy.

            The Rav (Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, 1903-1993) when he discussed prayer, perhaps provided a way to deal with my dilemma.   He believed that prayer, like so many other issues, is a dialectic, and maybe even a paradox.  Sometimes when we pray we feel like we are sacrificing ourselves to God.  We stand before God ready to give all that we have and all that we are.  But sometimes we stand before God as an impoverished beggar.  We say that we have nothing and are nothing.  Well, which is it?  In the first case we not only have things, but we also have mastery over them, so that we can give them away.  In the second case, we are bereft of all.  The answer is that both are true, depending on the circumstances.  I believe that this is true in our parsha as well.  When we give free will sacrifices we come before God ready and willing to present all that we have.  However, later in the parsha we discuss sacrifices which are brought as a result of sin.  The sinner stands before God as the empty handed beggar, without control over anything, just obligations, which are paid as best we can.    

            Rav Kook also had a certain duality in his approach to sacrifices.  He saw sacrifices as revealing a great spiritual truth in the world about humanity's relationship with God.  He explained that there are two aspects of sacrifices.  One is called fragrance and one is referred to as bread (Numbers 28:2).  The aroma part, Rav Kook believed was true of righteous Gentiles as well as Jews.  This facet represents man's attempts to understand this world and accept it as it is.  While the bread feature of sacrifices signifies humanity's attempt to make this world better, to elevate our realm to higher spiritual achievement.  Rav Kook believed that only Jews can attain that level.  So, there are characteristics of sacrifice which help us to better understand our world and lead to intellectual recognition of our relationship to this physical domain.  On the other hand there are qualities of offerings which humans cannot fathom, but still help us to grow spiritually.  This is accomplished without clear sight of how it happened.

            Rav Kook, to my knowledge, never said what I'm going to propose right now, but I think he would agree with it.  I believe that the sacrifices described as sin or guilt offerings achieve that goal Rav Kook called fragrance.  They help us come to grips with our failures and shortcomings, and help us to carry on.  This is much like the sacrifices made by Noach after the flood, which are described as sweet smelling.  But the sacrifices which are brought by spiritual souls as an act of generosity, unconnected to guilt or shame, can achieve Rav Kook's description of bread.  These acts can make our world a more sublime environment.

            We have difficulty relating to the sacrificial system which we have lived without for 2,000 years.  But that shouldn't prevent us from finding meaning in those pious acts, and apply those lessons to our prayers and our lives.  


You can subscribe to Rabbi Walk's weekly articles at WalkThroughTheParsha-subscribe@egroups.com