Between Prophets and Priests

Vayikra By :  Edward Feld Posted On Mar 15, 2008 / 5768 | Torah Commentary

The relation with God is fraught with uncertainty and doubt. How do you reach the hidden God? How do you know that what you offer up to God is pleasing? 

Leviticus opens detailing the sacrifices to be brought to the sanctuary in the desert, which were later brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. The text repeats the verb l’ratzon, in various conjugations, telling us that through the proper performance, the sacrifice will be “acceptable on his behalf.” The devotee is assured of acceptance.

One can imagine the farmer owning a cow, a few sheep, and a few donkeys. To bring an unblemished animal to the Temple, he would probably have had to offer up a younger animal—a productive part of his herd. The gift was not given lightly; it represented a considerable part of his wealth. Yet as the fire issued up to heaven, he might well have thought: “I have tried to satisfy my God, blessed be God’s name and may blessing be bestowed on me.”

We have no record of any liturgy accompanying the sacrifice. The Mishnah, written many years after the Second Temple was destroyed, records that the sacrifice was offered up in silence. We don’t know if the Mishnah’s description is an accurate report of what occurred in the biblical sanctuary many hundreds of years earlier, but the Israeli scholar Israel Knohl argues that the lack in Leviticus of any description of a liturgy accompanying the sacrifice—while other ancient Near Eastern documents make a point of describing the words the priest is to recite as he offers up the sacrifice—should be taken as evidence that the Mishnah may be an accurate reflection of what, in fact, the ceremony looked like during biblical times. Knohl has appropriately titled his treatment of the subject The Temple of Silence.

We can imagine, then, an awe-filled moment, a ritual conducted completely in silence, the supplicant parting with a gift to God that had been brought at considerable cost. And as the smoke issues toward heaven, the devotee could well believe, “All is acceptable.”

The prophets, of course, would have none of this. They overturned this priestly religion and argued that it was the quality of one’s ethical life that made the sacrifice acceptable. Do you think that you can rob one day and sacrifice the next and imagine that the sacrifice will be acceptable? Jeremiah, for instance, castigating the people of Judea for their duplicity, announces, “Your burnt offerings are not acceptable [lo l’ratzon] and your sacrifices are not pleasing to me.” (6:20)

The world becomes so much more fraught with anxiety when we broaden the issue of acceptability to combine ritual obligation and the prophetic call. None of us has clean hands; no one is totally innocent. Our ethical lives can always be found wanting. When we, in our day, approach the moment of ritual and are met with the same silence that so filled the ancient worshipper with awe, we may well wonder, “What are we doing? How can ritual affect God?”

Of course, some continue to feel that it is their punctiliousness which makes the ritual acceptable. “I’ve done the ritual correctly, I’ve followed every jot and tittle and therefore I can be assured that I am pleasing to God.” Frequently, though, the same care is not applied to human affairs. Human affairs are messy, selflessness is hard to disentangle from selfishness. The necessary defense of one’s own right is oftentimes offensive to one’s neighbor. It is reported that Abraham Joshua Heschel once remarked that he wished the commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself” would never have been given, since it is almost impossible to observe. That’s why some assert the primacy of ritual, for only that seems to bring assurance that one has fulfilled the law.

But interestingly, Jewish folk custom managed to incorporate both the prophetic and priestly views in the performance of ritual. Before the lighting of the Friday night candles, members of the household would drop the coins in their pockets in the tzedakah box that was always near the dining room table. Strangers who showed up at the synagogue could be assured that they would be invited to someone’s home for the Sabbath meal, or served a communal meal in the synagogue. Almost no one ate alone.

The joy of the Sabbath could be experienced through the cessation of work, a silencing of the business of the mind. The challah, symbol of the showbread in the Temple, could be eaten along with the specially prepared culinary delights because of the knowledge that no one in the community would go hungry that day—the poor and the stranger would be provided for. The members of each household would offer blessings to one another and for an instant anger would be banished. At that moment one could feel whole—at peace, truly experiencing shalom—and the angels might fly by, look in, and offer words of blessing.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.