The following post contains excerpts of an email conversation between a Jew in the City reader and our Educational Correspondent, Rabbi Jack Abramowitz. Due to the length, it has been broken into parts.
Dear Jew in the City,
Am I to view the troubling and seemingly irrelevant parts of the Torah as a history book? We celebrate the receiving of the Torah every Shavuos but what are we celebrating? I know that our rabbis and educators always focus on the positive messages of the Torah but are they white-washing the facts? When reading about G-d in many troubling parshios, I don’t recognize the compassionate and just G-d that I’ve been taught to love. This is still causing me to be skeptical that the Torah is the true and binding word of G-d.
I. ANIMAL SACRIFICES
Q: I am troubled by the mitzvah of seir l’azazel (the scapegoat of the Yom Kippur service). We are taught to believe and hope and pray for a redemption and a third Beis HaMikdash. If these commandments were just for ancient time, why all the daily prayers for and reminders of those practices? I find it difficult to say these prayers and to honestly tell my children that the Torah is true and timeless.
A: The purpose of the seir l’azazel is not to inflict pain on an animal; that’s an unfortunate consequence. Regarding nature, G-d told Adam two things: to subdue it (Genesis 1:28) but also to guard it (Genesis 2:15). We see that we are permitted to use nature but not to abuse it. Hurting an animal out of cruelty is absolutely prohibited (this possibly even includes hunting for sport). But for needs, like food, we are permitted to kill animals, as our needs supersede theirs. This is true not just for physical needs, but also for spiritual needs, such as sacrifices and the seir l’azazel.
Let me try a different approach – and this may blow your mind a little but here it is! In Moreh Nevuchim, the Rambam says that the Beis HaMikdash (Temple) was NOT the ultimate form of service that Hashem desired! Think about it: there was only one Temple. People could not offer sacrifices anywhere else. People could not train to be kohanim – you had to be born a kohein. Even if you lived in Yerushalayim, you couldn’t go to the Mikdash whenever you wanted – there were a dozen forms of tumah (ritual impurity) that would keep people from attending! (Marital relations, bodily emissions, corpses, certain dead vermin, etc.) If G-d wanted us to go to the Mikdash and to offer korbanos (sacrifices), He certainly made it challenging! Contrast this with shuls the way we have them now (and, by the way, shuls did exist in Bible times as well). Shuls are everywhere and we go to them all the time. Halacha minimizes going to the Beis HaMikdash and maximizes going to shul – clearly, going to shul is the thing G-d wants us to do more!
If this is the case, why did G-d command that the Beis HaMikdash be built at all? Why didn’t He just tell us to build shuls wherever we might live? The answer, the Rambam explains, is that the Mikdash was kind of a “halfway house.” The Jews were surrounded by cultures that had temples, priests and sacrifices – it was all they knew! If G-d said, “Effectively immediately, sacrifices, incense and libations are replaced by reciting Shemoneh Esrei and reading the Torah,” the people would not have been able to adjust. The Temple was designed to transition the Jews from the practices of an idolatrous society to the way we have davening now. (So why pray for the Temple’s restoration? We’ll come to that next week!)
Continued next week…
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
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