Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Pesach sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Shmini
The Danger of Unbridled Religious Passion

After many months of construction - and many parshiyot devoted to its narrative - the Mishkan is finally dedicated and made operational in Parashat Shmini. On the eighth and final day of the inauguration, Moshe introduces the final series of sacrifices to the Children of Israel with the declaration that, if they are properly brought, "the Glory of the Lord will appear " (Vayikra, 9:6). And when the ritual is completed, we are told that, in fact, "the Glory of God appeared to the People. And a fire went forth from before God and it consumed on the altar the olah, the burnt offering, and the fats, and the entire nation saw and they rejoiced and they fell on their faces" (Vayikra, 9:23-24).

Amidst this direct manifestation of God's presence and the rejoicing of the people, Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, brought their own sacrifice, an offering of incense which was "a foreign fire, one that God had not commanded them" (Vayikra, 10:1). This time, when a "fire went forth from before God," it did not consume the sacrifice but those who brought it: "and it consumed them, and they died before the Lord" (Vayikra, 10:2).

While the midrash suggests a number of reasons why Nadav and Avihu were punished, a simple explanation is stated in the text itself: they drew near with a sacrifice that they had not been commanded to bring. The issue is not the violation of God's command per se or its converse - performing a non-commanded religious act. Rather, it is the much more specific concern of how one draws close to God. This can be understood as a natural result of the metaphysical reality of God's presence. The Torah describes God as a "consuming fire." God is the life-force of the universe; God is infinite power. When approached correctly, fire is brought forth that will consume the sacrifices and bring good to the world. When approach incorrectly or in unregulated ways, the fire brought forth will destroy people and bring tragedy to the world. This can be compared to an electricity-generating power station, with signs warning, "Danger! High Voltage!" Channeled properly, the electricity can light up an entire city. Handled improperly, it can be fatal.

It is for this reason that wherever and whenever the aron, the ark that housed the tablets, is handled incorrectly, tragedy immediately ensues. Thus, we read in the haftorah that when Uzah makes an innocent mistake and grabs onto the aron to prevent it from falling, he is immediately stricken dead by God (Shmuel II, 6:7). Such is the power of God's presence and of the aron, the location of the presence, that, if handled incorrectly, it will cause death.

This approach, while true to the text, still does not provide a satisfying religious explanation. We might react as King David did and be "angered that God had broken forth against Uzah," and we might try to understand how the punishment makes sense on a religious or moral level (Shmuel II, 6:8).

I believe that the deeper significance of what happened to Nadav and Avihu is the need to strike the proper and delicate balance between religious fervor and passion, and between regulation and limits. Clearly Nadav and Avihu were so moved by the manifestation of God's presence that they felt a powerful religious need to draw close to it, to bring their own sacrifice of incense. They acted on their fervor without reflecting or pausing to assess if what they were doing was proper. Religious passion can be a powerful good, but it can also be extremely dangerous. When people act on their unregulated religious passions, they tend to feel that their religious actions are self-justifying. "If this is how my religious passion propels me to act, then it is a religious act; it is good. If this gets me closer to God - in my mind - then it is good." This "ends justify the means" and "if it feels right it is right" attitude is antithetical to a classical Jewish approach. And we only have to look at the world around us and the atrocities that are perpetrated in the name of religion to recognize that unbridled religious passion can be very bad indeed; it can even be evil.

What, then, is the proper balance between passion and rules and regulations? According to the Torah, it is to first follow the rules, to first ensure that one's actions are in accord to what "God has commanded." When the people did what God had commanded, the fire consumed the sacrifices. When Nadav and Avihu brought an offering that "God had not commanded," the fire consumed them. Once the rules are being followed one can bring all of his or her passions to the experience: "And the people saw and rejoiced and fell on their faces." The mistake is to focus on the passion first. When one does this, the rules are violated, and the act is no longer a religious act but a dangerous one, one that can bring destruction.

