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Between the Ideal and the Real – Parshat Vayikra

Sefer Vayikra is a difficult book.  It lacks the stories and excitement found in Bereshit and Shemot.  It seems bereft of any big ideas or radical theology. In fact it could be argued it is altogether irrelevant to us today.  We are long past the age of the Mishkan and Mikdash.  Sacrificial duties seem almost abhorrent to our modern liberal sensibilities, and the intricate details listed depart radically from the tone and feel of the previous books of the Torah.

Yet the Gemara tells us that when teaching a child one should begin with Sefer Vayikra.  What is it that Vayikra has to teach us today?  There are many ideas on this, but I would like to focus on two that I believe Sefer Vayikra presents to us.  One is about the tension between the notions of ideal and real.  The other reflects on the Mishkan and sacrificial worship today, as expressed through prayer.

The Ideal and The Real: The debate between the medieval commentators

There is a radical disagreement on the chronology of the Mishkan between the two most prominent medieval commentators, Ramban and Rashi.  In order to understand the nature of the argument it is useful to look at the structure of the last part of the book of Shemot:

Parsha:                                    Content:

Terumah /Tezaveh        Command to build

Ki-Tisa                           Egel (Episode of the Golden Calf)

Vayakhel-Pekudei         Construction of the Mishkan

Ramban who understand the Torah to have been recorded in strict chronological order claims that the Mishkan was commanded before the Egel and built after the Egel exactly as the Torah describes.  He provides a beautiful commentary that parallels the Mishkan to Har Sinai, emphasising the role of the Mishkan as a continued day to day revelatory experience that allowed the people to re-live routinely the epiphany at Sinai.  The Mishkan for Ramban is God’s gift to the people; a perpetual experience of the Divine encounter in daily life. [1]

Rashi’s opinion of the Torah is that is it not necessarily written in strict chronological order, but rather in a thematic way.  Paragraphs and events are recorded as part of a thematic and theological message rather than exactly as they occurred.  Hence the Egel precedes both the command and the construction of the Mishkan.  Rashi’s belief is that the Mishkan was commanded only as a result of the people’s sin of the Golden Calf.   The Torah presents the Golden Calf in between the command and execution of the Mishkan in order to impart a theological message, but in reality it did not happen this way.[2]  Citing the repeated emphasis in vayakehel and pekudei on the Mishkan coming  ‘to atone for your soul’, he argues the sole purpose of the Mishkan was to atone for and ‘rectify’ the sin of the Egel.

For Ramban, the Mishkan and its sacrificial duties are commanded from an ideal viewpoint. God residing amongst His people as they journey to the land, the people’s awareness of and relationship to their God through the avoda  in the Mishkan is an ideal state of being.  To be in a constant state of revelation is the optimum existence for Ramban.[3] The Mishkan was in Halchaic terms lechatchila – a priori /ideal.

For Rashi, the Mishkan was never meant to be.  It was commanded only as a result of the people’s sin.  In acknowledging the frailty of the people, God allowed them to build a tabernacle, a physical tangible entity that they could relate to.  Rashi views the Mishkan as a bediaved – posteriori situation.  A concession to the people.

In an almost parallel debate Rambam (Maimonidies) and Ramban (Nachmonidies), discuss the purpose of the Korbanot – sacrifices.  Again we detect the underlying echoes of the ideal versus the reality. Whilst Ramban[4] views the sacrificial duties as an ideal state that is at the heart of any human encounter with God, as proved by early sacrificial worship such as Kayin and Noach,  Rambam argues that sacrificial worship lacks little intrinsic religious value and is merely a concessionary measure meant only to wean the people off idol worship.[5]

The tension between ideal and real is not new to Judaism, it is expressed many times throughout Tanach and history. Gan Eden, Yaakov stealing of the birthright, enslavement in Egypt.  At the centre of this debate lies a fundamental question about humankind – are we meant to live an ideal existence or a real one? Is the move away from sacrificial worship a move towards a more ideal reality or a move away from that ideal reality?  For Rambam, and more modern scholars such as Rav Kook, the Third Temple will not contain any animal sacrifices.[6] However for the majority of classic commentators such as Ramban, Sefer Hakuzari and others, a return to our days of old, a fully functioning, sacrifice wielding priesthood, is the fulfilment of our national hopes and dreams.

