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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Parashat Vayikra - the Haftara

Parashat Vayikra – the Haftara
Isaiah 43:21 – 44:23
Reading date: 28th March 2009 – 3rd Nisan 5769

Our highlighted Haftara text
But you have not worshipped Me, O Jacob,That you should not be weary of Me, O Israel.You have not brought Me your sheep for burnt offerings,Nor honored Me with your sacrifices.I have not burdened you with grain offerings,Nor wearied you about frankincense.You have not brought Me fragrant reed with money,Nor sated Me with the fat of your sacrifices.... Isaiah 43: 22-24

Can we infuse our worship today with the passion and drama of the sacrifices?

We begin the third book of the Torah with Leviticus, or Vayikra. This book deals largely with the details of the Levitical order: sacrifices and laws of impurity. It is often noted that these texts are challenging for the modern reader. Some conservatives comment that: "Leviticus is a difficult book for a modern person to read with reverence and appreciation. Its main subject matter -- animal offerings and ritual impurity seems remote from contemporary concerns." (Etz Hayyim, USCJ). Because our focus this year is on the prophets, many who lived after the destruction of the first Temple (586 BCE), we can already begin to see a new relationship to sacrifice and worship. Furthermore, the haftara portions themselves were chosen by the Rabbis, who lived after the destruction of the second Temple (70 CE), and although they may have imagined (or even hoped for) the restoration of the Temple and the sacrifices, were dealing with a new reality: the worship of YHVH without the sacrificial order. The haftara taken from Isaiah reminds the Israelites of their past transgressions, but ends with the promise that YHVH will remember them and redeem them.

Scholars identify this 'deutero-Isaiah' (from chapters 40 on) as a different author from the Isaiah ben Amotz identified in Isaiah 1:1. The 'Second Isaiah' preached in Babylonia in the sixth century BCE and brought a message of consolation to Israelites who had been captured and exiled. Here, Isaiah reminds the Israelites that YHVH still remembers them and will redeem them. The exiles in Babylonia were allowed to return under Cyrus (around 538 BCE) but many remained in Babylonia.

Following the last several weeks of architectural detail and the construction of the portable sanctuary of the Mishkan, we now turn to the service of the priests. When the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the sacrificial order ended and was replaced with prayer. Today, prayer is mostly seen as a higher form of worship, (although the restoration of sacrifices is still included in the Orthodox liturgy. There is a small extremist group in Jerusalem who are actively working on rebuilding the Third Temple, although many understand the Third Temple largely in messianic (read mythic) terms). There are some opinions that suggest that when the Messiah comes, the sacrificial system will not be reinstituted (see below). Still, we must ask what the purpose of the sacrifices was. The Torah rejects the pagan notion of sacrifices 'feeding' a god even though vestiges of idiomatic expressions such as 'My food' and 'My table' can be found. And even in the ancient world, sacrifices may have served many different purposes: communion, gift, bargain, homage, purification and others.

While YHVH doesn't need sacrifices, people do: Yalkut Me'am Lo'az suggests five different reasons for sacrifices:
1. to arouse repentance 2. to support the priests 3. to serve as a 'redemption' for sinning 4. to 'shock' the viewer by witnessing the slaughter/burning 5. to examine their life/actions to prevent the worship of these animals as idols.

Many are put off by the description of burnt offerings and the laws of purity, so how are we to deal with Leviticus today? Uncomfortable with the notion of animal sacrifices, some either treat the opening chapters of Leviticus as 'historical memory': 'This is what we used to believe" or try to read the whole text as a metaphor for what 'sacrifices' we need to make in our lives. Earlier commentators, too, were uncomfortable with the Torah's emphasis on animal sacrifices, and some re-interpret the entire book of Leviticus allegorically.

Liberals tend to agree with the many rabbis (including Maimonides) who understood the sacrificial system as merely a stop gap measure to wean the Israelites from idolatry (learned in Egypt) and of the need for physical forms of worship. "It is impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other; the nature of people will not allow them suddenly to discontinue everything to which they have been accustomed." (As a physician, Maimonides understood that it is difficult to go 'cold turkey.' One has to make gradual changes.) Abravanel even suggests that sacrifices were only instituted as a response to the Israelites' sin of the Golden Calf. Ramban (Nachmanides) strongly disagrees with such attempts that render the korbanot (sacrifices) the realm of a temporary exigency born out of a regrettable situation. The implication that korbanot do not belong to the realm of the ideal is rejected by those who still pray for the restoration of the Temple and the sacrificial service.

Certainly the prophets can be cited (and were used by the early Reformers, in fact) to argue that YHVH doesn't want sacrifices altogether (I Sam. 15:22; Hosea 6:6, Amos 5:21, Isaiah 1:11, Jer. 7:20 and others). However, none of these texts was chosen by the Rabbis for the Haftara. In fact, Isaiah reports YHVH's complaint that the Israelites have not brought sacrifices or offered incense. Instead, they fashioned idols out of metal and wood in vain. Do they not see the folly of their actions? They take some wood to build a fire to warm themselves and to bake bread, while simultaneously making an idol out of the same wood, and worshipping it.

Even with all our technology and sophistication, it seems that we still require tangible symbols and concrete rituals. People want their relationship with YHVH to have a physical component; something that they can see and touch. Hence there has been a return to traditional prayer garments (tallit and kippah) that originally were either too abstract and too intellectual. But today's worship remains relatively reserved and detached compared to what the Temple sacrificial service must have felt like. Like Isaiah's listeners, we too no longer have access to the Temple's service, and must bring the offerings of our hearts. If YHVH doesn't need our sacrifices, our Torah portion regarding sacrifices is about what we really want, while the haftara from Isaiah details what YHVH truly wants: our sincere return to YHVH's service. But can we infuse our worship today with the passion and drama that our ancestors felt bringing their bleating (and bleeding) animals to the golden altar?

Shabbat Shalom

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