This is why immediately after the death of Nadav and Avihu the Torah commands against serving God while intoxicated. For many, becoming intoxicated is an important means to attaining a state of religious ecstasy. However, for the Torah, it puts passion and experience above rules and responsibility. Approaching God while intoxicated will bring death. Rather, the Kohanim's prime responsibility is to not blur the boundaries but to set them. They must be sober so they can "distinguish between the holy and the profane, and between the ritually pure and the impure" (Vayikra, 10:10). From Levi's actions in defense of God's honor at Har Sinai, to Pinchas' acting zealously for God, Eliyahu jealously defending God's honor, and Matityahu's revolt against the Seleucids and the Hellenizers, the Kohanim excelled at religious passion. The Torah had to rein this in and redirect it, making their first and primary responsibility to guard the Mishkan, to keep the impure out and to set the boundaries between what is and is not acceptable.

It is on this note that the parasha ends. First by differentiating between the pure (i.e., kosher) and impure (i.e., non-kosher) animals, and finally, by underscoring that this setting of boundaries is the responsibility not just of the Kohanim but of every one of us. "And to distinguish between the impure and the pure, and between the animal that may be eaten and the one which may not be eaten" (Vayikra, 11:47).

Our challenge today is that we have learned this lesson perhaps too well. We have so focused our religious experience on the rules and regulations, on halakha and all of its details, that we have almost completely lost touch with any sense of religious passion. If there is no religious passion, then our religious life becomes a simple life of observance, it becomes lifeless, antiseptic, and anemic. Part of the reason for this is that we have not prioritized passion as a religious value in the home, in the synagogue, or in the schools. But there is another reason. We do not experience God as directly as people had in the past. When one could experience God's presence, when a fire could come down from the heavens, it was easier not just to believe, but to experience God. This was a central part of the function of the Mishkan - to create a tangible sense of God's presence. Today, we rationally and philosophically shy away from thinking of or experiencing God's presence as something to be felt in this world, and so we are less equipped to have tangible religious experiences. Instead, we live a life of halakha.

If I had to pick between the two, I would pick the passionless religious experience that is guided by law, halakha, and regulation. This ultimately produces right actions and good in the world. In contrast, as we know too well, a religious experience which is driven by passion can lead to terrible atrocities. But we shouldn't have to pick. We have been so good at establishing the rule of law, the rule of halakha, that we can stand to reintroduce a little religious passion into our lives. In our relationship with God, we have truly been married a long time, but I still want there to be some spark in the relationship. I want to get excited, and I want us as a people to get excited, to get passionate, to have a drive to serve God and to bring God into the world. We need to ensure that the rules remain primary, and to work together to bring some passion into our religious lives, Let us learn how to "rejoice and fall on our faces."

Shabbat Shalom!

Revised from a piece that originally appeared in 2014.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Thought on Pesach

Feel free to download and print the Pesach sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Pesach

Why Not Just Tell the Story?

The central mitzvah of the Seder night is sippur yitziyat Mitzrayim, telling the story of the exodus from Egypt. The simplest way to do this would be to open Shemot and read the narrative directly from the Torah. This experience would certainly be more engaging than reading the story in the Haggadah - there is greater detail in the Torah, the plot is more dramatic, and, as one of my students recently pointed out, there are the characters, the actors who make the story interesting. But this is not the approach of the Haggadah.

Some of the earlier rabbis even espoused the opinion that one should ignore the story and spend the evening intensively studying (la'asok b') the laws of the Paschal sacrifice. The Mechilta, a collection of Tannaitic writings on Shemot, contains an early second-century quote from Rabbi Eliezer: "How do you know that, if it is a group of all sages or of Torah students that they must study in the laws of the Pesach until midnight? Therefore it says: 'What are these testimonies...'" For Rabbi Eliezer, rigorous Torah study, indicated by the verb of la'asok, is the core mitzvah of the evening.

