Three gentlemen have gathered on the terrace of an outdoor café. Two enjoy thimble-size cups of thick, sweet coffee. The third, a wild-eyed, raggedy-bearded fellow, stalks around among the tables, barely limiting his exhortations to his companions, which may explain why the café across the boulevard is having a particularly busy afternoon.
Nachmanides: Please, my friend, sit down. Enjoy your coffee while it’s still warm.
Jeremiah: “Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt-offerings unto your sacrifices, and eat ye flesh. 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, Haftarah to Tzav)
Maimonides [sotto voce to Nachmanides]: In my medical opinion, he may have had quite enough coffee.
Jeremiah: It’s inexcusable. Nobody hearkens. Their evil hearts are stubborn. Their necks are stiff. Feh! (Jeremiah 7:24-26 passim) Nachmanides: Of course you’re right. But please, calm down.
Maimonides: Wait a minute. He’s not right.
Nachmanides: He’s a prophet, for heaven’s sake.
Jeremiah: See? He isn’t hearkening!
Maimonides: But you can’t assert that God didn’t have much to say about burnt-offerings since the day our fathers left Egypt up to the present. (Jeremiah 7:25)
Jeremiah: He commanded them, saying, “Hearken unto My voice… and walk ye in all the way I command you.” (Jeremiah 7:23) Is there something about burnt-offerings there I’m not hearing? No, I didn’t think so.
Maimonides: But this whole portion, not to mention five out of the last six, is all about animal sacrifice. The whole tabernacle thing was a sacrificial cult. And Tzav isn’t the end of it. There’s more to come.
Jeremiah: What? You think these writings are nothing more than a Boy Scouts’ Handbook for Priests?
Maimonides: No, and neither do I believe that animal sacrifice was anything more than a way to ease a people surrounded by pagan ritual into a new custom. (“Guide for the Perplexed,” Book III, Ch. 32) Happily, we have reached a higher plateau now, of prayer and meditation.
Nachmanides: I disagree. Either the Torah means what it says, or it’s just you deciding what you want it to say.
Maimonides: And for you it means…?
Nachmanides: The inner spiritual meaning of the rituals. You must become the sacrifice, the smoke rising heavenward.
Jeremiah: You’re both full of halvah. The ritual isn’t just an interim step. Neither is it the external formalization of inner states. The problem is simple. When ritual becomes an end in itself, the entire demonstration of fidelity between man and God, it becomes meaningless. Ritual and righteousness must be equal. What’s better, a good ritual or a good man? As it is written: “Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices as in the hearkening to the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” (I Samuel 15:22) See? There it is again: hearken. But does anybody?
Nachmanides: A prophet you may be, but a rabbi you aren’t. The rabbis went out of their way to maintain Temple rituals even after the advent of rabbinic practice. What is the eternal light in the sanctuary but the tamid, the perpetual offering, the sacrificial fire that was kept burning through the night?
Maimonides: And yet it is written, “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord.” (Isaiah 1:11)
Nachmanides: So how come the rabbis begin a child’s induction into Torah by reading Leviticus?
Maimonides: I agree. The rabbis knew whereof they spoke.
Nachmanides: And I know a trap when I smell one.
Maimonides: Too late. As Rabbi Aha said in the name of Rabbi Hanina ben Papa: In order that Israel might not say: “In the past we used to offer up sacrifices and engage in the study of them; now that there are no sacrifices, is it necessary to engage in the study of them?” the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: “If you engage in the study of them, I account it unto you as if you had offered them up.” (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3)
Nachmanides: My point exactly. If He accounts them the same, then animal sacrifice is just as good as prayer.
Jeremiah: Nobody hearkens ever. Nobody.
Jeffrey Fiskin lives in Hollywood, Calif., with his wife and children.