Parashat Aharei Mot 5774 – “And you shall bring them to ‘א, to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting”

וֶהֱבִיאֻם לַיהוָה אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד

Sefer Vayikra’s section on life outside the Mishkan begins in Chapter seventeen, with the discussion of the Mishkan and the world outside, through the laws of “שחוטי חוץ,” animals slaughtered outside the Mishkan. There are several different laws involved, which vary depending on the type of animal slaughtered. The first law involves the prohibition of slaughtering sacrificial animals outside the Mishkan. Interestingly, the Torah here spends several pesukim explaining the reason behind this prohibition, which is important because two entirely different reasons are given. Verse six says the purpose is that a private slaughtering strays from the regular service done by the priest, “that the priest may dash the blood against the altar of the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and turn the fat into smoke as a pleasing odor to the Lord.”[1] Verse seven says the purpose is “that they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after whom they stray.” These varying purposes for this one mitzvah become the basis for a split in Jewish Thought that reverberates throughout the generations.

Verse seven suggests that the purpose of this mitzvah is to wean Bnei Yisrael off of the idolatrous worship they were accustomed to performing in Egypt. From here the theory was born that the purpose of all of the mitzvot is to wean Bnei Yisrael off Idolatry. Not only did Rambam include all of Korbanot, but also many other ritualistic mitzvot, under the rubric of “weaning off Idolatry.”

Now God sent Moses to make [the Israelites] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. xix. 6) by means of the knowledge of God. Comp.” Unto thee it was showed that thou mightest know that the Lord is God (Dent. iv. 35):” Know therefore this day, and consider it in thine heart, that the Lord is God” (ibid. v. 39). The Israelites were commanded to devote themselves to His service; comp.” and to serve him with all your heart” (ibid. xi. 13):” and you shall serve the Lord your God” (Exod. xxiii. 25);” and ye shall serve him” (Dent. xiii. 5). But the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images, and to bum incense before them; religious and ascetic persons were in those days the persons that were devoted to the service in the temples erected to the stars, as has been explained by us. It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God, as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action. For this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue; He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings, and of things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in the same manner (M”N 3:32).

R’ Yishmael even said that the underlying principle of all of the Mitzvot was the fight against Idolatry. This idea is part of a larger trend in Jewish Thought regarding the purpose of the mitzvot, namely the idea that the mitzvot are intended for the improvement of Man. This is an idea utilized not only by Rambam but also his son R’ Avraham, Ritva, Rosh, and many others besides. Based on this, the mitzvot are conceived of as being intended to improve man’s moral, intellectual, and spiritual nature.

By contrast, verse six seems to indicate that the mitzvot are for ‘א’s benefit, rather than man’s: “As a pleasing odor to the Lord.” While there’s some debate as to how and why it is that ‘א derives pleasure from Korbanot, and what exactly is the meaning of this “pleasing odor”, it’s clear that the fulfillment of this mitzvah somehow pleases ‘א. Ramban, in his comment to Vayikra 1:9, takes a strong stance against the position of Rambam, while suggesting in Bereishit 8:21 that the idea of the “pleasing odor” is a “great secret” and is seemingly able to change ‘א’s mind [2]. This approach maintains that mitzvot are not for the purposes of man or society, but for the purposes of ‘א, performing mystical functions necessary to the very existence of the universe[3].

Many have also taken a view of the mitzvot that synthesizes and combines these two approaches. Ramchal, in 138 Gates of Wisdom, says that the purpose of the mitzvot is the mystical mechanics they enact in reality. However, he says, ‘א could essentially have picked any set of actions and assigned them to the mechanics the mitzvot enact. The fact that it was these mitzvot that we have today, a set of mitzvot for which man can find logical reasons and through which can reach improvement, is a great kindness from ‘א to man. Heschel, seeing the relationship between man and ‘א as the essential purpose of mitzvot, believes that mitzvot put man and ‘א in relation to each other, something that benefits both parties. These and other thinkers have eschewed the idea that just one of these approaches is acceptable in favor of a broader approach.

This synthetic approach actually flows very naturally from the text of the Torah. Vayikra seems to recognize both reasons as completely valid reasons for the mitzvah. From these two reasons a debate is born that stretches throughout the entire history of Jewish Thought, but it’s important to realize that the two go back to one source. Both are written in the same document. Two ideas; one Torah. The Torah was never meant to be monolithic. Since it’s very origin, it has not only recognized but endorsed complexity in thought. Some mitzvot fall into the “Improvement of Man” category and some into “For the Sake of ‘א.” Some are too complex to simply be assigned to either category. In creating this complexity, the Torah would seem to have two goals. The first is that each individual person should strive for some of this complexity in their thought. Not everyone will automatically connect to every facet of the Torah, but people should struggle to approach at least a little of that which seems foreign to them. Far more importantly, however, is what this complexity could mean on a national scale. If Jewish Thought has never been monolithic, then we ought not ask the Jewish People to be a monolith. When people disagree in their approach to Judaism, more often than not they’re each just manifesting a different part of what the Torah asks of the Jewish People. Not only should we not be bothered by the different approaches in Judaism today, we should celebrate them, as this complexity in the Jewish People mirrors and makes manifest a very real complexity in the thought of the Torah.

[1]  Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[2] See also Ramban’s comment on Bereishit 6:6.

[3] Nefesh HaChayyim, First Gate.

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