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Rising Above Ourselves (Jeremiah 7:21-8:3; 9:22-3)

Leave it to the Rabbis to attach a haftarah which strongly condemns sacrificial rites to a Torah parashah dedicated to the details of the same. In this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah resoundingly critiques the practice of sacrifices in unusually hyperbolic terms: “Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat! For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice. But this is what I commanded them: Do my bidding that I may be your God and you may be My people; walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you.” (7:21-3) This prophecy echoes similar messages delivered by other prophets. (See Amos 5:25; Hosea 6:6)

How is one to understand Jeremiah’s message? Did he really mean to repudiate the sacrificial order? How is it possible for him to say that his ancestors had not been commanded concerning the sacrificial order?

Modern scholars have examined the possibility that Jeremiah may have meant literally that he somehow thought that the people of Israel had not been commanded concerning sacrifices after leaving Egypt and have speculated on all sorts of explanations. (See Y. Hoffman, Jeremiah, Mikra L’Yisrael, pp. 262-4) However, the general consensus, even among modern scholars, is that Jeremiah was speaking in exaggerated terms in order to express God’s dissatisfaction with people’s use of the sacrificial order as a mask for their otherwise ungodly behavior. (See Rashi and Rabbi David Kimche who spell out this position.)

This does not mean that the literal understanding of this verse was not used, even by traditional authorities, as part of a debate over the relative merit of the sacrificial order in religious life. Maimonides (Rambam) was perhaps the most prominent representative of this position. He asserted that the purpose of the sacrificial order was to wean the people away from idolatry, so that they might identify with God. Since the mode of worship at the time was through animal sacrifice, God adopted this manner of worship as a means to bring the people closer to the true worship of God. For Rambam, the sacrificial order was only a way station to advance Israel’s religious development. He saw prayer as a more ideal means of worship. (See Guide to the Perplexed 3:32)

While those with modern rationalist sensibilities found in Rambam an important ally, his point of view was generally rejected by most traditional commentators. Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (Ralbag – 14th century France), a rationalist who often sided with Rambam, adamantly disagreed with Rambam’s evaluation of the sacrificial order. While he accepted Rambam’s assertion that one of the reasons for the sacrificial order was to change the religious orientation of the people, he, nevertheless, saw in it transcendent value. For Ralbag, the act of preparing and offering sacrifices had the potential to elevate a person’s religious spirit and enable them to participate in the act of prophecy.

Rabbi Yosef Albo, in his work “Sefer HaIkarim” (3:25), adopted Ralbag’s position but took it one step further, seeing the sacrificial process as a symbolic representation of an important religious message.  According to Albo, since animals, like human beings, are living creatures, when an animal is sacrificed, nothing remains of the animal. This same fate potentially awaits every human being.  Human beings, however, have the potential to alter this fate. If a person uses his/her life propitiously in the service of God, then the biological process does not impact the same way on a person. If we lead worthy and inspiring lives, built upon a relationship with God, then we can rise above our animal selves and bring nobility to the world.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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