This tension continued throughout history.  In the famous story Rabbi Yochana Ben Zakai, during the siege on Jerusalem, escaped through hiding in a coffin in order to go and talk to Vespasian, a Roman military commander.[7]  Though others were still hoping and dreaming that God would save them miraculously and redemption would come, Rabbi Yochana Ben Zakai was a realist.  He recognised that destruction was imminent and though ideally he would have wanted to save Jerusalem  he knew this would be an impossibility, so instead he requested Yavneh to house the Sanhedrin and its sages.  He came under a lot of criticism for this.  If he could have requested anything (which he could have since he predicted Vespasian’s rise to power), why did he not request Jerusalem.  The simple answer is because he was a pragmatist.  He recognised reality for what it was, and he knew that he must concede defeat, yet not totally give up.  He needed to keep something that would allow the people to rebuild themselves after total destruction.  Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai was a leader who predicted that Judaism at that point in history needed adaptive leadership and pragmatic management in order to pull them through this catastrophe.  Like God teaches us in Vayikra, reality is not ideal, people don’t always live up to their potential and yet we must adapt accordingly whilst simultaneously continuing to dream the dream.  Likewise today with the wondrous State of Israel.  It is nowhere close to ideal, it is replete with both internal and external troubles that seem unsolvable.  It would be very easy for us to give up.  However our belief in a better state, a brighter future, and an ideal reality keeps us going.  Whilst facing our problems head on and dealing with the reality we are exposed to, we continue to hold the dream in our hand.

Judaism has survived precisely because it has adapted itself to its circumstances.  God teaches us this in Sefer Vayikra.  The tension between the ideal and real, though expressed through the sages, is inherent in the Torah.  The people are not in an ‘ideal’ frame of mind, they have not become the free thinking, independently minded, creatively innovative nation that God wanted them to be….yet.  And so God concedes to their frailty, gives them more tools to build a society where the centrality of God and giving of themselves is paramount.[8]  He teaches them that even when reality is not as one wishes it to be, we must, through continued focus on details of law and sacrificial duties, build a better world.  Sefer Vayikra is not just a book about the mundane details of sacrifices. It is a vision for a people by their God.  It is a lesson in relationships. It is God’s gift to man – the detailed instruction of how to approach God and make Him present in our lives through repentance, gratitude and daily worship.[9]  In those days it was through offerings today it is through prayer, but both are means by which we sense deeply our aspirations for a better world.  In accepting our human weaknesses through declaring our sins in prayer, or offering up a sacrifice, we are accepting the tension between the ideal and the real.  In adhering to the obligation of the daily sacrifices and today the discipline of the daily prayers, man acknowledges the imperative to face God, even when he may not want to, even when his reality is not ideal and his relationship towards the Almighty is strained.   Any relationship with a Divine being requires an infinite amount of devotion, detailed boundaries and frameworks and perhaps most important acute awareness.  These three things are the backbone to Sefer Vayikra and the Mishkan.  The people devoted themselves unconditionally to creating a home for God amongst them.  The worship required of them had to be done in a strict and meticulous manner.  The laws, details of what animal maybe bought and how they must be bought, as well as who can bring it, required an acute awareness on the part of the people and priests that they are worshipping an Almighty power.  The message of the Mishkan  is to create a space for God even in an imperfect world.  To allow God into our lives is to start the process towards fulfilling our dreams of the ideal.

Prayer and Sacrifices: Between ideal and Real

This tension between Rashi’s and Ramban’s view on the Mishkan is also at the heart of prayer.  Prayer is meant to be both a revelatory moment where we encounter God and his awesomeness and envision an ideal reality as per Ramban.   But equally it is the moment we stand exposed before God attesting to our human frailty, understanding the pain and disappointment inherent in living, per Rashi.  In prayer we combine the real and the ideal, the indivudal failings with the redemptive aspirations.  David Hartman expresses this tension beautifully:

Philosophy paves the way for the highest stage of worship of God.  In reflecting on the universe and in enjoying the orderly casual patterns of nature, one is not simply studying physics.  This reflective experience is filled with the passion and joy of a God intoxicated lover who seeks to be claimed exclusively by the manifestation of the divine reality in the causal order of the world….when the objective reality of God takes hold of the mind, one is freed from relating to God out of any sense of deprivation.  In joyfully appreciating and accepting the orderly patterns that reflect God and nature, one transcends modes of worship that centre of expecting God to transform the given condition of human nature and society.   One makes contact with God out of the given and not out of the framework of anticipation. [10]

Direct and Indirect communication:

With the destruction of the temple the rabbis instituted prayer as an alternative to the sacrificial service.[11]  This was not an easy transition both logistically but more significantly theologically.  With the destruction of the Temple, God no longer was present in a manifest way.[12]  In the past, with the acceptance of the offerings, the people knew almost immediately if they were forgiven or not, if God had found favour in their offering or not.  Prayer offered none of this immediacy.  There was no direct response to man’s supplications and very rarely would man know if his prayers and requests had been granted.  Sacrifices were for a time of direct relationship between man and God.  Prayer is for a time of indirect communication between man and God.  For the people to become accustomed to this new reality was not an easy task.  Yirmiyahu, who prophesised before and after the people’s expulsion from their land, after the destruction of the First Temple, expressed this reality in his message to the people in Exile.  Noting the fact that the people no longer have a direct means of communicating with Him, God says:

.  יב וּקְרָאתֶם אֹתִי וַהֲלַכְתֶּם, וְהִתְפַּלַּלְתֶּם אֵלָי; וְשָׁמַעְתִּי, אֲלֵיכֶם. יג וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם אֹתִי, וּמְצָאתֶם:  כִּי תִדְרְשֻׁנִי, בְּכָל-לְבַבְכֶם.

