Saturday, March 8, 2008

A Muse: Va'yikra 2008

This week we begin reading a rather confounding book, much of it devoted to sacrificial worship and the rites and ritual associated with it. To say the least, sacrifice was a primitive form of worship in expressing one’s devotion to God. We aren’t the only culture to have instituted this form of worship. There were many other ancient civilizations that employed animal worship (as well as produce), to demonstrate their fealty to God or to the god of their choice.

There was a certain logic to the practice of sacrifice. It meant that you were willing to take something important, of value, and dedicate it to God, at great cost or sacrifice to yourself, with the hope that in so doing you were forging and sustaining a relationship with God. In our Temple an entire social class and economy grew up around sacrificial worship; from the purchasing of the animal to bringing it to the altar and having its remains left to the priestly class.

The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim is concerned with the rite of sacrificial worship in that it was primitive. He comments that in essence, sacrificial worship was initially a compromise made with the Hebrews. In as much as they were part of the near eastern culture where animal sacrifice was normative, it would have been too radical to expect any other kind of expression of devotion. The Rambam was suggesting that sacrificial worship would be standard practice until the Hebrews would, through a natural spiritual and intellectual growth take devotion to a new level.

Tefillah, he suggests was exactly that. The disparity between the Tzedukim and the Perushim, while pivoting on numerous points also included this. Tefillah, prayer, became the approach by which the priesthood was no longer necessary as an intermediary or arbiter in reaching God. Every Hebrew would be able to reach out to God by reaching into the depths of his heart and praying to his creator. Prayer, as the Perushim intended democratized the people as far as having access to God was concerned. At first prayer was extemporaneous, later it became formatted and standardized.

The Rambam comments, however, that Tefilah won’t be the final form of devotion. As man becomes more sophisticated in his intellectual capacity and as his spirituality grows man will be able to meditate on God, and in so doing forge the bridge linking him to his creator in a much more powerful way than Tefillah is able to accomplish.

Meditation has become for many the method by which spirituality has become enhanced. Some of our great first and second generation Hasidic masters achieved great spiritual heights through this medium. Something to consider as we begin to read Va’yikra.