Sacrifices Address Emotion of Guilt


The theme of Parshat Tzav is korbanot, the animal sacrifices brought in the Tabernacle and, later, in the Temple.

The Rambam, in his “Guide For the Perplexed,” writes, “The purpose of sacrifices being incorporated into the Divine service of the Jewish people was to accommodate the transition of the people going from the extreme falsehood of idol worship to the extreme truth of worshipping one true God. The Jewish people had been steeped in an idolatrous culture and could only free themselves from it by utilizing the same form of animal sacrifice that they were accustomed to. Now, through strict rules and regiments, they could direct it toward the service of God.”

Unfortunately, this statement has been grossly misunderstood. The Rambam never meant to imply that korbanot were a temporary means of service, whose practice would be abandoned as soon as the Jewish people were weaned from their idolatrous ways. Noah and his sons offered korbanot after the flood; Avraham offered various sacrifices. Neither of them needed to be weaned from idolatry.
Although the concept of animal sacrifices seems foreign, almost antithetical to our notion of serving God, korbanot were offered in the Temple on a daily basis. The detailed rituals of sacrifices played an essential role in the celebration of each holiday, and various sacrifices were offered to mark significant events in the lives of people.

Korbanot obviously played a major role in our service to God. How are we to understand that role?

The ultimate way to serve God and come closer to Him is through prayer and Torah study, for those methods involve one’s heart and one’s intellect.
At the same time, we are created with physical drives, and we are therefore driven to relate to God in a physical, tangible way. Offering a korban (from the word karov, to come close) is a hands-on project.
But this very human need is not given free rein; rather, the offering of sacrifices is governed by strict regulations, in order that we tangibly relate to God in a true, proper way.

Furthermore, korbanot address the human emotion of guilt. After a person sins, it is natural to feel guilty about having done wrong, having failed to live up to expected standards of behavior.

Instead of allowing a person to wallow in guilt, to feel disappointed and disillusioned and to succumb to a sense of hopelessness, the Torah requires the sinner to bring a sacrifice. One must purchase a living animal, bring it to the Temple, confess the sin, express a firm resolve never to repeat it and then offer the sacrifice upon the altar.

These steps allow for the individual to express natural guilt in a constructive manner and for one to perfect and improve one’s character instead of being paralyzed by guilt.

Even in today’s times, in absence of korbanot, the Torah continues to challenge us to use our yetzer hatov, or good inclination, to sublimate our yetzer hara, or evil inclination, and always channel them to achieve a higher purpose, to relate to God in a way that allows us to grow, improve and attain psychological and intellectual perfection.

This column originally appeared April 7, 2006.

Steven Weil is senior rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills and the incoming executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.

Sacrifices and a Sliding Scale


My wife met a pastor’s wife on a plane. Every few months now, we have Darren, an evangelical pastor, and his wife, Amy, over to our Shabbat lunch table.

I talk about how our Shabbat sometimes feels too regulated, and he talks about how their Sabbath sometimes lacks enough structure to be meaningful. We share with each other about the rewards and challenges of the ministry and the rabbinate.

A few weeks ago, as we talked about the difficult economy, I realized I know little about how an evangelical church structures its finances, so I asked him, “How do churches make ends meet? How does membership work in your congregation?”

“To be a member, one needs to accept Jesus as one’s personal savior, and then there are ways for people to participate in the community,” the pastor replied. “For making ends meet, we ask members to tithe. There’s not much about tithing in the New Testament, but it’s in the Old Testament pretty clearly.”

I was struck by two things: First, membership is about your faith, not dues. Second, here was a modern church without minimum fees.

Tithing may be an important biblical concept, but can a congregation rely upon its members to voluntarily give 10 percent of their income to pay for things like utilities, salaries and health insurance for its employees, much less programming and worship services? I was skeptical whether such a voluntary system really provides for the ongoing financial needs of a modern congregation.

“Does it work?” I asked.

“Some people give 3 or 5 percent, but yes, we make ends meet,” he replied. “How does it work in the Jewish community?”

I was almost embarrassed to tell him.

