In New Hampshire, not far from where my father currently lives, is the house my family lived in when I was a child. Walking down the road, kicking a stone, I slow my stride to peer down the driveway. The windows look dark, as if no one lives there. It’s still the same color it used to be, as if it’s still ours.
In the novel “Daniel Deronda,” George Eliot wrote that a human’s life should be “well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth.” For me, that place is this house at the end of the driveway. But that was a long time ago.
I’m here in town for Pesach, which will be celebrated this year with fewer than five people at the table. The weight of time — both that of the last year and also that of all those other years separating now from then — is heavy on my shoulders. I look away and keep walking.
When I get back to my father’s house, I take up my place in my favorite rocking chair and open my Tanakh to study Parashat Tzav. With alternating boredom and intrigue, I study the procedures of the Temple Service: how animal sacrifices are to be brought to the priests in order to atone for sin or commemorate blessing.
According to Rabbi Ishmael, the Temple Service was ultimately for humans and not for God. God didn’t need our sacrifices, but He indulged us by accepting them. According to Maimonides, the Temple Service was merely God’s way of weening the Israelites off idolatrous practices as they became accustomed to a more enlightened and elevated form of religion.
Against this rationalist view of the Temple service, however, there exists a parallel stream of thought. Opposing Rabbi Ishmael was Rabbi Akiva, who saw the Temple as the purest embodiment of God’s majesty and presence. Opposing Maimonides was Nahmanides, who believed that the sacrifices had profound mystical significance.
In looking at Parashat Tzav first through one of these lenses and then through the other, two radically different images come into view. The Ishmaelian/Maimonidean lens reveals an historic portrait: a depiction of the ways things used to be before times changed and before we knew better. The Akivan/Nahmanideal lens, by contrast, shows a utopic portrait: a depiction of the way things used to be and will be again (if only we are worthy).
I find myself torn between these viewpoints. The destruction of the Temple, which began our people’s exile, was a great tragedy, but it initiated a period of intellectual, cultural and spiritual expansion for the Jewish people. It allowed us to grow up and become who we are.
On the other hand, there is something alluring about that long gone era, when Jewish life was rooted to land, when worship was embodied, when we were innocent enough to believe that God had a house.
There is something alluring about that long gone era.
As the midrashists like to ask: to what can this thing be compared? The answer: to the home one grew up in — to those parcels of “native land” that formed us and then cast us out.
Each time I pass our old house, I can’t help but stop and loiter. I stare through the windows and try to conjure in my mind’s eye the exact details of that unseen interior and the life that was lived there.
Is this what we’re doing when we study Parashat Tzav — peering in through the windows of an old childhood home? If so, what do we see?
A truth forgotten.
A cherished illusion.
A place of wholeness that held us when we were whole.
Matthew Schultz is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (2020). He is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.