This world is not an easy place.
I suspect that thinking, spiritually oriented people have always searched for ways to transcend everyday reality, but I also am pretty sure that certain periods in history have been more challenging to people of faith and morality than others. (Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo writes beautifully this week on how halacha functions as a way to balance life in Olam HaZeh, the “real” while yearning for Olam HaBah, the ideal.) We’re living in an extremely challenging time.
Our mystical tradition has a pretty apt description for much of modern society, שולטת לילית שפחה הרעה (Sholetet Lilit, Shifcha HaRa’a), the dominion of Lilith the evil handmaid (or the handmaid of Evil). As you’d guess, this refers to a time of unbridled license to every imaginable (and unimaginable) desire. Fueled by a marketing culture that exploits the very nature of wanting, everything is not merely available, not merely permitted, but satisfying every whim, no matter how selfishly unhealthy, unsavory, immoral, exploitative and destructive is endorsed and celebrated. The childish chant of the (nineteen) sixties, “If it feels good, do it” has taken over as much of “modern culture”‘s bible.
We’re encouraged to eat as much junk as we can stuff into our maws and damn the diabetes and heart disease, binge- drink and drug ourselves into not only oblivion, but into becoming hazardous drivers and aggressors without inhibition. Paradoxically, sex is good and should be unlimited but is immoral and exploitative at the same time, requiring prior notarized written consent–perhaps the traditional consequence of sex, bringing children into the world, is no longer considered quite…..savory. (They will destroy the future environment and, oh yeah, they require our acting responsibly, infringing on our SELF-fulfillment.) Even giving full rein to anger and violence is no longer quite so terrible, is it, as constant exposure to public beheadings, right there on youtube, has dulled our shock.
Of course most people are not like that, but take a look a popular entertainment and at the news media. Think about the cult of celebrity which encourages the rich and famous to become ever more outrageous. Who has become role models and what value do we give to truth when everyone has their own narrative?
This brings me to this week’s parsha, Vayikra, which deals entirely with the Temple Service, i.e. animal sacrifices. This portion is always read just before Pesach, the festival of freedom. It describes in infinite detail every step from choosing an animal to slaughtering it to collecting and splashing its blood to disposing of its carcass. Many “modern” Jews are embarrassed and disgusted by this part of our history and are horrified at the prospect of a Third Temple which might feature a return to this practice.
At the very least, the common understanding of the English word, sacrifice, points at giving up something that is ours. It can begin to deflect the constant focus on self, on consuming, on filling every desire. Of course, the Hebrew word, קרבן (Karban) tells us even more. Its root, ק-ר-ב, means to approach, to come close, and at its most literal it teaches that giving, rather than taking, brings us closer to holiness. At a more mystical level, though, we’re told that these processes, this Divine Service in the Temple, served to bring the upper, “heavenly”/spiritual realms close to the lower, mundane world in which our consciousness usually resides. Each step that each of us takes in this direction facilitates the ultimate realization of אחדות (Achdut) Oneness. In Rav Cardozo’s language, these mitzvot mediate the gap from what is to what ought to be. They are steps towards our freedom from our enslavement to Lilith, the embodiment of our slavery to greed.
No one knows exactly what the nature of the ideal will look like when it manifests. There is a full range of halachic/philosophical opinions as to whether sacrifices at all, and if so whether they include animal or be restricted to meal offerings, will be part of the daily service in the future Third Temple. Regardless, Bayit Shlishi, the Third Temple (literally, the Third House, since it will be the finite, physical space in the material world where the infinite, immaterial Shechina, Divine Presence, will dwell) will “join the worlds” and fill our finite/material reality with Unlimited Light through whatever process(es) will at that time be designated.
For the time being, prayer, tefilla, fulfills the function of those karbanot, sacrifices. As הושע הנביא (Hoshea HaNavi), Hoshea the Prophet (14:3) says, וּנְשַׁלְּמָה פָרִים שְׂפָתֵינוּ (U’n’shalma Pharim Sifoteynu), and may our lips complete/replace (the previous function of) our (sacrificial) cattle.
If nothing else, prayer makes us humble and humility is liberating.