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Parashat Vayikra 5773 — 03/13/2013

Parashat Vayikra 5773 — 03/13/2013

Understand that a person is created through his actions, and his heart and all his thoughts always follow his actions that he performs, whether for good or for bad.  And even a completely evil person in his heart, whose every inclination in his thoughts is constantly evil all the day – if his spirit is aroused and he makes the effort constantly to be engaged in Torah and mitzvot, even if not for their own sake, he will immediately begin to incline towards the good, and through the power of his actions he will kill off his evil inclination, for the heart is drawn after the actions.  …

Thus our Sages of blessed memory have said: The Holy One blessed be He wished to give Israel merit, therefore He multiplied for them Torah and mitzvot (Makkot 23b), to keep our thoughts busy with them so that He could bestow goodness on us in the end.  For because of these good actions we become good people and merit Eternal Life.  And they hinted about this (Menachot 43b) – everyone who has a mezuzah on his door, and tzitzit on his garment and t’fillin on his head, is guaranteed that he will not sin, for these are all constant mitzvot and they affect us continually.  (Sefer haChinuch, Mitzvah 16)

The quote with which I have begun is from the 13th century Sefer haChinuch, a compendium of the 613 mitzvot organized by the Parashah in which they occur.  The discussion is from Mitzvah #16, the prohibition against breaking a bone of the Pesach offering, and is from Parashat Bo, quite a number of weeks ago.  The question the passage is addressing is: Why does the Passover Seder has so many symbolic mitzvot – that is, mitzvot that are supposed to direct our attention to some concept that Gd wants us to internalize.

So why am I bringing this up now, in a completely different context, and a completely different Chumash?!  I’ll tell you – I just happened to read the passage when I was getting ready to write this drash, and it struck me that it contains a very deep truth that we can all use in our spiritual development.  Furthermore, I believe that this idea gives us an insight into the nature of the Divine Service that took place in the Tabernacle, and later in the Temples in Jerusalem.

Ramban explains that the purpose of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was to recreate the experience of the Revelation at Mt. Sinai.  For this purpose each of the appurtenances of the Mishkan had a specific purpose, a specific place, and a specific way of being acted upon (generally by the Kohanim).  The rituals were precisely choreographed and included singing/chanting by specially trained singers (Levites).  The average Israelite participated by bringing offerings of animals, birds and/or flour and oil, and wine.  Now that the Temples have been destroyed, these services have been replaced by our prayer services, which also are carefully choreographed and which also include singing/chanting, in many cases by specially trained cantors.

How does all this recreate the experience of Revelation?  I believe the (anonymous) author of Sefer haChinuch gives us a valuable insight into this question.  We understand from our tradition that a human being is a purely spiritual soul, and this soul inhabits a material body that allows it to interact with the material world.  Clearly the soul influences the body – when the soul departs the body dies, so the soul animates the body.  Ideally the soul will direct the body to perform only those actions that cause it to reflect most perfectly the inner purity and sanctity of the soul.  In reality of course, our bodies have their own desires – they are physical bodies and they desire pleasurable physical sensations – and we sometimes take action following the body’s lead, to the detriment of the soul.  Instead of the soul’s making the body more spiritual – that is, better able to infuse spiritual values into the material, sometimes the body sullies the soul, dragging it into the muck and mire of an unredeemed physicality.  We call this sin.  We call the process by which the distortions caused by sin are rectified, redemption.

What Sefer haChinuch appears to be telling us is that just as the physical actions of the body can sully the soul, so there are actions that the body can do that will purify, redeem the soul.  In particular, all of the mitzvot of the Torah are actions that have the effect of purifying the soul and putting it back in charge of the body, rather than vice versa.  Ramban makes the same point when he says that the purpose of the mitzvot is the refinement of our personality.

This point is valid for all the mitzvot we have been given, both ritual (bein adam laMakom – between Gd and human beings) and interpersonal (bein adam lachaveiro – between one person and another).  In particular, the mitzvot having to do with the service in the Tabernacle/Temple have this refining effect not only on the level of the individual (e.g. when an individual brings a free-will offering or an obligatory offering) but also on the level of the entire nation (in the case of the communal offerings – the daily morning and evening offerings [tamid] and the additional offerings on Shabbat, Festivals and Rosh Chodesh [musaf offerings]).  Indeed, according to our Sages, the 70 bulls offered during Sukkot are for the 70 nations of the world (as listed in the list of Noah’s descendants), so the Temple service apparently also had a refining and purifying effect on the entire world as well.  The Talmud laments that had the nations of the world understood how much they stood to gain from the Temple Service they would have stationed armies around it to protect it rather than destroying it!

“Because of our sins our Temple has been destroyed.”  The Temples were destroyed when the rituals that took place in them became empty rituals.  We have seen the same things happen to other rituals that we can still practice – they seem to fall prey to a kind of mindless performance, without emotional fervor or intellectual depth.  They seem to fall into a vicious cycle of rituals becoming empty, therefore not having the refining effect, therefore appearing even more empty to our impoverished vision, and eventually falling off.  Torah explains the reason for this – it is the very material prosperity that comes from the earlier, more refined stage!  We become comfortable and complacent, and neglect our constant growth.  And once we begin to slip, the whole thing begins a downward spiral: Yeshurun became fat and kicked (Deut 32:15).

What is the solution?  Again, Torah spells it out – it is t’shuvah, return to Gd, to the infinite basis of life that is within us.  We have to decide first that our purpose in life is to infuse this infinite spiritual value into the material world, not to pollute infinity with material, temporal values.  When we make nourishing our souls our first priority, when we consciously begin to contemplate Gd and study the Torah He has given us, then we can start infusing life back into all the practices of our tradition and allow them to refine us once again – individuals, the nation and the world.  It may not be easy to turn around a speeding train, but our life depends on our making the effort.