• June 15, 2024
  • 9 5784, Sivan
  • פרשת נשא

The WebYeshiva Blog

By , we presented an approach to justify korbanot. Just as someone madly in love is frustrated with a platonic relationship and wants to express the love physically, so to someone bursting with religious fervor is frustrated with prayer and wants to serve God physically (through korbanot). But there is a problem with this approach. Most of us do not feel religious fervor regularly. Yet korbanot are a major focus of traditional Judaism – not just in the past but in the future as well. Every single amidah includes prayers for the Temple to be rebuilt and the sacrificial service to be restored. How can our heart be in these prayers, when slaughtering animals for God seems so foreign? The meat we buy at the supermarket is pristinely packaged – a far cry from a slaughterhouse! Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook has a fascinating solution to this problem. (Yes, he believes there will be korbanot in the future.) He starts by referring to a bizarre story in the Gemara. We will now cite parts of it:


“Woe, woe. It is the [inclination for idolatry] which destroyed the Temple … and exiled Israel from our land, and it is still dancing among us. Was it given to us for any reason other than to receive reward [for resisting it]? We want neither it nor the reward.”. . .

They sat fasting for three days and three nights, and it was handed over to them. It departed from the Holy of Holies as a fiery lion-cub. The prophet [Zechariah] said to Israel: “This is the inclination for idolatry,” as it is written, “And he said: ‘This is the wickedness’” (Zechariah 5:8). . .

They said: “Since this is a time of grace, let us ask for mercy regarding the inclination for [sexual] sins.” They asked for mercy, and it was handed over to them.

It said to them: “Realize that if you kill me, the world will be finished.”

They imprisoned it for three days, but when they then looked in the entire land of Israel for a fresh egg, they could not find one.

They said: “What should we do? Should we kill it? The world will be finished. Should we ask for mercy on a portion? They do not grant halves in heaven.” [We could pray for half its power to be removed, so that people would desire their spouses and nobody else, but that’s not the way things work – U.C.]

They blinded its eyes and let it go. This helped, in that people are no longer tempted by their relatives (Yoma 69b, as translated by Rav Yitzchak Blau).

Notice that the statement made about the evil inclination for sex – “They do not grant halves in heaven” – presumably applies as well to the evil inclination for idolatry. The sages here discovered that imprisoning the former desire resulted in the end of life (as represented by eggs), so they released it. Yet they kept the latter desire imprisoned. What ended as a result?  


Rav Kook suggests that ever since the evil inclination for idolatry has been nullified, the invigorating vitality of love for the divine has disappeared too. The strong desire for idolatry was like a lion in the Holy of Holies, meaning it was just an untamed form of the desire for God. Now both desires are gone, but in the future both will return (Eder HaYakar, pp. 30-31). Rav Yuval Cherlow (Hebrew) elaborates:

Korbanot are an expression of the human feelings of closeness to God. When these are gone – since the Shekhinah is in exile and an iron wall separates the Jews from our heavenly Father – there is no way to bring korbanot, nor a need to fight idolatry.

The war against idolatry didn’t disappear from halakhic literature, but that’s because it will return! Explicit divinity will return along with its danger; thus the need to fight it. Part of the struggle will take place through korbanot, which will facilitate the desire to get close in a divinely sanctioned way.

According to this, the fact that we cannot offer korbanot today isn’t a mere technicality but well-founded in God’s supervision of history... Rav Kook saw ... the inability to fulfill a mitzvah as teaching us that it is inappropriate for people at this time.

In other words, God doesn’t expect us to bring korbanot unless we collectively have the burning desire to be close to the divine. We don’t feel it now, but we will in messianic times. Korbanot will return because they will give expression to the fervor we will feel. But we will be tempted by idolatry too. You can’t have one without the other.
Dvar Torah
By We believe that God is beyond gender and sex, so it is startling to see rabbinic sources use sexual terms to depict the kirvah (closeness) that is the ideal result of korbanot (sacrifices). For example: [The ark’s poles] protruded through the curtain, looking like a woman’s breasts. As it says (Song of Songs 1:13): “My lover is like a sachet of myrrh lying between my breasts.” Rav Katina said: When the Jews ascended to the Temple in Jerusalem for the festivals, [the kohanim] would roll back the curtain so everyone could see the intertwined keruvim (cherubs), and would proclaim, “Look! The love between you and God is like the love between a man and woman.” (Yoma 54a). Elsewhere, Chazal state that the Temple is like a marital bed (Sanhedrin 7a; Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:16:3). The ketoret (incense) is like perfume, and the korbanot are like kisses and consummation (Ibid., 1:2:1).  


Writing in Tradition, Dr. Russell Jay Hendel cites these sources and adds to the metaphor: [W]e can divide the general phenomenon of love into four phases: (i) the general state of love (corresponding to which we have the general commandment to love God); (ii) the performance of concrete actions by each of the lovers to provide and fulfill the wishes and desires of the other (thus humanity performs the commandments and God reciprocates by granting us protection); (iii) dialogues expressing mutual love, common i nterests and commitments (thus we have prayer from humanity to God, and Torah and prophecy from God to man); and (iv) sexual relations (korbanot) – specific procedures involving physical objects whose purpose is to induce a psychological state wherein it is conducive to feel closeness. The ultimate goal is true love and commitment. This, however, does not negate the indispensability of certain means toward these goals. In other words, the male-female relationship and the God-human relationship can be compared such that their culminations are, respectively, sex and the sacrifices.  