However, this type of discussion is restrictive and too easily becomes elitist in nature. It is the answer only to the questions of the chakham (the wise son or the sage): "What are these laws? Let me understand their details and nuances." It is a talmud Torah reserved for the few, for "sages or Torah students." It works for those that have the capacity, interest, and education for this form of study. Everyone else remains excluded.

Rabban Gamliel's approach is similar. As the Tosefta (Pesachim,10:12) relates, "There is a story regarding Rabban Gamliel and the elders who were reclining in the house of Beitos ben Zonim in Lod, and they were intensively studying (oskim b') the laws of Pesach the entire night until the rooster crowed. The tables were removed from in front of them, and they gathered and took themselves to the study hall." Here, the sages are doing the classic Torah learning of the beit midrash, delving into the particulars and subtleties of the laws. And thus, when morning comes, what is there to do but continue? They get up and go to the beit midrash. For them, the mitzvah of Pesach night is no different than the rest of the year; only the topic changes.

The Haggadah rejects the elitism of these two approaches. Almost no space is given to discussing the laws of the Pesach or any other halakhot. There is only the briefest of responses to the chakham with no echo in the rest of the Haggadah. Perhaps even the law that we teach the chakham, "One does not eat a dessert after the Paschal sacrifice," serves to redirect this too narrow approach. The reason that we do not eat anything after the Paschal meat is so that "the taste remains in our mouth." Perhaps we are saying to the chakham, "You ask, 'What are the laws?' But there is more than laws, more than 'the what.' There are the reasons, the ta'am, 'the why.' This reason, this ta'am, of the mitzvah has to remain with you. Your religious life has to extend beyond the beit midrash."

The Haggadah also tells the story of the gathering of sages differently. In its version, the sages, including Rabbi Eliezer, were not discussing halakha. They were simply telling the narrative of the Exodus. Even these great sages understood the mitzvah this night is to tell the story, to present a larger narrative that gives meaning and direction to our religious lives. Where did this all begin, how did we get here, where are we going? These are big religious questions that we can all ask and, on this night, we must ask.

The events of the following morning reflect this more inclusive approach. Rather than taking themselves to the study hall, the sages are reminded by their students to say the morning Shema. In this, they are reminded not to become so engrossed in their study that they forget the basic affirmation of faith that everyone does each morning; they cannot sequester themselves in the study hall and in their narrow discourse. On the Seder night, the next morning, and throughout the year, they must be part of the larger religious faith of the people.

Rabban Gamliel's position of the mitzvah of the evening is also transformed. Both the Mishna and the Haggadah quote Rabban Gamliel as stating that one only fulfills his or her obligation by explaining the symbolism of the three foods of the night: "Pesach, for what reason?... Matzah, for what reason?... Marror, for what reason?" In contrast to the focus on the laws of the Paschal sacrifice that we find in the Tosefta, the Rabban Gamliel of the Haggadah requires us to discuss the sacrifice in a way that is accessible to all. These are not the technical "what" questions that are the purview of the sages and their students: "What foods are considered marror? How much marror must one eat? Must one lean for marror?" Rather, here we find the "why" questions of religious meaning that we all must ask: "Why do we eat marror? What is the message? How is this relevant?"

The Haggadah, then, transforms both Rabbi Eliezer and Rabban Gamliel and presents two alternatives to studying halakha on the Seder night:

1. Don't talk about halakha; tell the story.
2. If you do talk halakha, don't talk about the what. Instead, talk about the why. 

This is the corrective to the chakham. But the Haggadah also serves as a corrective to the other extreme, to those who would be content just listening to a story. The easiest and most universal approach is that of the tam, asking, "What is this about?" and sitting back to listen. "Let me tell you a story" is a line that immediately grabs our attention. Who doesn't love a good story?

But such an approach is too easy. It doesn't demand anything of us. We can be totally passive; we can just relax and enjoy. We might be temporarily inspired by the story of the Exodus, but if we don't put ourselves into it, we won't be transformed. This is why the simple telling of a story is also given short shrift in the Haggadah. "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and God took us out from there": no detail, no engaging plot, no characters. True, the story in Shemot is much more interesting. But the Haggadah is informing us that this, also, is not the mitzvah of the night.