“We have membership and dues to join. It’s anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 to join a synagogue. For the wealthy, there are mailings and special solicitations to ask them for more. For people who can’t afford it, we hope they will come forward and ask for special consideration. When they do, of course, we make it work for them to give whatever they can.”

“Is it embarrassing for people to need to ask to pay less?” Amy asked innocently.

“Yes,” I said. “At any one time, fewer than 50 percent of Jews affiliate with a synagogue. I think it’s hard for people to ask for a discount, so they just don’t join because it costs too much, and they don’t want to go through the humiliation of needing to ask.”

The first chapter of Leviticus offers three options for how we can give a sacrifice for God: a bull (Leviticus 1:3), a male sheep or goat (Leviticus 1:10) or turtledoves or young pigeons (Leviticus 1:14). It is safe to assume that the Torah offers three different levels of giving because not everyone can afford a bull, or a sheep, or a goat, but turtledoves and pigeons are plentiful (they are at my local park). It is a sliding scale.

What matters most to God is not how much one can give — the fire of each offering is described as “a sweet fragrance to Adonai” — but that one gives what one can. The rich, the middle class, the poor — each are equal because each does his/her share by giving what she/he can.

It saddens me how foreign this approach feels when I think about modern synagogue life. Darren didn’t need to point out to me the irony: Jewish texts gave the world tithing and a sliding scale; his church uses it, while our synagogues don’t.

Rashi asks about the smell of the poor person’s offering. The Torah says the smell from the burning feathers of a bird is “sweet.” “Really?” he asks. “Its feathers? Is it not true that there is no person who smells the odor of burning wings who is not disgusted? So why did the Torah say, ‘Burn it as incense?’ So that the altar will be satisfied and glorified by the offering of a poor person.”

In his book, “Da’at Torah,” Rabbi Yerucham Lebovitz explains we feel good being in the company of those who are rich and dress well and who are clean, and we feel the opposite in the company of one who is dirty and whose clothes are torn. Our instinct is to move away.

Lebovitz writes, “The words of Rashi teach us that we need to move closer to dafka [just such] a person, to help his hand and to show him a joyful face. Of course, one is not permitted to show him even a bit of repugnance at what caused others to move away. Even more, we are obligated to honor him, because the Shechinah of God’s honor is with him as it says, ‘I will dwell, with the oppressed and low of spirit’ (Isaiah 57:15).”

God’s altar must be glorified by the offering of the poor. Is our altar glorified?

As a community, do we move toward, not away, from those most in need? Does God’s presence dwell in our synagogues amid the oppressed and low of spirit? How many of the 50 percent of American Jews unaffiliated with synagogues stay away because to join, they must ask to give less and explain themselves?

Cynicism has its place — if people were allowed to pay dues according to a sliding scale and we trusted them to pay according to their income level, it is sad but true that many would pay less than what they should. But should our synagogue membership structures be built on skepticism? Can we trust ourselves and God to implement (or even try) a sliding scale?

How do we close the gap between the current structure of modern synagogue life and the vision of religious life offered by our own Jewish texts? If Darren and Amy can do it, why can’t we?

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is executive director of Camp Ramah in California (ramah.org) and the Zimmer Conference Center of American Jewish University.

Work of Your Hands


When every last acacia-wood board had been fashioned, every last curtain woven and every single vessel of gold or copper produced, Moshe stood in awe of the people’s accomplishment. “And Moshe saw all the work, and, behold, they had done it! As the Lord had commanded, even so had they done it” (Exodus 39:43). After so many months of effort, the components of the Tabernacle were now complete. It was time for celebration.

Or was it? The people all actually knew in their hearts that in an essential way, the Tabernacle was still very far from being complete. Thus far, they had merely completed the items that would form the shell of a Tabernacle. The essence of it, the component that would render their project a success, was not only still absent, but was outside of their ability to produce. The skeptics and the scoffers among the people were still confident in their opinion. For weeks they had been challenging their fellow Israelites saying, “Do you seriously think that the Divine Presence will rest on the work of [Moshe] the son of Amram?” (Exodus Rabba 52:2). Whether or not the Divine Presence would indeed manifest upon and within the objects they had fashioned was still an open question. It was also the only question that really mattered.

