The Power of the Mind Over Reality

Tzav By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Mar 25, 2005 / 5765 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

Judaism is a choir of many voices. But it takes a trained ear to pick out their individuality. The haftarah for this week’s Torah portion is an instructive example. Taken from the prophet Jeremiah, who was fated to witness the destruction of the First Temple in 587 B.C.E. by the Babylonians, the haftarah downplays the centrality and efficacy of the Temple cult. It preserves Jeremiah’s futile attempt at the very gates of the Temple to disabuse the inhabitants of Judah of the comforting belief that their sacrifices will save the beleaguered city and that God will never vacate “the Temple of the Lord,” (Jeremiah 7:4).

The haftarah opens with Jeremiah’s astounding declaration that the cult, in fact, played a minor role in God’s revelation to Israel in the wilderness. Derisively, Jeremiah says in God’s name: “Add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat,” (Jeremiah 7:21). But “burnt offerings” were never eaten! As the Hebrew term olah (a word that has the same root as aliyah, which is what we call an ascent to the Torah or to Israel) suggests, they went up in flames on the altar. Playing on the name, the Midrash comments that the olah is the highest form of sacrifice (elyonah mi-kol ha-qorbanot) because all of it ascended directly to God, (who is known to be the one on high), the supreme being. No human being, neither priest nor Israelite, tasted of this sacrifice, as they did of all the others.

What a bracing piece of point-counterpoint! Our parashah begins with a description of the olah sacrifice. “This is the ritual of the burnt offering: the burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it,” (Leviticus 6:2). And then, but a few minutes later in the haftarah, we are treated to Jeremiah’s cavalier dismissal of the entire burnt offering rite.

The prophet goes on: “For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice,” (Jeremiah 7:22). Again, we are jarred. For more than a month now, we have read some six parshiyot (excluding KiTissa), with more to come, that deal with the building of the Tabernacle, its sacrificial cult and the consecration of its priestly attendants, and Jeremiah dares to tell us that God had little to say about sacrifices at Sinai and after? The words of the Torah simply refute his claim.

But Jeremiah distorts the record for a reason. He seeks to restore a measure of equilibrium between ethics and ritual. His contemporaries teeter on the brink of a national debacle because their cult is bereft of all moral content. “But this is what I command them,” Jeremiah continues in God’s name, “Do My bidding, that I may be your God and you may be My people; walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you. Yet they did not listen or give ear; they followed their own counsels, the willfulness of their evil hearts,” (Jeremiah 7:23-24). In other words, the Torah is far more than a handbook for priests. It is, above all, a vision of society built on the principles of equality, justice and compassion. Severed from those goals, the cult becomes indistinguishable from the cultic systems of Israel’s neighbors.

For Jeremiah, the details of Leviticus had come to harbor the devil. Only if we manage to retain sight of the forest, of the underlying principles and purpose to which the details were originally attached, can we affirm contrariwise that God is to be found in the details. Once they slip into being an end in themselves, stripped of any larger and nobler context, only then is God quickly replaced by the devil. The two proverbs (God is in the details; the devil is in the details) are not at all in conflict. They reflect different states of coherence. When meaning is lost, coherence unravels into chaos.

The Rabbis selected the haftarah of Jeremiah not to repudiate the sacrificial cult, but to keep it tethered to the Torah’s ethical grid. The tension between ritual and ethics is a recurring religious phenomenon in the pages of the Bible, with many passages in the prophets and psalms echoing Jeremiah’s condemnation of imbalance and hypocrisy. Last week’s haftarah of Shabbat Zakhor gave us another classic example in Samuel’s justly famous rebuke of Saul, who had saved the best of Amalek’s livestock for sacrifice, against God’s explicit instructions. “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the Lord’s command? Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice, compliance than the fat of rams,” (I Samuel 15:22).

The best proof that the Rabbis did not side wholeheartedly with the prophets on this issue is that they did not move to eradicate the Temple from Jewish memory. The Mishnah, edited some 130 years after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, preserved massive amounts of Temple practice. Even as the Rabbis replaced the Temple with the synagogue and sacrifices with verbal prayer, creating a totally new religious institution in the process, they went out of their way to acknowledge Temple precedents. The twice-daily communal sacrifice of the Tamid, morning and evening, became the basis for our Shaharit and Minhah services, while the Maariv service was associated with the embers left on the altar at night. The eternal light of the synagogue replicates the flame in the menorah of the Temple which was never allowed to go out. And the synagogue was consciously designated to be “a diminished temple” for Jews in the Diaspora (Ezekiel 11:16).

Moreover, the educational curriculum designed by the Rabbis started with the book of Leviticus. The Midrash justified the choice by stressing the purity of both, that is, youngsters of five who are still free of sin should begin their studies with the sacrificial system that cleanses people of their sins. More likely is the fact that Va-yikra contains a good deal of Jewish law. We, who prefer narrative and theology, start our children on Genesis.

Finally, the Rabbis and their heirs believed in the power of the mind over reality. They introduced the morning liturgy with a few biblical and Mishnaic passages on the sacrificial system for private recitation, just as they have us recall in Yom Kippur’s Avodah service the awesome ritual by which the high priest commemorated the day in the Temple. Both were inspired by the conviction that undistracted reading could evoke a flavor of the original experience itself.

All these echoes of the past amount to a preservation of the sacred fragments of the broken tablets. Despite the deterioration in the quality of priestly leadership in the waning days of the Second Temple, the Rabbis refused to make light of a once holy institution. They knew that the synagogue represented a great religious advance over the Temple, yet strove to retain the enduring values of that transcended form of worship. In so doing, they avoided the false dichotomy which asserts that the way to God is either through ritual or ethics. Rather, it is the genuine integration of both that enhances each one and forms “a perfect heart” and a complete relationship with God.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Tzav are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.