Rabbi David Walk
This week we begin the book of Leviticus, again. This occasion is not exactly a cause for spontaneous bursts of enthusiasm and celebration. This third book of the Torah is mostly concerned with the priestly activities in the Mishkan and later the holy Temple. I really don't know how people felt about these pursuits when the Temple stood on Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem, but most people I know today aren't tremendously moved by this material. Even though I periodically hear eagerness for rebuilding a cultic center on the Temple Mount, I rarely hear passion for actually sacrificing animals again. Then again that may just reflect the circles in which I travel. Nevertheless, we must look anew at these passages to find meaning for ourselves in the mitzvoth of the Temple, which we don't perform these days and often feel apathetic concerning them.
This search for significance in the Temple sphere, I believe, begins with an analysis of attitudes towards these practices. The great social Prophets already addressed this issue during the first Temple times. Jeremiah thundered against the wrong intentions in bringing sacrifices: Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, offer up to Baal, and follow other gods that you know not. And then come and stand before Me in this house, upon which My name is called, and say, "We are saved," in order to commit all these abominations (Jeremiah 7:8-9)? The sacrifice system can't be seen as a cover up for immoral behavior. These sincere offerings must be part of a holistic ethical system. Now we can also understand the tirade of Isaiah: To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me [unless they are the offering of the heart]? says the Lord. I have had enough of the burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts [without obedience]; and I do not delight in the blood of bulls or of lambs or of he-goats [without righteousness]. Bring no more offerings of vanity (emptiness, falsity, vainglory, and futility); [your hollow offering of] incense is an abomination to Me (Isaiah 1:11 & 13, Amplified Bible, I think this translation got the essence of Isaiah's sentiment). Viewing the curative and repentance power of sacrifices as a replacement for a worthy lifestyle is not a legitimate approach to the Temple and its service.
But there are more subtle lessons to be learned as well. Last week we read about the donations to the Mishkan building fund. There are two descriptions of the donors, first: And they came, each one whose heart stirred him up and whose spirit made him willing, and brought the Lord's offering to be used for the Tent of Meeting (Exodus, 35:21), and, in the very next verse: They came, both men and women, all who were willing hearted (verse 22). Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein explains the difference between the two groups. He explains that the people described in the first verse achieve generosity from an inner calling, their heart pushes, and almost forces them, to do it. The heart is the primary motivating factor, and the person's actions and thoughts follow the heart's initiative. While the second type of donor, the willing hearted (Hebrew: nediv lev), has a different nature. For this person, the heart works as part of the complete personality and outlook. This person is finely developed in both intellect and actions. The person's whole personality reaches a high level, and as a result he acts appropriately. The second personality is the one we want to develop, and we hope that the Temple experience allows for this merging of the participant's varied parts into a spiritual whole. That individual's internal debates are laid to rest by achieving sacred unity.
Having said that our aspiration for the spiritual personality is this unified persona, which becomes dedicated to the hallowed experience of the Temple, and, by extension, our modern prayer service, there is a caveat. The individual can be fooled by an ecstatic state achieved through non-legitimate means. There are many modern parallels to the idolatry of the ancient world which promise spiritual paradise, but are antithetical to Jewish tradition, not to mention, on occasion illegal or dangerous. This fear was well voiced by Rav Avraham Yitzchak haCohen Kook: The foreign, imaginary devekut (cleaving to the holy), whose essence is in opposition to Torah and mitzvoth, enlightenment, the way of the world, peace among people, and the development of society - this pseudo-devekut draws its strength from the impurity of idolatry... even if it seems to a person that he approaches the sacred, that he becomes enthused, that he tastes divine closeness. So, what can a person who seeks spiritual fulfillment do to make sure that the experience is kosher? One must make sure that the sacred quest for spiritual satisfaction is part of a comprehensive Jewish program. Remember, we believe that the spiritual achievement of Divine worship is one leg of a religious triad. The Jewish religious personality must build their spirituality on the tripod of Torah study, Divine worship and acts of kindness to one's fellow human being. Only when the individual combines these three areas of endeavor can there be a sense of security against the concerns that sacred ecstasy will wash the individual up upon dangerous shores.
Modern Jews can learn a lot from studying the Temple experience. We contemporary Jews are often rather cold and distant in our prayers and synagogue rites. We should want to put more fervor and passion into our davening. The first Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter (1798–1866) wrote that when we pray we should remember Akeidat Yitzchak, the attempted sacrifice of Isaac, because the essence of the sacrifices in the Temple was the personal will to offer our own souls to God. We must feel some of that zeal when we stand in prayer before God.
So, even though discussing the Temple rites may cause our eyes to glaze over in boredom, that doesn't relieve us of that task, and, just maybe we'll be lucky enough discover some spiritual truths, which make our religious lives more meaningful. Good luck in the effort.
You can subscribe to Rabbi Walk's weekly articles at WalkThroughTheParshafirstname.lastname@example.org