To fully appreciate how high the stakes were, it’s necessary to realize that the scoffers were not merely challenging Moshe’s particular abilities as a spiritual architect. They were challenging the very premise of the entire religious endeavor, namely that human beings can produce works that matter to God. They were ultimately ridiculing the whole notion that the institutions we build, the deeds we perform or the families we raise can serve as toeholds for the Divine Presence in this world. Anything created by human hands, the scoffers believed, was too fleeting, too momentary, just plain too small to capture the interest of God. And any human belief to the contrary was the product of the most grandiose of self-delusions.

Firm in his faith, Moshe now blessed the people. According to the Midrash, he said to them, “May it be God’s will that He rest His presence on the works of your hands. May the grace of God be upon us, and may He establish the work of our hands.”

Moshe engaged his critics’ argument directly. Soon, when the component pieces of the Tabernacle would be put together and the Tablets of the Law would lie in the ark in the Holy of Holies, the dispute would be settled. Soon, the cloud of God’s glory would descend, and His voice would be heard. Meanwhile though, Moshe prayed, and the nation waited and hoped.

Against the backdrop of the skepticism that attended that building of the Tabernacle, we can appreciate in a new light God’s command that we build it. “They shall make for me a holy place, and I will dwell in their midst” was not merely a directive to that one particular generation that was journeying through the Sinai Desert. It was God’s fundamental and timeless assertion that things like this are indeed possible. That despite the vastness that separates God and humankind, the works of mortals can serve as a fitting throne for the presence of God. And not only that, but it is God himself who desires to be thus enthroned. “And they shall know that I am the Lord their God who took them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them.” As Nachmanidies comments on this verse, the dwelling of the Divine Presence among Israel is not only the response to our need; it is the response to God’s need, as well.

Our Sages held up the building of the Tabernacle as the paradigm for all human labor. It is the metaphor that we are to bring to all of our creative endeavors, and most specifically, to the places where we do our work. Each time we make a workplace decision to value integrity over the bottom line, we build a tabernacle for God. Whenever, through our work, we extend the kind of love we wish for ourselves to a client, or an employee, or a co-worker, we cause God’s presence to become manifest. When in the course of our work we grant the benefit of the doubt, vanquish anger and strive to speak the whole truth, we satisfy God’s need to dwell among His creations.

Moshe’s prayer was, as we know, soon answered. And the Children of Israel learned a lesson for the ages. It is of course not coincidental that our very first prayer of the workweek — the one we recite even before Havdalah — is the very same: “May the grace of God be upon us, and may He establish the work of our hands.” May our workplace be a dwelling place for God. l

Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Wisdom of the Ages


Ten years ago, when my parents, z”l, were 82 and 89, they traveled from Chicago to Los Angeles to be with my partner Tracy and me as we stood together under the chuppah. At the celebration of her daughter’s lesbian wedding, my mother was heard to say quite matter-of-factly: “I guess if you live long enough, you see everything.”

Amazingly, two-thirds of all the people who have ever lived past the age of 65 in the history of the world are alive today, according to Ken Dychtwald, author of “The Power Years: A User’s Guide to the Rest of Your Life.” This suggests that our way-beyond octogenarians in the Bible were the exception, not the rule.

The Bible gives skeptics many things to be skeptical about, but perhaps nothing so much as a verse in this week’s Torah portion: “Moses was 80 years old and Aaron 83 when they made their demand on Pharaoh” (Exodus 7:7).

Why would God call on octogenarians to lead the Israelites out from slavery and through 40 years in the wilderness? No wonder Moses was reticent, say the doubters (not a few of whom are octogenarians themselves, and know how it feels).

If the Torah mentioned Moses and Aaron’s advanced ages because here was yet another one of God’s miracles in redeeming us from slavery, then I’m beginning to think we’ve entered another age of miracles. For I have not only my parents (who lived to see, and even enjoy, ages 91 and 88), I also count myself blessed to have in my life a significant number of remarkable elders.

