Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Parsha Points to Ponder - Va'Yikra - This Mishkan is Loaded and We're Not Afraid to Use It

Sefer Va'Yikra tends to be the winter season on the d'var torah calendar, but I will boldly brave the elements and soldier on...

Many of us have a hard time penetrating the concepts and details of the korbanos (also, no stories). Let's see if we can gain some insight from a look at the text.

וְקִרְבּוֹ וּכְרָעָיו, יִרְחַץ בַּמָּיִם; וְהִקְטִיר הַכֹּהֵן אֶת-הַכֹּל הַמִּזְבֵּחָה, עֹלָה אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ-נִיחוֹחַ לַיהוָה [Leviticus 1:9]

This is the first instance of many in Va'Yikra of a common refrain throughout the portions pertaining to korbanos and it is often translated along the lines of "a satisfying smell unto the Lord".
Holy Anthropomorphism, Batman! What's the deal with this G-D-smelling business?

Some may be familiar with the Rambam's position that the korbanos were something of a less-than-ideal compromise to the paganistic proclivities of Israel at the time.
In fact, Rambam's position is a bit more nuanced; he views korbanos as an active polemic against idolatry (c.f. Guide 3:46). Some simple examples he gives are the Paschal Lamb in response to Egypt's worship of the lamb, sacrifice of cows in response to their worship by other cultures (Rambam himself refers to the people of India still engaging in such worship), and the text itself even supports his position...

וְלֹא-יִזְבְּחוּ עוֹד, אֶת-זִבְחֵיהֶם, לַשְּׂעִירִם, אֲשֶׁר הֵם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם תִּהְיֶה-זֹּאת לָהֶם, לְדֹרֹתָם: וַאֲלֵהֶם תֹּאמַר--אִישׁ אִישׁ מִבֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל, וּמִן-הַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר-יָגוּר בְּתוֹכָם אֲשֶׁר-יַעֲלֶה עֹלָה, אוֹ-זָבַח: וְאֶל-פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, לֹא יְבִיאֶנּוּ, לַעֲשׂוֹת אֹתוֹ, לַיהוָה--וְנִכְרַת הָאִישׁ הַהוּא, מֵעַמָּיו [Leviticus 17:9]

Here the Rambam refers to the pagan belief that demons took the form of goats. This is in line with the traditional interpretation by Rashi, Onkelos, etc. that se'irim, in the above verse is referring to demons, despite its normative meaning of "goats"; an animal we DO sacrifice emphasizes the Rambam.

The pagan, polytheistic belief system essentially viewed the gods as capricious and vengeful. Sacrifices served to appease them as some sort of theological bribe. The Rambam portrays korbanos as educational; they are for our good and THAT is why they are רֵיחַ-נִיחוֹחַ לַיהוָה, G-d is pleased that we have distanced ourselves from evil and ignorance (this is why, the Rambam adds, you never see it used in relation to a sin-offering).

R' Sampson Raphael Hirsch adds, to further the distinction from the pagan paradigm of appeasement, that we only see the "shem ha'vaya" of G-D with korbanos, the name that is traditionally associated with loving-kindness, and never "shem Elokim", which connotes G-D's aspect of strict judgment.

Ramban attributes great hidden meanings to the korbanos and argues against the Rambam's approach, going so far as to call it nonsense. Ramban points to Noach's sacrifice in Genesis 8:21 being described as רֵיחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ, this occurring before any of the pagan beliefs Rambam cites ever developed! The Ramban asserts that this demonstrates the intrinsic meaningfulness of korbanos bringing us closer to G-D, and not just some exercise in rejecting paganism.
The Ramban's challenge is strong, but seems to be undermined by a later position of his...

כָּל-הַמִּנְחָה, אֲשֶׁר תַּקְרִיבוּ לַיהוָה--לֹא תֵעָשֶׂה, חָמֵץ: כִּי כָל-שְׂאֹר וְכָל-דְּבַשׁ, לֹא-תַקְטִירוּ מִמֶּנּוּ אִשֶּׁה לַיהוָה [Leviticus 2:13]

Ramban explains this practice as a counter to idolatrous practices which would make use of honey, but shun salt in their sacrifices, citing approvingly... the Rambam!?!
So, in fact, to what degree Ramban actually disagreed seems unclear.

[Homiletically,R' Hirsch offers an interesting explanation for רֵיחַ-נִיחוֹחַ. He points out that smell is unique among the senses; Taste and touch both require a direct engagement with an object, while sight and hearing do not. Smell is when the finest particles of an object come into contact with the nose and result in the experience of smell. {ESB: Perhaps, this is the perfect analogy for our relationship with G-D in which we can never directly "engage" Him fully, but only strive to avoid a state of "disengagement" (no wordplay intended here); I wonder if this could also apply metaphorically to explain why Eve equated touching the Tree of Knowledge with G-D's injunction against eating from it.}]