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Today is Shabbat Para, the Sabbath of the Cow, one of the four special Shabbatot that surround the month of Adar. We read today about the famous red heifer, the para aduma, whose ashes were necessary for the purification of the Jews in preparation for Pesah. Mixed in water, the ashes of the para aduma made the ritually clean unclean and the unclean clean. Our sages regarded this passage the archetype of the hoq, the Divinely-ordained statute that is beyond human comprehension. Since I am very comfortable with my state of non-understanding of this precept, I will not attempt to expound it. Rather, what I want to comment on regarding this commandment is that we are unable to fulfill it.
Many of you no doubt have read about the birth in Israel about three years ago of a red heifer, the first one in almost two thousand years. The fact that the heifer would be three years old, the proper age for a sacrifice, in the year 2000, helped to stoke the millennial fervor, and created great expectancy among the groups who are interested in building the third Temple and restoring the sacrifices.
Unfortunately for some, a few months ago the cow grew two white hairs in her tail, demoting her from the miraculous to the status of mere curiosity. Others, myself included, breathed a sigh of relief that the red heifer didn’t pan out, thus removing the immediate temptation among the faithful to make mischief on the Temple Mount.
Nonetheless, there is a deep poignancy to me in the commandments that we, as Jews, cannot perform. Nothing makes it so clear that we are on earth and not in heaven as the sorrowful fact that so many traditions that our ancestors lovingly performed for centuries are impossible for us to follow. Every day we face reminders that, in many respects, the world we live in is broken and in need of repair.
Such is profoundly the case, I would argue, with today’s regular reading, Tsav. “Vayomer Adonai el Moshe lemor: Tsav et Aharon ve-et banav torat ha-ola And the Eternal said unto Moses, Command Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the law of the burnt offering.;” According to Rashi, the expression tsav, “command,” always implies an order that takes effect immediately, and that is binding upon future generations. It is in today’s parasha that we read of the ner tamid, the eternal flame upon the altar of the tabernacle that must never be extinguished. How can we hope to keep this commandment when there is neither Temple nor tabernacle, and when, moreover, the entire concept of altar sacrifice, of corbanot, strikes us as primitive and bizarre?
For me, this question goes to the heart of the problem of VaYiqra (Leviticus). The book of Leviticus, as the late Pinchas Peli reminds us, is both spacially and spiritually at the very center of the Torah. And yet we are more deeply removed from it, I think I can safely say, than from any other book of the Tanakh.
This is not surprising: the very thing that made VaYiqra so central to our ancestors is what makes it so remote to us. It is fundamentally concerned with the details of Temple sacrifice, with ritual purity and impurity, and with the functions of the priests; that is to say, it deals with the tangible day-to-day reality of the Jewish religion while the Temple stood. The rest of the Torah has historical, philosophical, and legal interest to Jews of the Temple period, but VaYiqra, as a guidebook to sacrifice and the atonement of sin, contained an immediate, practical, concrete blueprint for how to get right with God. This was the owner’s manual of the Jewish way of being in the world-the most relevant, practical, and important book of the Bible for Jews of the Temple period. “It shall be a statute for ever in your generations concerning the fire offerings of the Eternal,” our parasha says; “every one that touches them shall be holy.” The qorbanot, the sacrifices, were nothing less than the key to holiness.
But “for ever” turns out to be not so simple. The Temple was destroyed, the sacrifices ended. A thousand years later, the Rambam can say that that’s a good thing, and we can agree with him. But if we put aside our modern distaste for the sanguinary spectacle of animal sacrifice, and try to imagine the impact of having one’s whole mode of worship abolished at one fell swoop — a tradition given by God, apparently to be binding upon our people for all time; a system regarded as effective and essential for repairing the breaches in our relationship, individual and communal, with the Eternal — I think we can begin to grasp the implications for our ancestors of the loss of this system. By comparison, imagine that the synagogue were abolished, and congregational prayer made impossible. Where would we be? It is not surprising that a portion of our people simply lay down on the ground and never got up again, or that another group adopted the radical conception of a former disciple of Rabbi Gamaliel that the death on the cross of a popular itinerant teacher constituted a single cosmic sacrifice that would atone for all the sins of his believers for all time. When the Temple was destroyed, the central book of our Torah was stripped of its earthly referent and its specific, tangible meaning. And not VaYiqra alone, of course, but most of Bamidbar (Numbers), from which our additional reading comes; a large portion of Shemot (Exodus), and Devarim (Deuteronomy), as well. Our world was rent asunder, smashed into a thousand pieces.