Last month at our synagogue, we heard a marvelous sermon from one of our oldest members, Harriet Perl, on the occasion of her 85th birthday. Her speech prompted us to embark on an oral history project at our synagogue (our recent newsletter profiled three of our elders, and includes Harriet’s speech). Last weekend I went to Chicago to visit four relatives and friends I’ve known all my life — ages 82, 89, 95, 96. They move more slowly than they used to, but give few other clues about their age.

In fact, surprisingly few commentators take note of the simple statement of Moses and Aaron’s ages in Parshat Vaera. But it should call out to us, reminding us that Moses is not the young man portrayed in the still-popular animated movie “The Prince of Egypt.” Maybe the filmmakers’ choice tells us something we need to know: God chose octogenarians to bring us out from slavery, while modern interpreters keep us enslaved to our worship of youth.

Fifty generations before ours, the Mishnah’s collection of wisdom known as Pirke Avot provides a list of attributes that come to each human being with each new decade. Ben shmonim ligvurah (80 years is the age of greatness and strength). Surely Yehudah ben Tema, the sage who said this, knew how old Moses was when God called him to lead.

These days, life expectancies are on the rise, or perhaps just returning to biblical proportions. At the beginning of the 20th century, life expectancy was only 47 years, casting a different light on the 1880s choice to make 65 the “definition” of old age. Today “the United States’ Jewish community is disproportionately elderly. Close to 20 percent of Jews are already over the age of 65, compared to less than 13 percent of the general population. A significant number are over the age of 85 and need help with activities of daily living like eating, dressing and walking,” according to The Jewish Federation’s Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities project.

Perhaps our Torah verse this week about the ages of Moses and Aaron is overshadowed by the more well-known verse at Torah’s end about the death of Moses, 40 years later, at age 120, in which we are told: “his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated” (Deuteronomy 34:7). That one echoes God’s decision in Genesis 6:3 to cut back on the centuries-long human life spans mentioned there (remember Methuselah?), and leads us to the popular Jewish birthday wish ad meah v’esrim (until 120). Tradition says that in wishing for this impossibility, we are simply saying that no matter at what age someone dies, they died too young.

I don’t always offer that wish; I have seen people who have lived too long, and I’m not na?ve or removed from some of the traumas that come with aging. But more and more we are all also seeing some incredible septuagenarians, octogenarians, nonagenarians and centenarians.

And since we’re talking about time, isn’t it time we stop making assumptions about elders based on “old” prejudices? Instead — as God did so long ago in calling two octogenarians to lead us to freedom — isn’t it time to appreciate the wisdom, the strength, the humor, the experience of people who have “lived long enough to see everything”? They are here to be seen and heard and known in our families, in our congregations, in our Jewish community, in our city, in our world. And all of us gain gevurah and countless blessings from their presence in our lives.

Lisa A. Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, and is also currently teaching Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

 

Yeladim


 

The Ugly Bug Ball

In Parshat Shemini, we learn which animals are kosher. A young friend of mine asked: Why did God create both kosher and non-kosher animals? The sages of the Talmud ask the same question. They said there is something we can learn from every animal – kosher or not.

For example, the Sages say we can learn honesty and industriousness from an ant. Ants are hardworking, and they are “honest” in that they don’t steal from each other.

King David tried to uncover the meaning behind each animal and he succeeded – but he couldn’t figure out the spider. So, God showed King David how the spider could even save a life. When running for his life from King Saul, David hid in a cave. King Saul and his soldiers were searching everywhere. God sent a spider to spin a web over the opening of the cave in which David was hiding. When the soldiers came to his cave and saw it was covered with a spider’s web, they moved straight past, not realizing that the web was freshly made.

All Creatures Great and Small

Did You Know?

The word for “kindness” in Hebrew is chesed. In the Torah, the Hebrew word for stork is chasida. The rabbis say that the stork was given this name because this bird is very kind and generous with its food and shares with other birds.

1. Where are koala bears from?

a) United States

b) Russia

c) Australia

2. Whales and dolphins are large fish.

a) yes

b) no

c) both

3. What is the largest flying bird alive today?

a) Bald eagle

b) Penguin

c) Condor

d) Albatros

Answers From Last Week

Tell Me a Story: Hamantaschen

 

Yeladim


In Parshat Toldot, Jacob and Esau are born. Even though they are twins, they are opposites: Jacob is the quiet, studious type, while Esau is a hunter who loves to be out in the world. The world used to think of Jews as being just quiet and studious, but when Israel became a state the Jews there developed one of the strongest armies in the world.

