Monday, March 26, 2007

Burning Man

Animal sacrifice has been out of fashion for so long, people just don’t get it anymore. What is the sense of destroying a perfectly good animal? If G-d wants us to send Him gifts, wouldn’t a live pet be preferable to a cremated one?

Of course, we’ll never really understand what’s going on here. But that’s to be expected.

“Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.” Mark Twain was trying to be cynical; little did he realize the faith and humility contained in his words. Indeed, man should have no expectation of fathoming the divine wisdom expressed by the Torah. When people delude themselves into thinking that they understand Torah – that is cause for concern!

However, awareness of this principle has not prevented biblical commentators from suggesting lessons that can be learned from the mitzvah of animal sacrifice. Although no one explanation can account for all the different types of offerings and the host of legal minutia found in our parsha, heated disputes have raged for centuries. Most famous is the debate between the Rambam (Maimonides, 1135-1204) and the Ramban (R. Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270).

The explanation of the Rambam is based on the fact that many ancient societies considered certain animals sacred or worshiped them as deities. Thinking that the natural forces of the world operated autonomously, people believed animals were symbols or incarnations of these divine forces. For example, from the very beginning of Egyptian history, a bull was worshipped, probably as a fertility god of grain and cattle (cf. Wikipedia, Apis). By commanding us to offer these very same animals as sacrifices before the One G-d, the Torah intends to undermine these pagan beliefs.
It is with the act [of killing these animals,] considered by pagans to be the ultimate sin, that we approach G-d… With this act wrongheaded beliefs are remedied, for [pagan beliefs] are diseases of the soul and they are cured by doing the exact opposite [of what they dictate].
Guide for the Perplexed 3:46
To our ears the Rambam sounds reasonable enough, but his contemporary the Ramban considered it a sacrilege.
This is nonsense! …[Shall we] transform the altar of G-d into a disgusting thing whose whole purpose is to refute the ideologies of the foolish and the wicked?!
After raising several other objections, the Ramban presents his own theory. It is both compelling and harsh.
It would be appropriate for one who has sinned before G-d with his body and soul to have his blood spilt and his body burnt. But the Creator, in His kindness, accepts a stand-in. By the blood of a sacrifice coming in place of the [sinner’s] blood and its soul coming in place of the [sinner’s] soul, atonement is achieved…
Ramban, Commentary to Vayikra 1:9
G-d grants life. By ignoring G-d’s authority and transgressing His commands, a sinner forfeits the right to exist. Strict justice would have him burnt on the altar, but G-d accepts an animal in his place. This is the idea of sacrifices according to the Ramban. Although it is very different from the Rambam’s theory, there is a common denominator.

If pagans view the forces of nature as independent gods then sinners are pagans too – they see themselves as gods. A sinner is a person who considers himself an independent arbiter of right and wrong, and free to follow his passions – a denial of the kingship of G-d. To sin is to replace the worship of G-d with the worship of the self.

The Torah mandates that all objects of worship, from the old-fashioned gods of the pagans to the modern-day American idol of Man himself, surrender before the One G-d, the Command-in-Chief of the universe. All pretenders to the throne, anything or anyone who poses as an independent operator, must be offered up on the altar of the King of Israel. While the Ramban vehemently rejects the Rambam’s position, in the final analysis, the two interpretations converge. Animal sacrifice hammers home the basic principle of monotheism – the uncontested monarchy of G-d.

This should help us understand a well-known but mysterious teaching. Prayer replaces the sacrifices, as the verse states, “Our lips shall pay for the (lacking) cows” (Hosea 14:3).
R. Yaakov ben Asher (1268-1340)
This is not mere poetry. The Talmud tells us that the original rabbinic enactment of three daily prayers was modeled after the daily Temple offerings (cf. Berachot 26b). The question is, what does prayer have in common with animal sacrifice? How can we claim that prayer replaces it?

The answer is that praying for our needs is not just an effective way to inspire divine compassion; it reminds the petitioner who’s boss. Turning to G-d for health, money, justice, security, rain, success, peace, for all our personal and national needs, internalizes an awareness that G-d is the one and only master of every force in the world – including the force of man himself.

Prayer is no simple matter. People think that they can basically solve their own problems, but maybe a little prayer wouldn’t hurt. This is not prayer at all.

To pray is to recognize that without divine assistance man can accomplish nothing. To pray is to surrender autonomy. To pray is to cremate the deity of the ego on the altar of the One G-d.

1 comment:

  1. Are the Rambam and the Ramban contemporaries if the Rambam was 59 when the Ramban was born?

    It seems like the Rambam would not be able to respond to Ramban's disagreements.

    I guess this is akin to the across-the-centuries "debates" to be found in the Talmud.