The parallel of Temple worship with the synagogue and prayer is more than just an analogy, it is an exact spiritual equivalent. That is because, as all of you know, the practice of synagogue-based Judaism that emerged out of the flames of the first and second centuries of the Common Era is the explicitly and scripturally-ordained substitute for the entire system of Temple worship. “Let my prayer be counted as incense before Thee,” says the psalmist, “and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice” (Ps. 141:2). Hosea adds, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6). This means that what we are doing here, not only the various segments of the service that echo the daily and special sacrifices, such as minha and musaf, but everything we do here — the Torah reading, the children’s services, the Learners; Minyan, Singers’ Circle, and all the other activities related to prayer and study that take place in this building — constitutes avoda, the work of worship, which substitutes for the system of Temple sacrifice that stood at the heart of ancient Judaism. Through a miraculous alchemy of faith and love, the ancient rites of sacrifice were transmuted into the living religion of the synagogue.
If I may, I’d like to add a personal note that reflects on the convoluted nature of Jewish continuity. When Joanne and I married some 15 years ago, when we were living in Washington, she was a completely unobservant Jew and I was a Boston Brahmin. (Score one for assimilation, it would have seemed.) To Joanne’s bemusement, however, I converted to Judaism about three years later. Joanne watched tolerantly but warily as I began to observe ancient practices that she found mildly unsettling. Although she was willing to light candles on Shabbat, she drew the line at joining me at services at Fabrangen, except for the High Holy Days. When we moved to New Haven, I attended the “Egal Minyan” at Yale Hillel by myself as well.
In 1989 we were blessed by the arrival of Rachel, and two years later, of David, both from Pusan, Korea, adding two more souls to the house of Israel. (Ironically, Joanne is the only member of the family who has never been in the miqva.) As is so often the case, having children became an impetus for greater religious involvement, and Joanne and the baby started attending services regularly. When it came time for Rachel to start kindergarten, Joanne at the very last minute decided we should look at Ezra Academy. This was an act of great courage, because not only did it mean that friends and family would think we had turned into religious fanatics, it meant that her child would know more about Judaism than herself, before first grade — a humbling position to be in. At the same time, there is no greater source of nahus than being exceeded by one’s children, and Rachel and David are gracious and modest about outstripping us in Hebrew.
Rachel was the major force in bringing us to join BEKI, since so many of her classmates attended here. And BEKI immediately clicked with Joanne as well. She took an alef-bet class with Ellen Jawitz, borrowed Siddur Sim Shalom, and began painstakingly to learn. About two years ago, as most of you know, Joanne instigated a course of study for adults like herself, whose senior member — the first to sign up — was George Posner. I’m sure you all remember the wonderful service led by the Siyyum group, at which a diverse company of BEKI members first took on the obligations of leading the community in worship.
What you may not be aware of, especially after hearing Joanne conduct the beautiful, fluent haftara reading from Yehezqel (Ezekiel) this morning, is how hard she has worked. Some of our young people, God bless them, seem to lain Torah as easily as breathe. Joanne does not have a great facility for languages, or a special musical talent. She has mastered the prayers and the haftarah letter-by-letter, and note-by-note. Moreover, while she comes from a wonderful, nurturing family, they never encouraged her to sing, and she grew up believing that she couldn’t sing. I don’t think it is too much to say that for Joanne to chant the haftara is an accomplishment something akin to conquering Mount Everest.
I also don’t think it’s too much to say that Joanne could not have accomplished what she did today without the help of Ruthie Greenblatt, whose birthday we are celebrating today. Ruth’s faith in Joanne’s ability long predated Joanne’s faith in herself. Ruth’s patience, her talent, her inspiration, and her astonishing capacity to give of herself are the stuff of miracle. The hardest thing to do is to praise a righteous person, because the language of praise is cheap and formulaic. Suffice it to say that if the best way to teach is by example, Ruthie is the greatest teacher I know of emuna, of hesed, and of avoda — of faith, of steadfast love, of the holy work of worship. Without any irony, I can say that she is truly a giant.
Which brings us back to the place we started, the theme of sacrifice. When our ancestors gave the first fruits of their harvests, an unblemished lamb, a kid, a turtle dove, they gave something of substance, something real, something of tangible value. The smoke from the ola (burnt offering), made “a sweet savor unto the Lord”; the Jews knew that God was pleased, that is to say, because they knew that they had made a true offering of something of value that came from their hearts. Perhaps it is an ethical advance, as Maimonides suggests, to have put an end to the slaughter of animals; but it is no ethical advance if the sacrifice is not matched by an equivalent commitment of our hearts, our hands, our substance. The ner tamid, the eternal flame that burned in the altar of the Temple, has gone out; we can only fulfill God’s command to Aaron if we rekindle it in our hearts.