Don’t let yourself be given a label – you can be an American, a Jew, an intellectual and a fighter, all at the same time.

There are many American Jews who became war heroes, too, don’t forget to honor them this Veterans Day on Nov. 11.

Write a story, song or poem about: My Happiest Jewish Memory. Send your entry by Dec. 31, to Jews for Judaism, 9911 Pico Blvd., No. 1240, Los Angeles, CA 90035. Go to www.jewsforjudaism.com for an entry form.

Mail your cartoons, drawings, puzzles, etc. to The Jewish Journal, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010. E-mail your written answers to our contests, or your jokes, riddles, poems, etc., to kids@jewishjournal.com. Make sure you write your name and address in your e-mail. See you next time!

Rebels and Leaders


One of my favorite Torah portions is the one that we will read this Shabbat. It reveals to us myriad recognizable human traits while transmitting to us some vital lessons.

From this story, we see that some characteristics are bad while others are good; and, along the way, we observe the consequences of indifference.

Taking center stage — but for a brief while — is Korah, who along with his wrongheaded cohorts Dathan, Abiram and On, challenges God’s authority and attempts to remove Moses from his preeminent leadership role by means of a massive rebellion. In the process, they almost cause the Israelites to be totally destroyed.

Korah forces us to examine the motives of those who are either appointed or elected officials. Furthermore, we’re encouraged to probe the reasons why some people attempt to become self-appointed leaders.

With very clear-cut precision, the Torah posits Moses as the epitome of responsible leadership. He is — above all else — a visionary who is selfless, unconditionally dedicated to his task, and by now unquestionably accepting of the mandate thrust upon him by God.

Moses is even willing to tolerate the enduring foibles of those whom he is leading away from servitude and toward freedom, away from ignorance and toward knowledge and away from empty secularism and toward a fulfilling life rooted in sacredness.

In contrast, along comes Korah, who is full of self-importance and guile and who depends upon an alluring charisma to persuade his henchmen and every Israelite to follow his lead. Taking and then spinning the very words of God and Moses, who declare that the Israelites are a holy and priestly people, Korah proclaims that there is no reason why the Israelites ought to depend on Moses, who has established a theocratic rule over them.

Rather, he preaches that everyone should function within the context of a democracy in which he will voluntarily assume the mantle of leadership and take them through the wilderness and into the Promised Land.

While Korah is quick to condemn Moses as someone who has lifted himself above the community — he makes no reference to God’s part in this epoch adventure — it is actually Korah who does the lifting so as to capture the people’s favor in order to satisfy his own ego-driven need for absolute power over them.

And he almost gets away with it, because the Israelites are too gullible and so quick to rebel against Moses, who has been — by necessity — very demanding in his messages and relentless in his actions.

Meanwhile, what does Moses do in the midst of this life-and-death struggle? Instead of drawing a line in the sand and fighting off Korah’s challenge, Moses removes himself from the scene and opts for an overnight respite. Sleeplessly meditating on what has occurred, and praying to God for strength and guidance, Moses emotionally girds himself so he may effectively deal with Korah and those who support his rebellious cause at the dawn of a new day.

Soon thereafter, Moses and the Israelites witness the obliteration of this misguided, defiant competitor of God’s will.

So, what are some of the lessons that emerge out of this text?

  • Reading about Korah’s attempt to shove Moses aside, we see how a demagogue attempts to grasp the truth and then to twist it in an effort to promote his own cause. Therefore, it’s essential that we always examine the motives of anyone who tells us that he possesses all of the answers to life’s riddles, who urges us to stop wrestling with life’s challenges and to put all of our trust in him and who suggests that it’s not necessary that we safeguard our own integrity, since absolute reliance on him will get us to where we want (or need) to be.

