Bring Your Sacrifices Before God
Adapted by Avi Shmidman and Dov Karoll
Any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox, lamb or goat… and has not brought it to the [altar at the] entrance to the Tent of Meeting, to bring it as an offering to God before the tabernacle of God, blood shall be imputed upon him, for he has shed blood, and he shall be uprooted from his people. So that the children of Israel shall bring that which they slaughter… to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to the Kohen…. And they shall no longer slaughter their offerings to the demons after whom they stray… (Vayikra 17:3-9).
The Torah gives similar warning in Devarim: "Take heed not to offer your whole-burnt offerings wherever you see, but rather you shall offer them in the place that God chooses in one of your tribes…" (12:13-14).
At first glance, these two parashiyot appear similar in many ways. While our parasha emphasizes the act of slaughtering outside the Temple, and the parasha in Devarim emphasizes the "bringing up" to the location, one might still be inclined to say that they address the same issue. The halakhot which emerge are identical, as can be seen in the Rambam in Hilkhot Ma'aseh Ha-korbanot (chapter 19), who quotes from the two parashiyot interchangeably as the sources for the halakhot of offering sacrifices outside the Temple.
However, on closer inspection, this similarity is illusory. From an existential standpoint, in terms of the manner of presentation, the two parashiyot are entirely dissimilar. The sinful desire that the Torah comes to counter in each parasha is totally different.
What are we afraid of? What is the threat? Are we afraid that they will sacrifice their offering away from the Tent of Meeting? The question is not location, but rather the object, of the offerings. Are they being offered to God, or to the demons?
In Acharei Mot, we are talking a nation just emerged from Egypt, from submersion in Egyptian culture. It is a generation still in the developmental stages of its Jewish identity. They have just recently emerged from a society that could be described as a home base for idolatry. This generation was raised in a culture of demons, of wild demon-worship.
On the other hand, let us look at the historical background to the mandate in Parashat Re'ei in Devarim. The scenario in the plains of Moav is quite different from that of the desert. The Jewish people are no longer "in the desolation where the wilderness howls" (Devarim 32:10). They are within view of the land of Israel, and their eyes are already raised up, looking forward to their entry into the land. They can almost smell the promised land.
As the Jewish people look ahead to settling the land of Israel, what will their challenge be? The challenge of demon-worship has fallen by the wayside, as we are dealing with a new generation. This generation did not grow up in Egyptian pagan culture, but rather alongside the Tabernacle, in the orderly camp centered around that Tabernacle. But with the entry into Israel there will be a new challenge. They will no longer be camped around the Tabernacle or in its immediate vicinity.
In the desert, how far could one possibly be from the Tabernacle? The entire encampment measured only twelve by twelve mil, with the Tabernacle as its central point.
In the land of Israel, with the people scattered throughout the land, "Each man under his vine and under his fig tree" (Melakhim I 5:5), access to the Tabernacle can no longer be taken for granted. All sorts of pragmatic factors - the distance, the effort required, the difficulty in travel - will combine to prevent people from regularly visiting the Tabernacle. And this is precisely the context of those verses mentioned above from Devarim 12. Later in that same chapter, the Torah explicitly recognizes this problem, giving license to consume non-sacrificial meat "because the place which God will choose to place His Name will be too far from you" (20-21).
After all, why is this new command necessary in Parashat Re'ei? The people have been encamped around the Tabernacle for years. Is it just now that they are learning what the proper address is for their offerings? They learned this lesson long ago. What is added by this second parasha? What need does it address?
This parasha addresses the singularity and uniqueness of worship in the Temple, in "the place which God shall choose." Part of what makes this place special is that it is the exclusive place for the sacrifices. The whole of Parashat Re'ei is working up to the place which God shall choose, which is, correspondingly, the place which you should choose.
In Acharei Mot, there was an abundance of spirituality among the people, and the Torah addressed the need to direct that spiritual energy to the proper channels. There was so much spirituality that there was concern that the people would turn to demonic worship. But at the entry into the land of Israel, the problem being faced is just the opposite. As the people prepare to settle the land, they will begin to concentrate on pragmatic issues, such as establishing and developing a society, economy and culture. In this process, the concern is not with coping with an overflow of spirituality, but rather with countering a shortage thereof. Correspondingly, the mandate not to sacrifice outside the Temple comes to prevent religious life from becoming shallow and simple-minded, with the insistence that one make an effort to seek out God.
In truth, both of these facets are extremely relevant today. We face the challenges that these two parashiyot come to counteract, from Eastern culture, and from Western culture, respectively.
On one hand, there is the challenge of Western culture. Western culture is ultra-rational, technologically advanced to the hilt, and these emphases shift the focus away from spiritually. What I say should not be taken as belittling the vast technological accomplishments of Western society, as they are great.
This approach has its roots in the ancient society of Rome. While ancient Greece is not remembered for its technology and economy, ancient Rome is. Roman society prided itself on paving roads, developing an economy, as well as building all sorts of amphitheaters and aqueducts. In modern and contemporary Western society, as in ancient Roman society, with all the focus on technology and science, religion is relegated to a more marginal position.
On the other hand, there is the challenge of the Eastern religions. They lack technological success, and their economic situations are miserable. However, they are suffused with religion and mysticism. They have the surplus of spirituality spoken of above, but they do not direct it to God, but rather to the demons, to idolatry and paganism.
Both historically and currently, the East and the West meet here in the land of Israel. As such, our task, our mandate, is that which emerges from the dual charges of Acharei Mot and Re'ei, both of which relate to the prohibition of offering sacrifices outside the Temple. We are commanded not to be trapped in pragmatic, rationalistic calculations, nor to be drawn in by distortions or corruptions of the proper faith. Rather, we are to seek out God, in earnest, "in the place He has chosen," through the means He has chosen.
[Originally delivered on leil Shabbat, Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, 5762 (2002).]