Dedicated in memory of my grandmother, Toby Kalchman (Tova bat Sena) whose yahrtzeit is Friday, erev Shabbat. And also for a complete recovery for Ezra ben Sarah Rivkah who recently experienced his own brush with death.
A Brush with Death
For a while I have been a big fan of the former chief rabbi of the UK, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. His predecessor however is not as well known these days, having died in 1999. Lord Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits was the first rabbi to sit in the House of Lords and according to his obituary in The Guardian at the time, “He had the highest public profile of any chief rabbi, matched only by that of his successor, Jonathan Sacks. An expert on medical ethics, Jakobovits’ view was constantly sought by the media when issues of invitrio fertilisation or transplant surgery arose.”
He was also instrumental in creating solid Jewish education in Britain among many other accomplishments. I had some personal interaction with him when we would visit London to see Karen’s family many years back after he retired and was the Rav of the smaller, earlier minyan at Raleigh Close synagogue. It was there that I was introduced to The Authorised Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations of The Commonwealth. (The Brits just love those long and cumbersome titles don’t they?) In that siddur is an excellent essay on Sacrifices written by Lord Rabbi Jakobovits.Click here for the essay.
It is the best explanation I have heard on this very difficult topic. He speaks of the problem most of us have with sacrifices whose “whole subject bristles with problems and the theme itself grates on many modern minds.” He then goes on to show that throughout Tanach, the entire Bible, there is great ambivalence about sacrifices. On the one hand they are extolled and called “holy”, yet on the other they are repeatedly dissed by prophets throughout the generations. From Samuel to Isaiah to Jeremiah to the author of Psalms who writes in a mocking tone about the whole notion that God even needs them. “If I were hungry, I don’t need to tell you because the whole world and everything in it belongs to Me anyway! Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?!” (50:12-13) The whole idea of an all powerful God needing sacrifices is a completely preposterous one.
Jakobovits then explains that the key to understanding this ambivalence lies in a unique trait that applies solely to sacrifices and no other mitzvot in the Torah. With sacrifices, if you had the wrong thought, the wrong intention on any level, it was disqualified and meant nothing. But not only did it not count, it counted against you. And this is what the prophets railed against time and again. If you think you can “buy off” God by bringing Him an offering, then not only is that ineffective, but it is disgusting in God’s eyes and He wished you would rather not insult Him with such idiocy. It is the only mitzvah that, if not done properly, we would prefer you don’t do it altogether.
With other mitzvot, if I do not have the purest intentions, it still counts for something. If I give charity to get honour, it is still effective and I will be rewarded. But when it comes to sacrifices, not only is it not effective, it is counterproductive since it is perverting one’s relationship with God. It is not only not helpful, but harmful. So we see that sacrifices were a double edged sword and could actually do as much damage as good.
And so therefore the question arises, of what purpose are they anyway?
A key to understanding their true meaning is the law that dictates that a sin offering, achatas, is only offered for unintentional sins. If you did a sin on purpose and wilh full knowledge of what you were doing, then sorry but you’re out of luck and bringing Bessie up to the Temple will do you no good. Sacrifices were only effective when a person erred by mistake, had a lapse and was not paying enough attention. As such, this person needed a bit of shock effect to regain his moral compass. And it is here that Rabbi Jakobovits makes the point that a person needed “an experience so awesome and powerful that it would leave a permanent mark on the offender’s consciousness, an experience so gripping that it would serve as a permanent deterrent to any renewal of momentary mindlessness.
This was the main object of atonement by sacrifice. The very horror of the experience provided a fail-safe shield against renewed forgetfulness. The slaughter of an animal, the sprinkling of its blood, the exacting ritual in the majestic atmosphere of the Temple – all this could not but provide an impregnable barrier to any renewed lapse in identical circumstances. That is the definition of atonement.”
When we consider the detailed and exacting laws needed for a proper sacrifice, we get a sense of the narrow usage and purpose it had in Judaism. Much of it was shock therapy for complacency and laziness that resulted in moral failings. And indeed sometimes we need just that – a proverbial slap to the side of the head to wake us up from our slumber. A close call or near accident on the highway to remind us of what is important in life and to not take what we have for granted. A dramatic near miss event to pull us away from petty and small first-world problems and see the bigger picture.
This is what sacrifices were trying to get across to us. To wake us up, to witness the slaughtered animal and be reminded that “there but for the grace of God go I.” To realize how fragile life can be and to be mindful not to lose our perspective on what is meaningful, pleasurable, good and true in our lives.
We may no longer have a Temple around and please don’t bring your sheep to shul to slaughter. But the wake up calls we get in the course of our lives sometime serve the same purpose – to realign and remind ourselves of the gift of life and how precious our lives truly are.
It’s a human sign
When things go wrong…
We lose direction
No stone unturned…
But it’s no sacrifice
It’s no sacrifice at all