The real mitzvah is neither la'asok, to do intensive study of halakha, or li'saper, to merely tell a story. Rather, it is to do as the Mishna in Pesachim instructs: doresh me'Arami oved avi, to explicate the verses of, "A wandering Armenian was my father..."   We are to start not with the Biblical telling of the story in Shemot but its re-telling in Devarim. Our mitzvah is not to tell, but to retell, a story, or more accurately, to re-retell a story. Through retelling we make the story our own. We decide what to emphasize and what to leave out; we tell it in a way that makes us a part of the telling.

The retelling we do this evening takes a particular form. The key word here is doresh. We engage in classic rabbinic talmud Torah, not the more exclusivist intensive study of halakha but the Torah she'b'al peh that is our communal heritage. This is the taking of Biblical verses, the Torah that God has given us, and explicating them, interpreting them, asking what each phrase means. How should it be understood? How is it relevant? It is the bringing of the fullness of our selves - our experiences, values, worldview, questions, critical thought, and faith - into conversation with God's Torah. What results is a Torah she'b'al peh, a Torah that is both God's and our own.

That is why the characters of the Haggadah are not Moshe, Aharon and Pharoah. The characters of the Haggadah are Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Tarfon, Rabbi Akiva, and all those who were a part of explicating the Haggadah, all those who found themselves in the story. The key question this night is, can we engage and retell the story in such a way that we, too, will become characters in the Haggadah?

On the Seder night, we do not just learn halakha or tell a story. We bring these two approaches together, telling a story through the lens of Torah she'b'al peh. The sages among us are asked to weave their narrower Torah into a larger narrative of religious meaning, and those of us who would normally be happy just to sit back and listen are pushed to become active participants in the telling and meaning-making. This night, we must all make the story our own. Only in this way will it gain real traction and translate into our lives. Only in this way will we, too, become part of the story.

Chag Sameach!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Tzav

Tzav: Pulling Back the Curtain

Vayikra began with a detailed list of the different sacrifices a person could bring and the laws pertaining to them. Somewhat surprisingly, the Torah seems to repeat itself in this week's parasha, listing once again all the sacrifices and how they are to be brought. What is the point of this repetition?

The answer can be found in the first verses of each parasha. Vayikra begins with a command to Moshe to speak to the children of Israel; the opening verse of Tzav commands him to speak to the Kohanim. Accordingly, Vayikra details the laws pertaining to the person bringing the sacrifice, while Tzav details the laws pertaining to the Kohanim executing the sacrificial service. The first concern of the one bringing the sacrifice is what may be brought, and thus Vayikra opens with those requirements. On the other hand, the first concern of the Kohanim is how the sacrificial service must be executed: ensuring that the offerings on the altar are completely burnt, determining who may eat from which portions of the sacrifices, and other similar details. It is the same sacrifice in each case; the difference is one of perspective.

In laying out the duties of the Kohanim, our parasha quickly deviates from the focus on sacrifices per se. After stating briefly how the burnt offering is to be burnt, the Torah spells out in great detail the ritual of the terumat ha'deshen, the removal of ashes from the altar by a Kohen each morning. In addition to this daily ritual, a Kohen must also do a more thorough removal of the ashes when necessary, changing into non-priestly clothes and transporting the ashes outside the camp. This almost amounts to janitorial work, "garbage removal," and is certainly not something likely to be perceived as a very lofty task. What is the importance of telling us of this lowly task, and why do so at the very beginning of the parasha?

The Torah is pulling the curtain back to let us see what goes on behind the scenes. In the beginning of Vayikra, when the person comes to the Temple to bring a sacrifice, all he or she sees is a clean and ordered space: the Kohanim functioning efficiently, in a coordinated manner, and the visitors being treated respectfully and attended to in a proper and timely fashion. In short, everything is functioning just as it should. The person's only concern is the sacrifice that he or she is bringing.

