Thursday, 10 Mar 2011

Written by Peter Radvanszki

I grew up in a family, which is described by my girlfriend as similar to the family shown in “Annie Hall Jewish dinner table scene”. For those of you who did not see it: this is a rare scene in the history of filmmaking, which shows six people talking at the same time. In other words, since my childhood I am really grateful for any moments, when people listen to me. My anxiety therefore can be described in a single question:

If we have a unique opportunity—whether to deliver a sermon or send out an LBC d’var torah, how can we use it properly?

I think that this may have been the question when the Israelites were facing the fully complete Tabernacle: “What in the world shall we do with this thing?”

The answer, I believe, comes in the Book of Leviticus. More precisely: the Book of Leviticus IS the answer. The proper usage of the Tabernacle is the proper offering of sacrifices.

I am obsessed with these sacrifices described in Leviticus. I know that these verses describe bizarre and ancient rituals, but this does not stop me exploring them. I read them again and again to understand them better. Most of the time I feel that I don’t get any closer to their meaning. The sacrificial system is complicated, but it is not impossible to understand.

We all know that the period of animal sacrifices is over. Maimonides wrote that animal sacrifices were the direct continuation of pagan rituals. This is what he says in the Guide of the Perplexed:

It is impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other…. The custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted of sacrificing animals in the temples…. For this reason God allowed this kind of service to continue. The sacrificial system is not the primary object, which is rather supplications, and prayer. 

The final goal is therefore spiritual service, not animal sacrifices.

Therefore, why would one need to understand them? We understand why were they important for the ancient Israelites, but why should they be important for us?

Because they have a message for today. In fact, some claim, that the study of any ancient Jewish law in Leviticus, can help us to be better persons, or create a better society. Rabbi Professor Jacob Milgrom z”l, who was a leading expert on the Book of Leviticus, writes in his book called Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, “ALL of Leviticus’s laws and rituals contain or imply rationales that address many relevant issues facing us today. In other words, properly unpacked, Leviticus reveals a series of values that can help us resolve the vexing moral and social issues confronting humanity in our time.”

To understand further the importance of this book we have to go back to the time of slavery.

The beginning of the Book of Exodus tells of the oppression of the Israelites and describes their relationship with God as a distance relationship: “And God heard that the Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help … went up to God” (Exod. 3:24).

The end of the book describes the descent of God: “…and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exod. 40:35).

By building the Tabernacle, God can dwell among the people (Exod. 25:8). It is important to interpret broadly the symbolism of the sacrifices, in order to make these texts relevant to us today. I think it is valid to interpret sacrifice as the symbol of the connection to God. Therefore the ultimate goal of Exodus was not simply deliverance, or the revelation at Sinai, but the active service of God, a continuous connection to God (Exod. 3:12). The Book of Leviticus opens with the explanation of sacrifices in order to direct the Israelites to a new stage of spiritual existence. They are taught how to be actively involved in the relationship with God. Without it, according to the Biblical narrative, God would have left them.

Rabbi Milgrom describes the role of the hatat sacrifice in his book. Its role is not about the cleansing of the sinner, but rather the purification of the altar and the land. This ancient logic presumes that every sin contaminates the land. Every individual is responsible for the well-being of the community.

The Tabernacle was a unique opportunity for the Israelites to serve the Divine. Continuity is crucial here. They are connected to the Eternal through the continued offering of sacrifices. The wilderness period was followed by the time of the Temple of Solomon and the Second Temple, in which the animal sacrifice system continued. But allready in the story of Abraham, prayer is described as an alternative way to supplicate. The most important characters of the Bible are described (at least once) as praying.

We continue this ancient ritual in our Prayer Room at the Sternberg Centre Manor House, which is a mikdash me’at, a small “tabernacle”. We are not offering sacrifices here, and not only because of health and safety rules. We rather use the space in order to form a community, and to pray. We continue the connection through spiritual service, which includes all of us, not only a priestly elite. We hope that God will listen to our prayers. We have the unique opportunity to express gratitude, love, and to earn some attention from the Divine. If you grow up in a “Jewish dinner table” family, where your voice is not more than a whisper on a stormy sea, you cannot appreciate enough the blessing Baruch ata Adonai, Shomea Tefillah. “Blessed are You Eternal who listens to prayers.”

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.