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The Haftara for Sabbath – New Moon

June 27, 2014

Maimonides is well-known for claiming that the sacrificial ritual as laid down in the Torah was a concession to the primitive religious beliefs of the ancient Hebrews who left Egypt. The idea of animal sacrifice was such an integral part of any religious paradigm that existed at the time of the giving of the Torah, it was necessary to remain a part of the Mosaic code, except that its rules and regulations would have to be much more strict and exacting: One specific place of worship, one altar, one limited, hereditary priestly class, only five types of animals, etc. Despite the objections of his colleagues, most notably Nahmanides, Maimonides marshaled many proofs to his position. The books of the prophets are replete with lines like, “Thus said the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt-offerings unto your sacrifices, and eat meat. For I spoke not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices,” (Jeremiah 7:21-22) which the non-believers mistakenly took to mean that the laws of sacrifice were a later fabrication, but in reality mean that the our prophets and sages knew all along that it is not the sacrifice that matters, but the thought behind it.

Maimonides also applied this idea to the way other specific commandments took form: the ideas behind the commandments were eternal and unchanging, but their exact specifics depended on how the ancient idolaters practiced their religions, and how God determined our practice should contrast with theirs. They cut their hair a specific way, we do another. They plant their fields a certain way; we must do another, etc.

Maimonides also makes a not-well-understood point about the consequences of sacrifice: (Guide, 3:46)

All this concerns only those who desire to sacrifice; for we are distinctly told that the omission of the sacrificial service on our part will not be reckoned to us a sin: “If thou shalt forbear to vow, it shall be no sin in thee” (Deut. xxiii. 22).

The gentiles believed that certain strange acts would cause the rain to fall and the crops to grow; we were told that practicing any of their rituals would hold back the rain. Instead, we were bidden to keep the moral and ethical commandments. More so, God never promised us anything in reward for offering the sacrifices. As Rav Kook alluded to, the sacrifices were only to be lrtzon’chem, for a time when we would want to bring them.

The same apparently holds true for the very idea that there be a Temple. According to Maimonides, ideally one could spend his entire day in meditation and prayer, without the need for a sacrificial ritual. The Temple itself was and is unnecessary from an ideal point of view. See Isaiah 6, where the prophet’s career begins with the revelation that God’s chosen abode, still centuries before it was to be destroyed and decades before the first of the ten tribes were to be exiled, is ceremoniously abandoned by God and His hosts, and see the opening of this week’s Haftora, Isaiah 66:1: “Thus said the LORD: The heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool; what kind of house can you build for Me? And where is the place that may be My resting-place?” It should have been obvious that human hands could not build any house, no matter how magnificent, to house God. It was never meant to be that way.

So why is the Messianic ideal, the reality that closes this and the other books of the prohets, that there will once again be a Temple, and that its completion will prove the legitimacy of the Messianic king? (Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 11:4: “If he succeeds in the above, builds the Temple in its place, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is definitely the Messiah.”) The answer is in the verses that close the Haftara: (ibid., 20 & 23) “And they shall bring all your brethren out of all the nations for an offering unto the LORD, upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon swift beasts, to My holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD, as the children of Israel bring their offering in a clean vessel into the house of the LORD…. And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before Me, said the LORD.” That is, once prayer is a necessity, and because the vast majority can not live up to the Maimonidean ideal, a centralized place of prayer is still necessary, even for a human society that has advanced beyond the baseness of animal sacrifice. When such a Temple is said to house the divine presence, it means that there will be inspired individuals among the general population who, through concentrating their thoughts on the Temple, will perceive as though the voice that speaks directly to their minds, emanates from the Temple. That is, the Temple does not and cannot house anything more than that which the builders place inside, and certainly not God. Rather, it is the focal and rallying point for the people, and the divine indicator of God’s favor, and may we all live to see that it be so.

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