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G-d... says: 'For I did not speak to your ancestors or command them about burnt offerings and sacrifices when I took them out of… Egypt.' Rather, I commanded them: 'Obey me, and I will be your G-d and you will be My people. Carefully follow the path I commanded you, so that things will go well for you.' (Jeremiah 7:22-23)
The prophet Jeremiah lived during the end of the seventh and beginning of the sixth century BCE, and he lived to witness the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. He was active in the Southern Kingdom of Judah during the reigns of five different kings of Judah: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah - to four of whom he brought messages from G-d. The Northern Kingdom of Israel, containing the Ten Tribes, had already been forced into exile a century, under the Assyrian Empire.
From the text of his book, he appears to have had only one task, to which he applied himself single-mindedly. That was to warn the people that Judah would be destroyed unless they, the Jews, repented. With all the sincerity and devotion he brought to his mission, however, he knew that he would not see success in his own lifetime. For G-d had already decreed that Judah would be destroyed following the activities of Josiah's grandfather, King Manasseh:
"Since King Manasseh of Judah has committed such abominations… and since he has caused Judah to sin with his idols, G-d, the L-rd of Israel says: "I will bring such disaster on Jerusalem and Judah that the ears of everyone who hears about it will ring! … I will wipe out Jerusalem … I will abandon the remnant of My inheritance and deliver them to their enemies. They will become spoil and plunder for all their enemies, because they have displeased Me and angered Me since the time when their ancestors left Egypt to this day." (Kings II 21:11-15).
And that decree remained in force despite the positive religious reforms and revival under King Josiah, during whose reign Jeremiah began his career as a prophet. As the text states:
"There was no other king like Josiah before or afterwards who returned to G-d with all his heart and soul and might. However, G-d did not turn away from His great anger of the because of everything Manasseh had done to provoke Him." (ibid. 23:25-6)
Jeremiah was neither allowed to marry (16:1-2), nor to commiserate with his people. His dramatic conveyance of the Word of G-d to the Jews did not win him popularity, and he was reviled, beaten, and imprisoned. He was threatened with death more than once, and his would-be assassins almost succeeded. He survived, only living to see the Temple destroyed, the wealthier classes exiled to Babylon, and himself dragged over the border to Egypt, where he remained until his death.
The text of the Haftara tastes very bitter. G-d states he does not want to partake of Judah's Temple offerings - instead, he tells the people, you may as well bring more - and eat them yourselves. He comes close to saying - 'Take your offerings away from me, stuff yourselves with their meat, and I hope they choke you!'
The hypocritical people of Judah had perverted the real purpose of the Temple. Why bring burnt offerings wholly consumed by fire for G-d when their own personal conduct contradicted all that the Temple and its service stood for? As Jeremiah says in the name of G-d: 'Rather I commanded them, "Obey Me, and I will be your G-d and you will be My people. Carefully follow the path that I commanded you, so things will go well for you"'. (7:23)
But, G-d tells Jeremiah, His message will fall onto deaf ears. 'You will speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you.' (7:27) And Judah will be destroyed - 'for G-d has rejected and abandoned the people who provoked Him.' (7:29) He refers to their gravitating to the pagan worship of the period (of which archaeology has revealed numerous examples) featuring human sacrifices - 'burning their sons and daughters in fire' (7:31) in the nearby Valley of Hinnom.
Therefore, G-d says, He will turn the Valley of Hinnom of human sacrifices into the Valley of Slaughter for the Jewish People. The bones of the dead will be 'taken out of their graves' (an ultimate disgrace) and 'be spread out under the sun, moon… which they worshipped… and before whom they bowed down… like dung upon the earth'. (8:2-3)
Jeremiah delivered this message from G-d to the Israelites when things were still going well for them. Thus the end of the Haftara warns, success may only be superficial in the eyes of G-d. 'The wise man should not glory in his wisdom, the warrior in his bravery, or the rich man in his riches.' (9:22) These in themselves are not the ultimate achievements of individuals in their short stay on Earth. What is the ultimate achievement is the long struggle in bringing oneself closer to one's Creator: 'Let those who wish to glory, do so in knowing and understanding Me, for I am G-d who acts kindly, justly, and righteously on Earth. For these things please Me, says G-d'. (9:23).
