Animal Sacrifices and the Daily Prayers
Rabbi David Zauderer
This week's Torah portion, Parshas Vayikra, kicks off the Third Book of the Five Books of Moses - The Book of Leviticus - and primarily deals with the Korbanos, or ritual sacrifices, that the Jewish people were commanded to offer to God in the Sanctuary.
Now the idea of animal sacrifices might seem repugnant to us progressive moderns of today, and perhaps rightly so. The sacrificial system would be brutal and barbaric unless administered in an atmosphere filled with holiness and dedication to God, where its full spiritual and mystical nature is thoroughly appreciated.
Therefore, only a nation of the highest moral and spiritual caliber could be worthy of offering sacrifices to God.
When the Jewish people no longer maintained this high standard, the sacrificial system was abolished by God through the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 3830 (70 CE). And, as is reflected in our daily prayers where we ask of God, "Please, God, restore the Service to Your Holy Temple" - we long for a time when the Third Temple will be rebuilt, and we will once again return to the sacrificial system - only then we will be on a level where we will be able to understand and appreciate it.
Yet though it is true that we presently have no Holy Temple and no ritual sacrifices to speak of, it is nonetheless worth our time to delve into the laws and concepts involved in the sacrificial system, as they can help us gain greater insight into their modern-day replacement - the Daily Prayers.
You see, we are taught in the Talmud (Tractate Berachot 6b) that Tefillah (prayer) is considered the service of God similar to the sacrifices of the Holy Temple. Just as the sacrifices served to help man come to the realization of his true essence and to return to himself and to God, so, too, does prayer connect man with his inner self, drawing him closer to the true needs and yearnings of his own soul and to God.
It is for this reason that, when it is impossible to bring sacrifices, as is the case today when the Holy Temple in Jerusalem has not yet been rebuilt, prayer can be offered in their stead, as the prophet exclaimed, "We will offer the words of our lips instead of claves" (Hosea 14:3). Thus, formal prayers were ordained by the Men of the Great Assembly in place of the regular daily sacrifices performed in the Temple in Jerusalem - which themselves were accompanied by prayer and song. Moreover, the prayer of a sincere heart is far better than any sacrifice, as King David wrote, "I will praise the name of God with a song, I will exalt Him with thanksgiving, and it shall please God more than the offering of a bullock" (Psalms 69:31-32).
[In fact, since our prayers of today are a "substitute" for the sacrifices of ancient times, many of the laws of Tefillah mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch (the authoritative Code of Jewish Law written by R. Joseph Karo of Tzefas in the 1600's and followed by traditional Jews till today) derive from the laws of the ritual sacrifices - as spelled out in the Torah. For example, the Torah states (Leviticus 7:18) that it is forbidden to eat a korban that has become pigul (unfit). If the Kohein was thinking an improper thought at the time he was sacrificing the korban, it becomes pigul. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 98:4) writes that since our prayers are in place of the Korbanos, we must be careful not to allow an improper thought to cross our minds while praying, as it will invalidate the tefillah in the same way that it made the sacrifice pigul. The Shulchan Aruch continues to explain that we should be standing and have a makom kavua (fixed place) for tefillah, just as the Kohein (priest) prepared the korban while standing in a fixed place. It is also fitting for everyone to wear refined and appropriate clothing while praying to God in the synagogue, just as the priests would wear special garments when they offered the sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem.]
So we see that the daily prayers that our Sages instituted and formalized almost 2000 years ago are really a "Korban copy" of the sacrifices of Temple times, and, as such, must contain within them the essence and basic elements of the ritual offerings that were once offered to God.
Let's examine one aspect of the sacrificial system that is recorded in the beginning of this week's Torah portion, and that will hopefully give us greater insight into the essence of Tefillah - its modern-day parallel.
"RELIGIOUS COERCION" AND THE DAILY PRAYERS
When discussing the laws of a person who vows to bring a Korban Olah - an "elevation-offering" - to God, the Torah writes the following: "El pesach Ohel Mo'ed yakriv oso l'retzono lifnei Hashem ... He must bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, voluntarily, before God" (Leviticus 1:3).