But this beautiful setting does not come about automatically. It is the product of an efficiently run organization, and an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes effort is required to make everything look perfect. The priests make it all look simple for the worshipper.

For the Temple to function as it should, the ashes have to be taken out every morning, the floors have to be washed, the utensils have to be cleaned and put back in their proper places, the fire has to be tended, the supplies have to be available, the Kohanim have to be organized and coordinated. As the law of entropy teaches us, disorder is the natural state of affairs, and maintaining order requires constant work and attention. From the perspective of the one bringing the sacrifice, all of this work is invisible. From the perspective of the Kohanim, it is a top priority. If the ashes aren't removed or the fire isn't tended, the Temple will not be able to open for business.

It is so easy for us as consumers, as recipients of other people's services, to be completely blind to this sort of effort, to think service is simple and to take it for granted. How often have we gone to a conference and not even thought about the fact that everything was exactly as it should be? We take this as a given; if things were just right, we would be irate: "Why isn't my room ready?!" "I can't believe they didn't take care of my special request for lunch!" Sadly, these are not uncommon remarks at such events. The thousands of details and the hundreds of man-hours required to get everything perfectly in place, to make it all look easy and simple, are somehow so easily forgotten.

This blindness is not limited to conferences, of course. In our interactions with our spouses, how often do we get upset when something is not exactly as it should be, completely taking for granted all the effort that we do not see, or choose not to see? Are we fully cognizant of how much work it takes to keep a house in order, to "remove the ashes": taking out the garbage, vacuuming, doing the wash, putting everything in its place, keeping the house stocked with groceries, having meals ready at the right time, having the table set, having the dishes done, having the bills paid, interacting with the children's teachers, handling the planning for camp or extra-curricular activities? Do we see all of this? Or do we just get upset when something was forgotten or not done to our liking?

This also occurs in our appraisals of our rabbis and teachers, the Kohanim of today. How often do we go home from shul complaining about some detail in the rabbi's sermon or some other small thing that was not exactly perfect? Do we remember the hundreds of hours, the enormous effort, required to keep the shul running? Do we recognize the number of hours that the rabbi puts in teaching, visiting people in the hospital, providing counsel, working with bar and bat mitzvah children, or being at every shiva house and every bris?

When it comes to those who have taken upon themselves the holy task of educating our children - in Torah or in secular studies - do we ever stop to appreciate the hours upon hours that they put in over countless nights: grading tests, preparing lessons, writing thoughtful feedback on exams and essays, writing assessments, writing letters of recommendation? Or do we take all of that for granted, or worse, do we not even see it at all? When we go to parent/teacher conferences we want to hear how wonderfully our children are doing. We might also come with concerns - or a long list of complaints. But do we ever take the time to thank these tireless individuals, not only for the teaching they do in class but also for their endless, behind-the-scenes efforts to make sure everything will be just right, just so?

Because this work is so easily overlooked it requires extra encouragement. Our parasha opens, "Command, tzav, the children of Israel" (Vayikra, 6:1). According to Rashi, "tzav means nothing other than urging - for now and for all future generations." Those who are doing the tireless work behind the scenes need encouragement. The work is hard. It can be never-ending, inglorious. It can feel like taking out of garbage, not like the holy work that it is. For it is what brings kedusha to the lives of those being served.

There is a reason why some of our most talented people don't go into avodat haKodesh and devote themselves to the Jewish community, or why we sometimes lose our best rabbis and our best teachers. If all of their effort goes unacknowledged, if we do not give them the encouragement, the tzav,that they both deserve and need, then we should not be surprised if the fire on the altar no longer burns as strongly or as brightly.