The opening words of the Parasha: 'G-d said to Moses… this is the law of the burnt offering' (Lev. 6:1-2) lead into a continued detailed description of the offerings in the Tabernacle - and later in the Temple. The opening words of the Haftara, which Jeremiah brings in the name of G-d, convey a very different message:
'For I did not speak to your ancestors or command them about burnt offerings and sacrifices when I took them out of… Egypt.' Rather, I commanded them: 'Obey me, and I will be your G-d and you will be My people. Carefully follow the path I commanded you, so that things will go well for you.' (Jeremiah 7:22-23)
Those words seem to unilaterally contradict the content of the Parasha. Indeed a major part of the Book of Leviticus deals with just that: burnt offerings and sacrifices.
The Rambam resolves this difficulty in his well-known argument in the Guide to the Perplexed (III:32). He argues that the laws of the sacrifices were only given to the Israelites because they wanted to serve G-d in that manner. They were not part of His Ideal Plan for the Israelites. Abarbanel relates to the problem on similar lines. Like the Rambam, offerings are not part of His Scheme for His People. Tabernacle service, he argues, was a means to ease the Israelites away from idolatry following the sin of the Golden Calf.
Rashi takes a less drastic line in resolving the clash between the Parasha and the Haftara. Even though G-d did command the Israelites to bring offerings, He did not wish them be brought as a mere religious ritual - without appropriate piety. But even so, surely the offerings would have some value. Better that G-d is served, even if not in the ideal way, than not at all. Why did the Word of G-d through Jeremiah imply that the offerings brought at that time were not related to Torah teachings? They were not only worthless, but the tone of the message implies that they were counterproductive - indeed a source of harm, rather than good.
In response, the situation may be likened a neglectful father and a young son. The father divides his time between work, studying, hobbies, and traveling abroad. His home is a pit stop between 'more important' commitments. He sees his fast-growing nine-year old on Shabbat only (and sometimes not even then) - and for much of even that time he is entertaining 'more interesting' visitors, under the pious flag of 'Hachnasat Orchim' (welcoming guests).
He begins to miss his son as he flies to the other side of the globe. He 'puts the matter right' by buying him lavish presents - a laptop computer, a Play Station - and in saying that 'these are for my son' he also gets the satisfaction of people thinking: 'How lucky he is to have a father like that!'
The son is not so easily taken in. He looks at the presents and he might do one of two things. He might just be tempted to grab them and enjoy them. He could well throw them back into his father's face and tell him he doesn't want presents from strangers. Either way the relationship has not improved. The father will have to devote much thought, time, and sensitivity, to ease his relationship with his young son onto the right course.
Thus the presents were not merely coolly received. They were worse than nothing - an insult to the child, a pathetic attempt to appease him for lack of parental time and attention. The child, being no fool, saw the lavish gifts for the miserable function that they served.
The concluding words of the Haftara bring a similar idea in reference to the Temple offerings:
G-d says: 'The wise man should not glory in his wisdom, the warrior in his bravery, or the rich man in his riches. Rather, let those who wish to glory do son in knowing and understanding Me: for I am G-d who acts kindly, justly, and righteously on Earth. These things please me…' (Jeremiah 9:22-23)
Bringing lavish offerings to the Temple is not necessarily an act of piety. It may be a pitiful attempt to make amends for one's neglect in keeping commandments (especially in human relations) - in breach of failing to 'please' G-d in acting 'kindly, justly, and righteously' towards other people. And large lavish offerings can add insult to injury - no doubt giving the donor the opportunity of 'glorying in his riches' - and subtly embarrassing those who cannot afford to bring offerings on such a lavish scale.
Those are the offerings that G-d rejects. The son welcomes presents, but only within a loving, ongoing, and developing relationship. And G-d also welcomes the offerings in the Temple. But only within the context of striving to 'know and understand G-d' - by doing one's best to keep both the letter and the spirit of the Torah teachings. It is that context that makes Temple (and by extension, synagogue) worship truly worthy.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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