Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild
The Torah portion for this week contains a lot of ritual instructions for the different sacrifices. On the surface these instructions are, for many readers, rather boring, certainly repetitive and essentially irrelevant. I can understand this point of view, but I do not wholly share it. For me they hold an importance and that importance is: That they are written down and available for the public to see, to read, to learn, to copy. They are not kept secret and mysterious, locked away, written in code in a different script, for the initiated few. The sacrifices in the Sanctuary and later in the Temple were not part of some conspiracy plot, for the Illuminati only; on the contrary, everyone could see what it was the Cohen, the priest had to do, and how much he got paid for it. We talk a lot about Transparency in modern political life but of course we do very little to ensure it happens.
So often in life or in the Torah you have to look carefully at context and sequence and look for clues as to what is going on. Sometimes the clues are hidden between the lines, sometimes the clues are staring at you in black and white and you just to take a step back to see them better. In Judaism, the Priests were downgraded in importance. This is vital. They were not allowed any own initiative. God tells Moses – a lay leader – to tell them what their instructions are. For a Full Burnt Offering, for a Flour Offering….. So Moses as lay leader is also not God but only a mouthpiece for God, an intermediary. God does not talk to the Priests direct! How amazing is that! But God gives firm and clear and systematic instructions as to how the Israelites are to approach God, what they are to give under certain specific circumstances, what parts of their sacrifices they are allowed to eat themselves, what share the priests are entitled to as their professional fee.
I do not want to pretend that the details of the sacrifices are so fascinating – but it IS relevant to look at the language and the structure. How often do we hear a politician – of any country, of any party – use words like ”We are going to GIVE so-and-so many-millions to Education or to Health or to Social Welfare”? And they expect praise and gratitude for such statements. Whereas in fact the Government as such is actually giving Nothing at All – it is only ALLOCATING a certain sum from the annual budget for a certain cause… it is not their personal money, it is the money raised by taxation, direct and indirect. So when the Priests bring a routine sacrifice this is from the donations made, collectively or individually, by the Israelites who come to the temple. They represent the People to God in the way a lawyer represents a client to a judge in a court – everyone knows that they are paid to do their job, to say good things about their client, to plead for a good judgement or at least for a mild punishment; Everyone knows they did not know their client before the client came to their office and everyone knows they will never see the client again afterwards – with luck! – or become a close family friend, and yet they speak of their client as though they had known them intimately all their lives and are close personal friends….
How often do politicians and officials say ”We” when they mean ”I – but I am dragging you along and down with me”? ”We in our party…” ”We in our government…” ”We in our country…” or even ”We in our nation.”
The word ”kadosh”, translated as ”holy”, means just ”special, separate, out of the ordinary”. It is so easy, when you are working for a special cause, to feel that you yourself are special. What does this mean? That you expect special rewards, that normal rules and restrictions no longer apply to you, that you are entitled to privileges, not just because of your status but because of you yourself. It is a standard and common temptation. You feel you can speak for everybody – even for those not yet born, even for those who have already died. You might tell yourself you feel ”closer to God” but actually you are just as distant as everyone else and subject to just the same human failings and weaknesses.
In recent months – I don’t want to get too ‘political’ here but I do want to illustrate my argument with some current examples – we have seen the major impact in the Church of the awareness that just because a man puts on a robe and makes certain commitments, this does not mean that his sexuality simply evaporates; It may merely be channelled in other directions which then, almost by definition, become destructive one, destructive for themselves, for their victims and for the system they serve. We have seen political leaders deny historical tendencies and facts, seeking to make of their nation in its history, three quarters of a century ago, a nation purely of victims, of innocents, a nation in which Nobody collaborated with evil or supported evil or was possibly even aware of evil…. an innocent fluffy Lamb that lay down with the Lion without becoming corrupted. And anyone who denies this is accused of being a heretic, a slanderer, a blasphemer, who should be punished. An entire nation of innocents! It really makes one wonder what some people believe, and what they think they can persuade others to believe..
A further important issue is that of ‘Closure’. If a person, a Jew, has performed a certain sin or has a certain request, it is laid down clearly and systematically what has to be done to resolve this need. Rather than years of counselling and therapy, a Sin Offering can be brought. I recently had to counsel a man – not Jewish – who had been carrying for almost the whole of his life the guilt for a tragedy in which he was involved as a teenager. How different things might have been for him, over decades, if he had been able to ‘put things right with God” in a certain way – admitting his guilt and his shame, admitting the impossibility of putting right what had happened – a man had been killed in an accident – but at least repairing the relationship to God and getting on with his life. The price list given in the Torah is fairly simple, there are occasional discounts for the very poor but no punitive extra costs for the wealthier – but it is clear, it is published just like the prices on a menu outside the restaurant. As a human before God, it is not so important what one has, but what one is prepared to give. A sacrifice is not necessary for God to remain well-nourished, a sacrifice is necessary so that a human can say ”I can do without this, I can afford to donate this, I won’t need this for ever” and give it away – can distance themselves from material things, can watch as it all goes up in smoke anyway or is shared with others. The word for a sacrifice – Korban – is derived from the word for ”getting close” to God. The Rabbis said we can get close to God through Prayer, as an alternative, as a substitute.
So – we read these chapters of Leviticus – we do not need to stick to the strict interpretation and fulfilment of the regulations and commands, and I am certainly not one of those Jews who argues that the sacrificial cult in Jerusalem should be restored – but we can and should ask ourselves : Why have almost all religions in world history demanded something from their adherents? Why have there been priests and altars and sacrifices (in various forms, with various names, even whether a matter of money or incense sticks to images or donations to the priests or monks) from Thailand through India to Peru? What effect did these forms of worship have on the worshippers?; and what do we use today to take their place, when we want to approach God?