HIDE 'n SEEK
Rabbi David Walk
In our lives we encounter stuff which is alien or strange to us, and then there's stuff which is really alien. In the first category are things like how people lived in past centuries, for instance riding on stage coaches, or like living without indoor plumbing. We couldn't put up with living that way, but we can either imagine it or temporarily experience it in some artificial setting (like an amusement park or the IDF). Then there's really alien, like space travel or sacrificing an animal in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. I couldn't even imagine living in weightlessness for months on end. But the thought of putting my hands on the head of an innocuous critter in preparation for offering it up to God, just boggles my mind. We live in a world that loves animals as pets and companions (although maybe not that 7 foot cat in Paterson, NJ, check it out on Youtube, and then avoid Paterson) in ways that would appear very weird to people living before the 20th century, when animals were only seen in a pragmatic light. I hope that these musings will assuage my misgivings, and maybe yours, too.
My son, Yishai, is close to Rav Yehuda Glick MK, who has been criticized and almost assassinated because of his efforts on behalf of Jewish rights on the Temple Mount. To my thinking, he is very normal. Born in Chicago, bright, funny, and very much like us. However, he is excited about bringing these offerings, and part of me is jealous about his enthusiasm, which I have difficulty sharing. So, this week I'd like to investigate this phenomenon and explore ways to find meaning in this now dormant form of Divine service.
The parsha presents us with many different types of offerings. The first three chapters discuss the voluntary gifts to the sanctuary, olah (burnt offering), mincha (meal offering) and shlamim (peace offerings). Then we have the most common personal offerings, namely the chatat (sin offering) and asham (guilt offering). We understand these last offerings. Psychologically people want to free themselves from the guilt associated with sin. These surrogate sacrifices are concrete expressions of our regret, and help us through this spiritual crisis. Then the meal and shlamim offerings don't overly tax our sensibilities, because we don't mind offering vegetables, and the peace offerings are mostly consumed by the worshipper in a sort of spiritual barbecue. The most enigmatic of them all is the very first, the olah, which is totally consumed by the altar's flames.
Why do people bring an olah? It's not connected to a sin, and it's not part of a celebration or commemoration. It just goes up in smoke. So, what gives? Why slaughter this animal and totally burn it? Does God need these offerings? If your answer is 'yes', then I believe you're in the wrong religion. A hint to a possible answer, I think, is found in one of the details of the process. It must be slaughtered on the north side of the altar. This factor in the procedure becomes more significant when we notice the only other offering which must be processed on the north side. That would be the korban chatat, or 'sin offering'. The sin offering is brought because the individual has committed by mistake or inadvertently a serious sin. One which, if done on purpose, would carry the severe, but enigmatic, divine punishment called karet, or being 'cut off'. This offering makes sense to be offered on the north or zafon side, because that word really means 'hidden'.
Most people know the word zafon from the Pesach Seder. It's the term to describe the eating of the Afikomen. It acquired that name because of the custom of hiding that piece of matzo which was broken and put away at Yachatz. It's fascinating that some families have the leader hide the matzo while others have the kids do it. Under all circumstances, it costs the leader. I think we should alternate, in the Diaspora each night and in Israel each year. Because I like the symbolism of each party trying to search for the secrets of the other. We should try to understand the other generation.
Which brings us back to the north side of the altar. The Shem M'shmuel (Reb Shmuel Bornsztain of Sochachov, 1855-1926) was intrigued by this mystery of the northern side. He wrote: An Olah is brought to atone for sinful thoughts and was slaughtered in the tzafon, which has the same root as the word matzpun, which means conscience. In other words, there is a motivating factor of atonement for the olah, but it's hidden deep in the psyche, maybe still unclear even to the worshipper.
The zafon, which is hidden from the sun's bright, revealing light here in the northern hemisphere also represents evil or trouble. The prophet Yirmiyahu is told, 'From the north the misfortune will break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land (Jeremiah 1:14).' And even more telling is the declaration of Hoshea to the soon to be destroyed northern kingdom of Israel, 'your sin is hidden from you (Hosea 13:12).' The greatest dangers reside in transgressions which we can't or won't acknowledge. These offerings are related to moving beyond these spiritual mistakes, both actions and intentions, because these errors only become truly dangerous to our spiritual growth when they are left in the dark, to fester and flourish.
The chatat and olah offerings are an acknowledgment of a darkness within us all. We are being enjoined to join this fight in the shadows and then emerge into the light of the Temple's holy glow for the procedure of the donation to the altar's flame. So, I still can't get used to the idea of killing this innocent creature to help me work through my spiritual issues. However, those modern sensibilities of mine (thank you PETA and ASPCA) shouldn't prevent me from analyzing these concepts and becoming aware of the power behind these profound precepts. The search helps shed some precious light.