Monday, April 11, 2011

From the Akeida to Torah - Evolving Concepts in Divine Service

Traditional morning prayers have a section between the first Blessings and the "Psalms of Praise" (Psukei Dezimra) that are often mumbled through, or even ignored. And who can blame the mumblers and ignorers? There's a lot of detail, and its usually pretty early to be thinking too deeply.

But, I've recently started paying closer attention. The first part of this section is the story of the Akeida, that traumatic description of Abraham's willingness to offer up a human sacrifice to G-d, because he is told to do so. The second part is a collection of Biblical and Talmudic verses that cover a few of the sacrificial rituals that form part of the Divine service, including the washing of hands, slaughtering of animals, and creating of powerful aromas. And then, finally, there is a concluding section about Rabbi Yishmael and his 13 principles for learning the Torah.

So what we have here is:

1. The Akeida

2. Highlights of the Temple Service

3. Learning Torah.

Are there 3 elements here that actually represent the same idea -- that of drawing near to God?

First, human sacrifice, a "gift" to God, or the "gods", so as to come close to God -- through an act of murder -- which is at the same time a sacrifice. The idea seems to have been to allow nothing to stand in between God and man, not even a son.

Second, the Temple service, which removed this aspect of murder and still allowed for sacrifice, for giving up something of value, again, in order to come close to the God.

Finally, without the Temple Service, it is the Torah that becomes the medium through which, this list suggests, we come close to God. But how? Is not sacrifice the way to express this closeness? What is given, that allows us to categorize Torah as the natural heir to sacrifices?

Some will answer that in accepting Torah, a person is giving up their own will, in order to accept God's Will.

Although that can be the case, it is often not so -- Mitzvot like charity and honoring parents do make good sense after all, and we often even derive pleasure from them. Senseless Mitzvot would surely not pass the test of time, and would be abandoned.

Perhaps then, one might argue that the Rabbis of old were hinting at how they saw Torah. For with Torah, there is an embracing of the whole. The idea of a Divine Law, covering all actions both public and private, although sometimes a sacrifice of one's will and sometimes not, is at all times a giving of oneself.

And perhaps this is why, when formulating the prayers, the Rabbis of old placed Rabbi Yishmael's 13 principles at the conclusion of the Korabanot section. By creating a medium - Divine Law - through which to give oneself wholly to God, Torah becomes the progressive heir to the sacrifices of antiquity.

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