This is the challenge of Parashat Tzav. Can we extract ourselves from our Vayikra perspective? Can we put ourselves into the perspective of Tzav, of the Kohanim? If we can, we will see that, from their point of view, the first concern is not what animal to bring or even how it is to be brought. Rather, the first priority for those serving in the Temple is that mundane and necessary task of making sure that the ashes are removed, that all the work is done the night before so that everything will be perfect in the morning. The Kohanim's work is to ensure that everything will flow so easily and function so perfectly that it can be taken for granted. Our work is to make sure that we never take it for granted.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Vayikra

A Sweet Savor

"The priest shall bring it all, and burn it upon the altar: it is a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, a sweet savor unto the Lord" (Vayikra, 1:13). We are told eight times in this week's parasha that the sacrifices are a "sweet savor" to God. This graphic anthropomorphism of God is challenging to modern ears, but we can understand the power that it held for people in the past. It communicates the idea that our sacrifices rise up to God: the smoke rises to heaven, bringing with it the smell of the burning meat, and God is pleased by our offering. The message is clear: God desires our sacrifices.

Rambam believed otherwise. He was bothered by the institution of sacrifice and claimed that God only commanded it as a concession to human weakness. In his Guide to the Perplexed, Rambam suggests that God used sacrifices as a way of weaning the people off idolatry (III:32). As the method of worship for all the pagan gods, sacrifice was the only form of worship the people of the time could conceive of; they would not have been able to worship God solely through prayer. Thus, God moved them away from idolatry and commanded that they redirect their worship - with sacrifices - to God. God may have desired sacrifices as a temporary concession, but God certainly does not desire the practice as an ideal form of religious worship.

Ramban rejects Rambam's position, pointing out that sacrifices were used to worship God even in situations free from a context of idolatry. Indeed, Kayin and Hevel offered sacrifices that were acceptable and pleasing to God, as did Noah. Furthermore, Ramban states that it is religiously offensive to suggest that the entire institution of sacrifice was not God's true will:

His [Rambam's] statements are preposterous. They "heal the great hurt superficially" and render "the table of the Lord disgusting" by limiting its use to placate the wicked and the foolish. But the Torah states that they are "...a sweet savor" (commentary on Vayikra, 1:9).

This debate - and the significance of sacrifices as a "sweet savor" - becomes central in the context of Pesach: Should we still bring a korban Pesach today? Starting with the Hatam Sofer (19th century, Hungary), there have been those who have argued for continuing the practice, even in the absence of a Temple. Putting aside questions of politics and practicality, is such a thing even halakhically possible?

On the one hand, one could argue that we are all considered temei met, impure due to contact with a corpse. Indeed, last Shabbat was Parashat Parah, named after the special maftir from Bamidbar 19 detailing the laws of impurity of corpses and the purification ritual involving the ashes of a red heifer. This reading reminds us how the people had to purify themselves in order to bring the Pesach sacrifice. But this is not an obstacle today. Given that we are all impure, we could bring the sacrifice regardless, based on the principle of tumah hutra bi'tzibbur, communal impurity is set aside for communal sacrifices.

But what about the absence of the Temple? This also need not be a halakhic barrier. The Gemara in Megilah (10a) states that the original kedusha, the sanctity, of Jerusalem and the Temple from the time of Joshua remains today. Rambam rules this way, explaining that the kedusha of the Temple and Jerusalem never departed, for once God's Presence rests in a place it remains there for all eternity (Laws of the Temple, 6:14-16). One might argue that this does not sufficiently address the lack of a physical Temple, but the Gemara Megilah (10a) also says "makrivim af al pi she'eyn bayit," "one can offer sacrifices even without a Temple." Rambam also rules in accordance with this.

So, even though we are ritually impure and without a Temple, it would seem that we could still offer sacrifices. (And the priestly garments could be easily manufactured - there is an institute in Israel that has already done so!) This position was argued by Hatam Sofer in a responsum, but for him the discussion was merely theoretical (YD 2:236). In the following generation, his student, Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalisher, tried to make the theory a reality.

