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Sefer Vayikra: Between the Real and the Ideal: Reflecting on the last few weeks

Updated: Jul 30, 2023

Ramban and Rashi disagree on the chronological placement of the Mishkan (tabernacle) narratives in the Torah. At the heart of their disagreement sits a central theological question: Is the continual revelation of the Divine an ideal or non-ideal reality.

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. 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 and the reality of the situation.

In a parallel debate Rambam (Maimonidies) and Ramban (Nachmonidies), discuss the purpose of the Korbanot - sacrifices. Ramban views the sacrificial duties as an ideal mode of worship. 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. 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. 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.

In many ways Judaism is a religion whose ethos echoes both the ideal and the real. Our eschatological vision comprises a hope and optimism that we will one day reach a time of universal peace, and religious harmony – an ideal reality. And yet throughout our tumultuous history there have been moments where we had to choose a pragmatic path of survival over the dream of an ideal reality. A classic example is when at the time of the Destruction of the Temple Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai requests from Vespasian Yavneh instead of Jerusalem. 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.

Judaism has survived precisely because it has adapted itself to its circumstances. God teaches us this lesson through the command to build the Mishkan and the sacrificial duties. In those days it was offerings, today through prayer, but both are means by which we sense a heartfelt aspiration 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.

Today on the heels of an exceedingly difficult few weeks here in Israel, we must ask ourselves once again how we navigate the narrow chasm between the ideal and the real? We would do well to recount to the current torah readings of Vayikra. From time immemorial the people of Israel have lived torn between the destructive forces of their own making, and the ideal vision of their Divine partner. The Mishkan narratives teach us that there is a place for human folly, and there is always a way back. It will require each of us to be dedicated to building a home together, each of us bringing something of our own to the creation of a common home, a common vision that houses transcendence, that elevates us above our human weaknesses and moves us beyond the egocentricity of our own needs because only in that way will be worthy of the Divine presence resting amongst us.

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 exist and we CAN make it happen. Sefer Vayikra teaches us that we must never give up fighting for the ideal, but simultaneously we must ensure we are aware of the realities of a situation and not shy away from what needs to be done. It teaches us that when God is at the centre of the nation, when we work to construct a communal vision of shared good, even the greatest profanity can be imbued with holiness. In many ways it doesn’t matter if we read the Mishkan or the sacrificial service as ideal or real, because in reality we always exist between the two. What really matters is if we can sit in the grubbiness of reality whilst keeping our eyes on the vision, Or as Herzl famously said 'If you will it, it is no dream', dream the ideal but live the real.

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