The contradiction in this verse is quite obvious. The verse starts off with a commandment, an imperative - "yakriv oso . He must bring it [the offering]", yet it concludes by stating that the Korban has to be brought "l'retzono . voluntarily", expressing an act of one's own inner will.
Rashi quotes the Talmud in Rosh Hashanah 6a which reconciles the two parts of the verse and explains that if one is required to bring an offering but refuses to do so, the Beis Din (Rabbinical court) may coerce him until he expresses his willingness.
Now, let me ask you ... how are to we understand that?! The court twists the guy's arm until he screams, "Okay, I'll bring the stupid sacrifice .. just let go of my arm!" - and this is called voluntary??
If you think about it, this same contradiction exists with regard to the Tefillah/Daily Prayers that the Sages of old instituted as a replacement for the sacrifices.
I mean, we are taught in the Talmud that the essence of Tefillah is Avodah Shebeleiv - "Service of the Heart" - which implies that prayer is supposed to be an emotional outpouring and expression of our heart's sincere yearning and longing to draw closer to God.
And yet, when we take a look at the institution of the Daily Prayers as a whole, a totally different picture emerges - one in which everything seems to be regulated, and definitely not from the heart. The Rabbis obligated every Jew to pray to God on a daily basis. And they also instituted a formal version of the Shemoneh Esrei/Silent Prayer for all Jews to say as they stand in prayer before their Father in Heaven. Prayers must be held in a synagogue, and should be said with a minyan (quorum) of ten Jews present.
It's almost like the Rabbis are "forcing" us to pray from our hearts - "Here, take this Prayer Book in your hands, go into the shul, and tell God how much you really want Him to help you gain wisdom, forgiveness, sustenance, and whatever else we wrote in there for you to ask of Him". That's not "service of the heart" . That's religious coercion!
"IF YOU'LL BE THERE, IT WILL COME"
We can attempt to resolve this apparent paradox with the help of a fascinating insight found in the commentary of the Chasam Sofer (R. Moshe Sofer, Chief Rabbi and leader of Hungarian Jewry in the mid-19th century) to the abovementioned verse:
The Chasam Sofer writes about a Jew who is living in a small farming village, far away from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where he is involved most of the day in material and mundane pursuits. Such a Jew thinks that all he really wants in this world is to have more money and to experience more physical pleasure that's pretty much all that he's been exposed to. And even if someone were to point out to him the beauty of the Torah and the amazing spirituality that one can attain through the bringing of Korbanos in the Temple, the farmer would not be able to relate to it since he is forever being distracted by all the materialism that surrounds him and consumes his life.
But if we were to take this very same farmer and bring him (screaming and kicking the whole way) to Jerusalem, where he would be exposed to all the great Tzaddikim (righteous individuals) and Torah scholars who fill the Holy City and who spend their time learning Torah and growing spiritually, and whose faces shine with the radiance of one who knows what life is really all about - he would start to realize that what he thought was important isn't really that important at all, and that the pursuit of Godliness and spiritual refinement of character is the real goal of life.
And if we were then to take this farmer into the Temple itself, where he would see the Kohanim in all their regal splendor performing the Holy Service, and where he would be able to sense and feel the palpable holiness of God's Shechinah (Divine Presence) that literally permeated the whole of the Temple - he would surely have an incredible yearning to offer up his own personal sacrifice in an attempt to draw even closer to God.
Thus, explains the Chasam Sofer, the Torah is telling us as follows: "El pesach Ohel Mo'ed yakriv oso ... to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting he must bring it" - i.e. until this Jew who vowed to bring a Korban has reached the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and has not yet been exposed to the beauty of the spiritual world, he must bring the sacrifice with him, and should he refuse, the Beis Din can coerce him. And the reason why we take the liberty of forcing him into bringing his offering is because "l'retzono lifnei Hashem .. voluntarily, before God" - i.e. we are convinced that when he is already standing before God in the spiritually-uplifting atmosphere of the Holy Temple, he will gladly offer his sacrifice voluntarily.
This, I believe, is the key to understanding how Tefillah works as well. Like the farmer in the story, we spend most of our day involved in material and this-worldly pursuits, and this serves to distract us from what it is that our souls truly need and yearn for. So we think that what we really want and need in life is this luxury and that vacation and this materialistic pleasure etc.