Rav Kalisher wrote an entire book, Drishat Tzion, arguing for the obligation to bring the korban Pesach. In writing the book, he hoped to put the bringing of the korban Pesach at the top of the communal agenda. Rav Kalisher's initiative and his motivation for it can be better understood in a larger historical context. He began it when the Reform movement was just starting. The rejection of both the significance of the Land of Israel and the concept of shivat Tziyon, the return to the Land of Israel, was high on the agenda of the budding Reform movement, and the repudiation of the whole institution of sacrifices went hand-in-hand with this. It was thus important for Rav Kalisher to reassert the centrality of the Land of Israel, the Temple, and the sacrifices.

In hopes of getting other rabbis to sign on to his initiative, Rav Kalisher sent his book to Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, a staunch opponent of the Reform movement in Altona, Germany, for approval. Rav Ettlinger did not sign on. Instead, he offered a surprising counter-text to the passage in the Talmud allowing one to bring sacrifices without a Temple, and his response brings us back to the phrase, "a pleasing smell" (Teshuvot Binyan Tzion 1).

Rav Ettlinger quotes a Biblical verse at the end of Vayikra that prophesizes the destruction of the Temple. That verse states: "And I will lay waste to your Sanctuaries, and I will not smell the sweet savor of the sacrifices" (Vayikra, 26:31). According to Rav Ettlinger, this verse is telling us that, although the Sanctuary retains its sanctity even after its destruction, and one can technically still bring sacrifices, God declares that God no longer desires such sacrifices, that they will not be considered li'rayach nichoach, as a sweet savor. And it is a halakhic principle that a sacrifice that is not considered to be for a sweet savor is invalid. In an astounding move in the context of a halakhic, Torah she'b'al Peh argument, Rav Ettlinger states that, "although the Talmud says that one can still bring sacrifices, God states: 'I will not smell their sweet savor.'" God trumps the Talmud!

But what about the statement that sacrifices can still be brought? This, answers Rav Ettlinger, is only when God is no longer "laying waste to the Sanctuary." At any time in which the Temple is being actively rebuilt but has not yet been completed - such as the beginning of the Second Commonwealth or as will be in Messianic times - one can bring sacrifices without a Temple. But as long as the Temple is laid waste, then God is telling us that God does not want our sacrifices.

Rav Ettlinger's approach is of great importance. It speaks to how we deal - theologically and practically - not only with the destruction of the Temple, but with other historical developments that the Jewish people have had to face. He argues that God sends us messages through historical events, and in our responses, we should not try to recreate previous realities in today's world. Rather, we should respond in a manner appropriate to the context of contemporary realities.

The question of how to respond to the destruction of the Temple, and along with it the corresponding transition to a Judaism in which prayer and Torah learning are the central forms of worship, is actually debated in Hazal. There are those that see our contemporary forms of worship as mere substitutes for a more ideal, sacrificial order - "nishalma parim si'fateinu," "let our lips be a substitute for oxen" (Hoshea, 14:3) - and there are those who state that prayer and Torah are greater than sacrifice. The latter approach can be seen in a verse from Tehillim, a verse that follows the opening of the Shemoneh Esrei itself: "God, open up my lips, and let my mouth speak of Your praise. For You do not desire a sacrifice, that I should give it. A burnt offering you do not want" (Tehilim, 51:16-17).

As we approach Pesach and prepare to celebrate the seder with all its rituals, we can reflect on the meaning of the seder night and how it has transformed from the time when we had a Temple and the entire people gathered together to sacrifice and eat the Paschal lamb. While our sedarim are certainly less bloody, and while we may believe as Rav Ettlinger did that such sacrifices are no longer desired, we can still be saddened by the loss of the sweet savor that came from a truly communal, nationwide celebration of the chag of Pesach. Without sacrifices, it is up to us to identify how our worship, on the seder night and throughout the year, can bring us together as a people and connect us to God, so that it may rise up and be received by God as a sweet savor.

Shabbat Shalom!