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Sefer Vayikra: On The War, the Hostage Families and the Jewish Legacy of Hope

Updated: Mar 22



Since the start of the war, Galatz (the army radio station) end their morning broadcast by naming one of the hostages and inviting a family member to speak about them for one minute.  They finish with the words  עוד  יבוא ימים טובים יותר  - better days will come. For us ordinary folk who are not immediately connected to hostage families or fallen soldiers, life continues as normal. We get up, dress, go to work, sometimes we might even imitate life before 7/10 by shopping in the mall or eating at a restaurant. But the rituals of normalcy only accentuate the feeling of living a parallel existence. Our bodies are present but often our minds are elsewhere. We are all caught in this liminal space of nowhere. We pretend to live, to laugh, to work, to hope  - but our hearts, minds, emotions are caught up in another place and another time. We are existing in the present, but our minds are in the past and our heart is praying for the future. We are living the real and dreaming of the ideal. We are echoing the eternal story of our people.

Our history has always straddled that fine gossamer thread that connects the ideal to the real. During the siege on Jerusalem in 69CE, the sage Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai escaped in a coffin and sought counsel of the Roman military commandeer Vespasian. Though others were still hoping and dreaming that a miracle would procure their survival, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai was a realist and in the guise of the modern model of adaptive leadership he sought a new paradigm to address the mandate of Jewish survival – the result was Rabbinic Judaism. His request for Yavneh to house the Sanhedrin and its sages provoked much critique.  If he could have requested anything (which he could, 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; he intuited that the time had passed and defeat was imminent. The people needed a temporary solution that would enable recalibration. Living the real but dreaming of the ideal was central to Rabbi Yohanan’s vision and that ultimately assured Jewish continuity.

 

Sefer Vayikra reflects this tension. Ramban (Nachmanides) and Rashi disagree on the chronological placement of the Mishkan (tabernacle) narratives in the Torah.  At the heart of their disagreement is a central theological question: Is the continual revelation of the Divine (the Mishkan reflected the revelation of Sinai) 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 Halachic terms, lechatchila - a priori  ideal.

 

For Rashi, the Mishkan was never meant to be. It was commanded only as a reaction to the people's sin of the Golden Calf.  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 – a posteriori situation.  A concession to the people and the reality of the situation.

 

In a parallel debate Rambam (Maimonides) and Ramban discuss the purpose of the Korbanot – (sacrifices).  Ramban views the sacrificial duties as an ideal mode of worship.  Rambam argues that sacrificial worship lacks intrinsic religious value and is merely a concessionary measure intended 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 the more modern scholars such as Rav Kook, the Third Temple will not contain any animal sacrifices.  However, the majority of classic commentators such as Ramban, Sefer Hakuzari and others, anticipate a return to the former days of a fully functional, sacrifice-operating priesthood, as the fulfilment of our national hopes and dreams.

 

Both views possess an element of truth. In many aspects Judaism is a religion whose ethos echoes both the ideal and the real. Our eschatological vision comprises the hope and optimism that one day we will 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 - as did Rabbi Yohanan.

 

Judaism has survived precisely because it has adapted itself to circumstances.  God taught 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 admitting our sins in prayer or offering up a sacrifice, we are accepting the tension between the ideal and the real.  In his adherence 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 in the aftermath of 7/10, each day brings another heartbreaking dilemma, another existential crisis, another impossible decision. Do we wait for the ‘ideal’ deal that will achieve both war aims – the defeat of Hamas and return of the hostages or accept something less that may achieve only one objective. What happens to the dream of peaceful co-existence that so many championed for decades? What of our own internal fissure – are we still able to envision a better Israel than the one we existed in pre 6/10?

 

These are all questions that will take time to solve but we may find comfort in the knowledge that similar tensions pre-dates our modern proclivities. Whether the post Mikdash/sacrificial era is a move towards a more ideal reality or not, it 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 Messiah'.  The question is not one of dogma but rather a fundamental principle of the Jewish psyche that begins with the building of the Mishkan.  The belief that an ideal world CAN exist and we CAN make it happen.  Sefer Vayikra teaches us that we must never despair of the ideal, but simultaneously we have a mandate to grapple with the realities of a situation and apply methods of adaptive leadership to achieve the outcome. It teaches us that when a Divine spirit orients our communal vision it will it become holy. Both views hold weight: the Mishkan and sacrificial service are both real and ideal because it is in that complex middle where the sacred work of humanity is achieved.

 

I am in sheer awe and reverence of the families of the hostages, the bereaved parents of the fallen soldiers and the wives and parents of those serving in the army for so many months, as they continue to believe and hope that today will be different. Last Sunday, as an educator for an LSJS mission, we sat with Julie, the mother of the hostage Bar Kupperstein. Eight years ago, her husband - a paramedic - was severely injured and disabled in a car accident on his way to resuscitate a young girl. Bar, then 17, became the main breadwinner and father figure of the family. In his army service he was a paramedic like both his parents, and on October 7th he was working as a security guard at the Nova festival. Refusing to flee in a friend’s car he remained to help people and was kidnapped by Hamas. At the end of her heart-wrenching story, Julie insisted we pray together. We recited Psalm 121 beseeching God to help and then Psalm 100, a song of thanks. She told us that she believed in thanking God for His redeeming hand even before she could see it. Much like Miriam and women of the Exodus, she could imagine redemption before it occurred. This kind of belief defies natural human strength.

 

I have a friend who has been severely ill for a long time. She is one of the most resilient, brave, positive people I know. She sings a song every day. She sent me a voice message of the song: “Let today be the day - please Hashem let it be, let today be the day”.  A few weeks ago, Rachel Goldberg Polin, the mother of Hersch, a hostage in Gaza, posted these same five words: “let today be the day”. I immediately sent it to my friend. Two women facing very different challenges but both having to navigate radical adversity and who share this Jewish audacity to hope and believe that ‘today will be the day’.

 

Some people call this mindset wishful thinking, others call it self-delusion. Judaism calls it ‘Tikva’ - and not by chance it became our national anthem for it represents the quintessential Jewish dream of a better tomorrow. It represents that gossamer thread on which we stand poised between the ideal and real, between hope for a better tomorrow and the reality of wading knee-deep in the murkiness of today. Existing in the uncertain present whilst keeping our eyes on the vision. Or as Herzl famously said, 'If you will it, it is no dream'. Dream the ideal whilst living the real.

 

עוד יבוא ימים טובים

 

 

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