But the Rabbis who understood our own neshamot (souls) better than we do, took the liberty of "obligating" and "coercing" us into standing before God in the synagogue each day, and praying to Him with the words of the Shemoneh Esrei/Silent Prayer that they themselves chose for us to say. And they did this because the rabbis were confident that once the Jew enters the sanctity of the synagogue, and is no longer distracted by the materialism and physicality of the world outside, and he begins to read from the Siddur (Prayer Book) and to ask God for all those things that the Sages included in the formal version of the prayers - things like wisdom and insight, the ability to repent and start over, forgiveness for past misdeeds, the coming of the utopian Messianic Era, the restoration of the Temple Service in Jerusalem, etc. - he will quickly recognize that these are the things that he really needs and that truly count in life, and that all the other stuff is really unimportant. At that point he will gladly and voluntarily offer this prayer up to God - a true "service of the heart".
SYNAGOGUES FLOWING WITH LEAVEN AND HONEY
Well, at least that's the way things ought to be when we enter the synagogue and begin to pray. Unfortunately, things today don't seem to be working out exactly as the Rabbis had planned them.
You see, there is another law regarding the ritual sacrifices mentioned in this week's Torah portion that I forgot to mention - a law that tells us a lot about how we are to serve God when we bring our Korbanos to Him, or, for that matter, when we stand before Him in prayer in the synagogue.
In Leviticus 2:11, the Torah commands us: "You shall not cause to go up in smoke from any leavening or fruit-honey as a fire-offering to God". In other words, there is a Biblical prohibition against offering either leaven (se'or) or fruit-honey (devash) as a Korban to God.
The commentaries explain the symbolism of this prohibition as follows: Since the essence of the ritual sacrifices, as we mentioned earlier, is to come to a realization of who we are and what our souls really want in this world, we should refrain from offering any se'or, or leavening agent, whose entire purpose is to inflate the dough with air pockets, distorting the dough's true essence and giving it a façade of being more than it truly is. Nor should we offer any devash, or sweet honey, representing an obsession with the pursuit of physical pleasures that can only serve to distract us from focusing on our true needs.
Since prayer today replaces the sacrifices of Temple times, it follows that our prayer experience in the synagogue should also be leaven and honey-free. (We've all heard of smoke-free and peanut-free buildings .. But leaven and honey-free?!) This means that there should be no distractions in the synagogue that would hinder our ability to focus on our prayers and on all those spiritual things that we now realize that we truly want in this world.
The problem today is that we have brought a little too much leaven and honey into the synagogue. Whereas once upon a time it was understood by even the most ignorant Jew that the focal point of the entire prayer service was the Shemoneh Esrei/Silent Prayer, when a Jew places the Tallis (prayer shawl) over his head and spends some quality time talking with God and focusing on what his neshamah really needs and yearns for - today, much of the focus of our prayers is on the stuff that is done outwardly and in public, like the singing at the Reading of the Torah and at the end of the services or the public chanting of the Haftarah. And anything done publicly is in danger of having some "leaven" in it - we might be focusing on what the people around us are thinking about us as we stand up there at the bimah, which may cause us to present a façade of being something different than what we truly are. And that's the exact opposite of what prayer was meant to be.
And whereas in the old days one could enter a synagogue and feel like he was now removed from all the "honey" and materialism of the world outside, affording him the chance to focus on things spiritual - today, our shuls are flowing with honey, and the distractions caused by all the materialism and obsession with fashion and physicality that is so prevalent even in the Sanctuary, make it nearly impossible to pray in the way that could make it effective.
Now I am not advocating that we ban public chanting in the synagogue, God forbid, or that everyone come to the synagogue dressed in clothing purchased at K-mart! But what is important for all of us to realize is that prayer today, just like its ancient predecessor - the sacrificial system, can only work when it is done in the right atmosphere and with the proper focus. And if we can remember that the next time we enter the synagogue to pray to God, and we can try to remove ourselves for a few minutes from whatever else is going on outside in order to focus on who we are and what we really want in life, then we will have strengthened our connection to our true selves, and, ultimately, to our Father in Heaven.
Rabbi David Zauderer, formerly of Atlanta, writes from Toronto.
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