Two Israeli teachers suggest that this comparison can help us deal with a common contemporary challenge to korbanot: Don’t they seem primitive and b’diavad (non-ideal)? Why should we pray for the Temple to be rebuilt, anyway? Rav Yuval Cherlow responds (Hebrew) as follows, slightly paraphrased: Korbanot aren’t b’diavad, in the same way that the physical relationship between a man and a woman who are in love isn’t b’diavad. We humans don’t want platonic love! We want our romantic relationships to express ourselves fully. So too with religion. . . . Korbanot are ideal because when we are bursting with religious fervor and the desire to be close to God, we need to express it with every fiber of our being. . . . The deep emotional relationship with the divine can best be expressed when all of our parts work together in harmony. Rav Amichai Gordin agrees (Hebrew translated here), with a slightly different formulation: [L]ove between a man and a woman must begin with spiritual contact, with falling in love. But it must then continue to a physical relationship. . . . One of the most basic obligations of a husband to his wife is to maintain proper sexual relations. . . . Spirituality is not enough. The link must be anchored in the world of actions. Sacrifices [too] are an anchor that establishes the link between the Almighty and human beings.


Nevertheless, as with any analogies to God, there is a caveat. Rav Gordin calls it a “significant difference between the two types of love”: The Almighty has no need for our sacrifices. “Why do I need your many sacrifices?” (Isaiah 1:11) As opposed to human [relationships], the Almighty [is “nourished” not from] the results of the sacrifices but only the actions themselves. This can be compared to a father . . . when his young son offers him to share a snack from a bag that the father just gave him. The father is overjoyed to see that the child gives up some of his own snack. The act of giving the snack is what makes the father happy, not the taste of the snack. The Almighty does not need our sacrifices. But when we offer to Him part of the snacks which He gave us, we feel more closely aligned with Him – and He becomes more closely linked to us. With this caveat in mind, we are permitted to compare sexual relations and the sacrifices. Next week we will address sacrifices in the future.
Dvar Torah
By “When you take the sum of the children of Israel according to their numbers… This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel according to the holy shekel (shekel ha-kodesh)” (Exodus 30:12-13). Nahmanides (13th century Spain) was puzzled by what could bestow holiness on a coin (a shekel being the base unit of currency in the desert, as well as in modern Israel). He posits that the usage of the shekel in various rituals and in the fulfillment of mitzvot is what grants it holiness. Similarly, he goes on to say, Hebrew is a “holy” language (leshon ha-kodesh) insofar as it, too, is used as the instrument of holy purposes – communicating Torah, prayer and prophecy. Ramban further suggests, in his mystical interpretive way, that God Himself “speaks” Hebrew, and with that holy tongue He created the world. Maimonides (12th century Egypt), who favored a more rationalist, less mystical orientation, disagreed. In his monumental Guide for the Perplexed (III:8) he claimed that Hebrew is holy because it contains no naughty words, favoring euphemisms for sexual functions and organs. (Contemporary Hebrew speakers are aware that the really choice curse words are often borrowed from Arabic, Yiddish, Russian, etc. – saucy linguistic equivalents of the falafel, shmaltz, and borsht we grafted onto our culture.) This difference of opinion was reflected (perhaps un- or sub-consciously) by different early 20th century figures at the heart of the Hebrew revival. Gershom Scholem, in a 1926 letter to Franz Rozensweig, warned of the “apocalyptic thorn” embedded within the “actualization of Hebrew” in secularizing the holy tongue for managing the affairs of a modern society. So doing overlooks the fact that “it is impossible to empty out words which are filled to the breaking point with specific meanings… Would not the religious power of this language perforce break open again one day? ... Fraught with danger is the Hebrew language! ... God will not remain silent in the language in which He has affirmed our life a thousand times and more.” The national poet H.N. Bialik, on the other hand, thought that the language could be redeemed of this danger by being secularized, that is, emptied of its sacred baggage and “reprogrammed” for everyday, modern use. Here he was making an etymological play on words in which “desecrate” and “redeem” are related (cf. Deut. 20:6). However standing apart from and above Scholem or Bialik, Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon neither feared Hebrew nor considered that it could be neutralized of its embedded values. Agnon’s magisterial use of the language is a distillation of the dialects of the Beit Midrash throughout the millennia – biblical and mishnaic Hebrew, their style and rhythm; the cadences and “suggestive power” of the Talmudic Sages, aggada and midrash; word plays and allusions to the entirety of the Jewish book shelf. But that is merely on the aesthetic plane. If contemporary linguistic theory, post-Chomsky, is correct, that language is not the reflection of a universal human hard-wiring, but far more culturally specific and determined, with the ability of any one language to leave differentiated, deep and lasting cultural, social, and valuative impact on its speakers, anyone committed to the role of Jewish learning in Jewish life, ought to re-explore and recommit him- or herself to the pursuit of mastering the Holy Tongue.  
Dvar Torah
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