  • Every demagogue’s lust for power is so all-consuming that only bad things will occur if they have their own way. In contrast, Moses reveals to us the benefits that we may all derive when we place our confidence in authentic leaders who are dreamers and visionaries, and who are genuine public servants whose motives are ceaselessly selfless. It is these men and women who are constantly aware of God’s lofty but accessible ethical standards, who are imbued with values that have been etched upon their hearts and minds beginning early in childhood and are taught by loved ones and mentors the dimensions and demands of responsible leadership, to whom we ought to turn for direction — even when their demands on us seem to be so very burdensome.

  • This episode in the Torah is a dramatic reminder that we can ill afford to be indifferent. The Israelites stood idly by while Moses was forced to defend a harsh reality and Korah proffered a far more pleasing fantasy. The Israelites were willing to go along with Korah’s plot just because he seemed to know an easy way out of their ordeal no matter what disasters might occur in the long run.

  • Following Moses’ example, it’s important that — when facing hard choices — we gain some perspective by stepping back from a perplexing problem, acquire some objectivity and seek spiritual and intellectual guidance from someone whom we can trust. Also, like Moses, we ought to meditate and pray as we concentrate on finding solutions and use time itself to be a balancing element.


Allen I. Freehling, rabbi emeritus of University Synagogue, is the executive director of the Human Relations Commission of the city of Los Angeles.

For the Kids


Parshat Korah

Korah picks a fight with Moses and says, "I’m a Levite, too. I deserve to be given as much honor as you." When a group of Israelites decide to take Korach’s side, they are swallowed up by the earth.

Have you ever decided to take sides when two of your friends fought? If you ever see a fight, it’s better to get involved as a peacemaker and not a sidetaker.

Here’s a challenge:

Do you know the answer to this

Revolutionary question?

It’s 1763. You’re a content British colonist and proud of it. The French and Indian War has just ended. Peace reigns in the colonies.

What did Great Britain create in 1765 that put you on The Road to Revolution?

1. The Stamp Act

2. The Intolerable Acts

3. The Benny Hill Show

Summer Camp Tongue Twisters

Okay, so you’re twiddling your thumbs waiting for camp to start? Get to work on these tongue twisters so you can impress your camp-mates!

– A slippery slimy snake slithered in the sandy Sahara.

– A big black bear sat on a big black bug.

Now, make up your own! Here’s one I cooked up:

– The camp cook can’t keep kosher kugel cold.

Give a Little Bit


Last week, I watched as Adam, a preschooler at Temple Akiba in Culver City, handed a beanbag to Melissa. She was crying because she didn’t have one. He had two. In Parshat Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89), we are told that we must give one-tenth of our yearly income to the Levites. Can you tell me what percentage of his “property” Adam gave to Melissa?

Sometimes we think, “No way! I’m not giving part of my allowance to tzedakah.” Or, “Uh-uh! I wanna eat my whole lunch. I don’t care if Brandon forgot his today.” Chances are you don’t need it all. You just think it’s too valuable to give away to someone else. God teaches us: The portion you give away is much more valuable to God than the portion you keep. So, if you only have to give away 10 percent, how much do you get to keep?

Father’s Day

This Father’s Day, which falls on June 15, you will have a chance to appreciate the person who has taught you so much about life: how to share, how to ride a bicycle and how to take care of yourself. Show him how much you’ve learned: make him breakfast, clean up your dirty room and give him a big hug!

Wonderful


This is what happens in this week’s parsha. In Parshat Pekuday,
Moses gives the Israelites an accounting of how much gold, silver and copper
was contributed to build the mishkan (the Tabernacle that held the Ten
Commandments). This helps the Israelites to truly own the mishkan — it is their
own creation that they can now offer to God. Moses knew that doing the math
helped the Israelites feel good about their generosity.

March 8 is International Women’s Day!

The first National Woman’s Day was observed in the United
States in 1909. It became International Women’s Day in 1911, when European
women joined the movement to promote and protect the equal rights of women.
Only a few days later, the famous and tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire
occurred in New York. More than 140 working girls, mostly Italian and Jewish
immigrants, were killed. This spurred women around the world to join the
movement to improve women’s working conditions, salaries and participation in
politics. Women have come a long way since those days.