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Friday, May 8, 2009

Parashat Emor - the haftara

Emor - the Haftara
Ezekiel 44:15-31
Reading date: 9th May 2009 – 15th Iyyar 5769

Our Highlighted Haftara Text
"Now the levitical priests descended from Zadok, who maintained the service of My Sanctuary when the people of Israel went astray from Me- they shall approach Me to Minister to Me; they shall stand before Me to offer Me fat and blood-- declares the Lord Adonai." Ezekiel 44:15

Judaism is an evolving, historical conversation between humanity and the Divine.
This week's parasha Emor begins with the laws concerning the priesthood and the restrictions and limitations that govern a priest's behavior. The parasha also contains a list of the biblical holy days. The parasha concludes with a brief, enigmatic story about a blasphemer, and the famous 'eye for an eye' law (lex talionis) law is repeated (see also Ex. 21:23 and Deut. 19:21).
Normally Ezekiel uses vivid imagery and metaphors (the famous passage: the valley of the dry bones, for example, is read on Passover) and he often describes complex mystical visions of chariots and cherubs. Here however, while Ezekiel envisions a time when the Temple will be restored, the haftara sounds more like Torah (with an almost mundane description of their activities and clothing, and rules about their conduct) than the typical prophetic passage.

The prophet Ezekiel lived during the destruction of the First Temple at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar (586 BCE) and was exiled to Babylonia. In the first half of the book of Ezekiel, the prophet warns of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem; in the latter half, he preaches a message of consolation and restoration. While Ezekiel still had hope that the Northern Kingdom would be restored and then united, in fact, this prophecy did not come to pass. The Northern Kingdom conquered by the Assyrians over a hundred years earlier (722 BCE), have disappeared from history, notwithstanding the fairly discredited attempts to identify various ethnic groups with the missing 'Ten Lost Tribes.'

The bulk of the book of Leviticus is about sacrificial offerings (korbanot) and the priesthood. And those of us who need to write about Leviticus always struggle with the topic. Do we turn it into a metaphor or treat it as "ambivalent historic memory- a 'we used to find meaning' kind of thing?" Or do we find some other topic that is mentioned parenthetically? For example, this week I could talk about the role of hair in society (the priest needed to keep his hair trimmed and tidy, or the Cohen's clothing (a linen-wool blend forbidden to lay people, called 'sha'atnez').

But if I don't want to avoid the issue, the real question that Ezekiel's description of the rebuilt Temple prompts is, do we want the Third Temple rebuilt, and should we? Many of the prophets who lived after the destruction of King Solomon's Temple believed that the Temple would be rebuilt, and their words were consolation to the exiles. The return to Zion and the rebuilding of the Temple were often mentioned together, and while the former has come true in our lifetime, the latter has not. There are serious political and pragmatic difficulties with building the Third Temple on the site of the present Al Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock!

But not everyone thinks this is just poetry. Undeterred by the physical and historical realities, today there exist (Jewish and Christian) zealous messianic groups (such as the Temple Mount Faithful in Jerusalem) that are actively preparing for the day (coming soon, we hope) when the Temple will be restored, and the Temple service, as described by the Torah and Ezekiel will be reinstituted. They are busy building the artifacts for the Temple so we'll be ready, and even though they are basing their efforts on the Torah's descriptions, there are technical terms whose meaning scholars do not understand, materials we do not have, and measurements that we are not sure of. (The fact that Ezekiel's regulations contradicts with the Torah's version is problematic, but a separate issue).

And in case you think praying for the sacrifices is only for extremists, even your not so radical, average, moderate, modern Jew prays for the restoration of the Temple every day.
According to the Rabbis, after the destruction of the Temple, prayer (avodah shebalev- the service of the heart) replaces the sacrifices. But the question is: does it permanently replace it (a la Maimonides) or is it a temporary substitute while we nostalgically remember the incense and the blood on the altar. Many rabbis use the 'gradual approach': the Israelites were accustomed to pagan practice and weren't yet sophisticated enough to understand abstract prayer so YHVH instituted korbanot as a 'concession'. Some use this same argument, for example, to suggest that the laws of Kashrut are really to wean us from meat, a kind of proto-vegetarianism. Others disagree: if YHVH had wanted us to pray- He would have commanded prayer. After all, there exist plenty of mitzvot that are hard to understand or difficult to perform. There is a secret spiritual component to the sacrifices that is now lost to us in the post-sacrificial reality (Ramban). Only because the Temple was destroyed do we pray today without the sacrifices. I think even Maimonides would have to admit, that if the Temple hadn't been destroyed, Judaism would still offer burnt offerings like the Samaritans (a group that split off from Judaism in the 4th century BCE.

Leviticus is about sacrifices, but what we believe about the sacrifices and the Temple cuts to the core of faith. Since YHVH doesn't change, and His Word doesn't change, some would like their walk to not change either. But history marches on, and hopefully our understanding matures. Either the earlier version of is perfect and shouldn't change, or it is an evolving, historical conversation between humanity and the Almighty.

Shabbat Shalom

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