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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Commentary on Parshat Tzav

This week's torah portion is Tzav (Vayikra/Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36). In it the detailed descriptions of the various sacrifices to be offered continues. I would like to focus on one particular sacrifice and what we might learn from it today.

The final sacrifice mentioned in the parashah is the zevakh shelamim. This is usually translated as the "peace offering" or "good-will offering.” The word shelamim comes from the same root as shalom/peace and shalem/whole. One contemporary understanding of this sacrifice is as an offering of greeting. According to Baruch Levine and other scholars, it was a meal shared between the priests, the people who brought the offering and God. In other words, through sharing a sacred meal there was a connection being made between the people, the priests and the Divine. Not only was this a meal of greeting, but the sharing of the sacrificial animal could also bring a sense of peace and wholeness that was a direct result of feeling connected to God and community (as represented be the priests). The sharing of this sacrifice allowed the participants to experience, in a visceral way, the connection that exists between all human beings and remind us of the shelaimut/wholeness and achdut/oneness of existence.  And when the final portion of the sacrifice was offered on the altar to God, it was as if God was partaking of the sacrifice along with the priest and the worshipper.

I could not help but beginning comparing this to the Christian ritual of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. In this ritual, the worshipper partakes of the wafer and the wine that have been consecrated by the priest, minister or Officiant. In the Roman Catholic Church, the doctrine of transubstantiation states that the wine and wafer actually ‘become’ the body and blood of Jesus  (I.e., ‘the sacrifice’) when the priest consecrates it. In most other churches, they a representation of his body and blood. In either case, this is a ritual whereby a human being ingests divinity, or its representation.

I must admit that this ritual has always simultaneously intrigued and repelled me. I feel repelled because it seems anathema to the Jewish way of worship. I don’t think I can ever understand it’s true meaning for our Christian brothers and sisters. On the other hand, since in Judaism the actual sacrifice and the concomitant meal have been replaced with the more abstract concept of “prayer as sacrifice,” the idea of this physical ritual has always intrigued me as well.

In my understanding of the ritual of the Eucharist in the Roman Catholic Church (that with which I am most familiar) the sacred meal is also connected to achieving forgiveness for sin as well as connecting to the Divine. This occurs by believing that one is actually ingesting divinity into one’s body (I realize that I am not doing justice to the complexity of Christian theology, and I ask forgiveness from my Christian friends and colleagues for this).

However, in the ancient Israelite sacrificial system the idea of ingesting God, or even a representation of God, was indeed anathema. For our ancestors, the sacred meal consisted simply of the priest and the worshipper eating a meal together and symbolically sharing it with God. This meal consisted of ordinary meat from an ordinary, although unblemished, animal.  The meat was not made sacred or divine through any kind of blessing or ritual.  Rather, what made this ordinary meal extraordinary, was not the fact that it was “perfect” or that it was slaughtered, prepared and cooked by the priest.  Rather, what made this meal extraordinary was that it was being shared with God.  It was a reminder that, even though the priests had a different status in their society, and that God was beyond being human, all three entities shared something.  That something, represented by the sacrificial meal, is Oneness. Oneness in this case means that ultimately there is no separation or duality in existence. Oneness is at the heart of Kedushah/holiness that plays such a central role in Va’yikra/Leviticus and the entire Torah.

Eating a sacred meal does not make one any more or less holy, nor does the slaughter of the sacrifice by the priest (akin to the consecration of the wafer and wine by Christian clergy today) make the sacrifice holy. Rather, what makes the act and all the participants holy is the recognition of the deeper meaning, that we are all part of God. God is within us all, for we are all One within God.

Just as a fetus floating in a sea of amniotic fluid in a mother’s womb is part of the mother while still a distinct entity, so too are we floating in the sea of Godliness a part of God, yet distinct individuals. Of course, there is a major difference, since in Judaism the fetus is not viewed as an actual life, whereas we are human beings with personalities, character traits and, for better or worse, egos.

Yet, perhaps the sacrifice and the sacred meal are meant to remind us that in reality this is actually an illusion. Perhaps we are not complete on our own? We may believe (or our ego may trick us into believing) that we are self-sufficient. However, the necessity of eating the sacred meal – which is commanded – tells us something different. It tells us that without God we are not complete. Our independence is merely an illusion. This applies to all of us, including the priests. We do not need to ingest God in order to know this, for God is already within us for we are within God. Instead, in sharing the zevakh shelamim, the sacrifice of wholeness and completeness, we arer eminded that the connection to the Divine is our essence.  Without acknowledging that, we are like a fetus without the umbilical cord. We are surrounded and filled with God, and yet, unable to connect, we
are unable, spiritually, to survive.

However, we must also be cognizant of the fact that, while our ancestors were experiencing this through the sacred meal, God was also ‘partaking’ of the meal in the form of accepting the smoke of the sacrifice.  Can the message beneath this part of the ritual be that God is also incomplete without human beings? If we say this, aren’t we exhibiting the exact type of
egotistical hubris that we are supposed to be letting go of through this ritual? Perhaps.

God is Ehad/One, then God is whole and complete. Yet some, such as R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, z”l (may his memory be a blessing) might say that God needs us as well. as we need God.  However, as my friend and colleague R. Ethan Franzel pointed out to me, that is a concept that has been created by human beings. Perhaps we want to believe that God needs to be needed, just as we need to be needed. This is an idea that we find pleasing and comforting. Perhaps that is why, in the Torah, the authors refered to the aroma of the sacrifices as a rei’akh nikho’ah, or pleasing odor.

When all is said and one, the sacrificial meal and its replacement, the prayer service, are not meant to make God complete. Nor are they meant to make human beings complete. Rather, they are meant to remind human beings of the unity, wholeness and completeness that already exists. Oneness is the essence of existence. Through sacrifice in the past and prayer today, we are reminded of the truth that ‘God is One’ means that all is one withi God. We are all a part of the Divine flow of energy that sustains our universe.

Perhaps the need to have a physical reminder of this Oneness lay behind the development of the Eucharist as a central ritual in Christianity? I have not studied this enough to know. However, I do believe that within Judaism we have tried throughout the centuries to create an experience akin to sacrifice through which we can sense the Oneness at the heart of existence. Prayer as “sacrifice of the heart” as the early rabbis called it, was meant to be a spontaneous, passionate way of experience unity and wholeness.

The Kabbalists (mystics) and Hassidim tried to revive this sense of cleaving to the oneness of divinity through prayer, meditation, deeds of kindness and other “spiritual practices.” Today, we must take all that our tradition has provided for us and determine what works best for us so we can achieve the same goals. However, we also need to remember that the critera must not be objective, ego-centered ones such as “it feels good to me.” Rather, the main criterion is whether a particular practice enables us to experience the reality of Oneness, completeness and wholeness that we imagine our ancient ancestors felt as they shared a meal with God. This is not easy. Yet, if we simply let go and allow it ti happen, it is much simpler than we imagine. That is the truth.

Shabbat Shalom.

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