12 And ye shall call upon Me, and go, and pray unto Me, and I will hearken unto you. 13 And ye shall seek Me, and find Me, when ye shall search for Me with all your heart. (Yirmiyahu 29)

‘You will pray to me and I will hear you’.  Your prayers, even if they may not be noticeably answered are being heard. The transition from sacrifices to prayer, is a transition from a world of clarity to a world of ambiguity, from a God centered reality to a man centered reality.  There is no foci for God any longer, He is where we let Him in.  To draw on Hartman again, he explains the institution of prayer by the Rabbis, as a refusal by man to ‘acquiesce’ to God’s apparent withdrawal:

The men of the Great Assembly’s refusal to allow the absence of God’s revelatory word to be a permanent feature of history, their refusal to acquiesce in God’s silence in history, speaks volumes for their felt sense of dignity and their awareness that they were playing an essential role in maintaining the ongoing intimacy and dialogue between God and Israel…..They refused to admit the possibility that with the end of prophecy, the passionate intimate dialogue between God and Israel had to come to an end.  If God stops speaking to Israel through prophets its time for human beings to take the lead in the dialogue between God and Israel…..prayer reflects the activist spirit of the covenantal community which insists on maintaining a continuous intimate dialogue with God.[13]

It is up to us to adopt the messages of the Mishkan, the Mikdash and sacrifices by reimagining our relationship to God using the tools He gave us.  We need to be pragmatic, adapting our reality in a creative, dynamic and innovative way.

Whether the post Mikdash/sacrificial  era is a move towards a more ideal reality or not, is a debate that continues amongst Jewish thinkers.  However one thing we do know is that unlike our Christian counterparts whose Messiah has already come, we are in a perpetual state of anticipation for ours.   In Gemara Shabbat 31a we are told that one of the things we will be asked when we reach the world to come is ‘Did you anticipate the coming of the Meshiach’.  The question is not one of dogma, less of a passive belief,.  What the rabbis are conveying is a fundamental principle of the Jewish psyche, one that begins with the building of the Mishkan.  It is the belief that an ideal world can exits and we can make it happen.  Sefer Vayikra teaches us that we are never to give up on fighting for the ideal, but simultaneously we are to ensure we are aware of the realities we face and not shy away from what needs to be done.[14]  It teaches us that when God is at the centre of the nation, and we are adhering to His detailed instruction, the world is our oyster.  It imbues us, as His people, with a sense of Godliness and responsibility to His law, that will strengthen us from within to overcome anything history throws our way.  As Herzl famously said ‘If you will it, it is no dream’, dream the ideal but live the real.


[1] See Ramban on Shemot 35:1 and 25:2

[2] See Rashi shemot 31:18

[3] Ramban was a kabbalist and hence this is consistent with his approach to the ideal way of living.

[4] See his commentary on Vayikra1:9

[5] Maimonidies: Guide to the Perplexed 3:32 . For a comprehensive discussion of this topic see Nehama Leibowitz Studies in Vayikra.

[6] See Rav Kook in commentary to the siddur and Pinkasay HaRe’iyah, volume 1.

[7] Gemara Menachot 65a and Gittin 56b

[8] Note that the entire book of Bamidbar is a lesson in the tension between ideal and real.  God wants the people to enter the land, yet ultimately they are not ready.  He concedes to their inability to become independent by waiting for forty years until the next generation are ready to enter.  Moreover the ‘ideal’ miraculous way of entering the land, is given up for a more ‘real’ approach of human battle. The tension between ideal and real and what really is ‘ideal’ is manifest throughout this book. We will address this again when discussing Bamidbar.

[9] The various sacrifices are all different ways of relating to God, Sin offerings, Thanksgiving offerings and daily mincha offering

[10] David Hartman: A Living Covenant p178

[11] Avot De Rabbi Natan 4

[12] Although by the second temple period this transition from a revealing to hidden God had already begun, it was felt in its entirety after the destruction of the second temple.

[13] David Hartman: A Living Covenant p136

[14] Hence combining the Rashi and Ramban argument.  We need to retain our vision of Har Sinai – revelation, but at the same time recognising the need to face reality.

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