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Parshat Pinchas

Reliving the moment

Before Moshe ascended Mount Sinai the Torah relates, “He sent the young men of the Children of Israel, and they offered burnt-offerings and sacrificed peace-offerings of oxen to God.” (Shmot 24, 8) In this week’s parsha the commandment to sacrifice the korban tamid, daily burnt-offering, mentions those sacrifices, “It is a continual burnt-offering, that was done on Mount Sinai, a satisfying aroma offered by fire to God.” (Bamidbar 28, 6) 

The various midrashei halacha understood that this reference has practical halachic ramifications; by mentioning the actions performed at Mount Sinai the verse turns them into binding laws governing the korban tamid for generations to come. (Sifra Tzav 11, 8; Mechilta d’Rashbi 24, 6) The precise halachot learned from this reference is the subject of dispute. Rabbi Yishmael learned that the sacrifice must be offered at an altar, Rabbi Akiva learned the laws of the meal-offering and libations that accompany the sacrifice, Rabbi Shimon learned that there must be a vessel designated to collect the blood of the offering, Rabbi Yossi HaGlili believed that the reason for the comparison between the sacrifices is the satisfying aroma, and Rabbi Natan argued that the comparison is meant to teach the laws of the water libation. (Sifrei Pinchas 143; Sifrei Zuta 28, 6) 

The midrashei aggada shift the focus from details and laws to a broader comparison between the two sections. Reish Lakish points out that the description of the events at Mount Sinai in Parshat Mishpatim focuses on eating and drinking, and contains an interesting juxtaposition. After the sacrifice is offered the Torah tells us that the nobles of Israel ate and drank. In contrast we are told Moshe ascended the mountain for forty days and forty nights; in that time he did not eat or drink, imitating God. According to Reish Lakish the reason the korban tamid mentions Mount Sinai is to combat any mistaken impression future generations may have that God needs regular meals. Even though God is often portrayed as “consuming” sacrifices the events at Mount Sinai remind us that this is merely allegory and that God does not eat or drink at all. (Bamidbar Rabba, Pinchas 21; Tanchuma Emor 20) The reference to Mount Sinai in Parshat Pinchas teaches us both halachic guidelines as well as valuable aggadic and philolophical ideas. The Zohar also finds philosophical significance in this reference:

“Rabbi Dostai asked Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol. He said to him: Rabbi, help me understand the great secret of this verse, ‘The continual burnt-offering that was done at Mount Sinai for a satisfying aroma, an offering of fire to God.’ He said to him: My son, I swear, you have just said something to me that you are not suitable to understand, and no person has ever asked this of me, except for Akiva my student.” (Zohar Bereishit 12,2) 

This paragraph of the Zohar makes it seem as though this verse contains a great secret revealed only to a select few. Such secrecy piques the reader’s curiosity; it makes us wonder what Rabbi Eliezer knew and what he revealed to Rabbi Akiva.

Yet the plain meaning of the “secret” in this context is that this is not something that can be explained through words or instructions. God can’t state His wishes in another way, only a person who was with Him on Mount Sinai when the sacrifices were offered can intuitively understand what God wants. The “secret” is well known to anyone who was there or anyone who can imagine what is was like on Mount Sinai, but it is beyond the rest of us. 

According to this explanation this is not a secret that can be revealed, it is a secret based on a shared experience, and only someone who went through that experience can understand the precise reason. No description can encapsulate the ideas contained in these words, just as an outsider watching a group of old friends reminiscing about their past could never understand the bonds that they feel and the impact these events have had on their life and their perception of the past and present. No matter how many stories they tell about their fifth grade teacher it will never be enough to fully appreciate the character they’re discussing and what she meant to them. There is a part of our memories that is alive, that is engraved upon our hearts; these are the things that cannot be explained to people who were not there, things outsiders will never truly understand. 

By mentioning the offerings on Mount Sinai in the middle of the laws of the korban tamid the Torah connects the daily offering to the collective experience and shared subconscious of the nation. In a sense the korban tamid is like a secret we share with God. In his commentary Chizkuni adds that for the majority of their sojourn in the desert the People of Israel experienced a long dry spell, and the sacrifices they offered on Mount Sinai were but a distant memory of a singular event. The experience was not repeated for technical reasons:

 “Similarly the prophet said, ‘Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings in the desert for forty years, House of Israel?’ After all, where would they have gotten wine and oil and fine flour and animals for the korban tamid every day and the mussaf offerings for Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh and festivals, for forty years?!” (Chizkuni Shmot 29, 42) 

The Torah commandment to bring the korban tamid every day instructs us to dig deep into our memories, to take a singular experience and turn it into a regular event. To properly bring the korban tamid we must connect to a primal consciousness, to make nostalgia an essential part of our experience and infuse a common action that we perform every day with the excitement of a singular event, over and over again. Moreover, we are also meant to connect our fulfillment of the commandment to the experience of offering a sacrifice at a time before we were commanded to do so; as Chazal explain, “It (the sacrifice) existed before the spoken commandment.” (TY Chagiga 6, 1, according to Beit Hillel)  The korban olah offered at Mount Sinai symbolized our desire to offer something of our own accord, without any obligation to do so. An offering motivated by love. 

Consequently, if we open our heart to those feelings and recreate the shared experience in our mind then the korban tamid has the power to help us return to that moment. It has the power to bring us back to a point in time before the Sin of the Golden Calf, to the pinnacle of our relationship with God. We are meant to relive those moments standing by the mountain, the excitement and anticipation we felt as we waited to connect to God. (Sfat Emet, Shmot, Parshat Shkalim)

Sat, March 24 2018 8 Nisan 5778