Eternal Flame and Sacrifice

Tetzaveh Drash by Daniel Koster

Why does God want all this? This week, God instructs the Israelites to maintain  an eternal oil lamp, to construct extremely intricate (that is, expensive) robes for the  priests, and to sacrifice a ram on the altar of the Tabernacle. The eternal flame is a  familiar symbol carried on by modern synagogues, and we expect our rabbis to look  nice, though maybe not twelve precious stones arranged in a grid. But just imagine  if instead of distributing challah and your choice of wine or juice, we slaughtered a  whole ram right here. Blood on the altar, blood on the earlobes and the toes, blood even  on the intricate robes with the precious stones. This was the kind of hands-on worship  God expected from our ancestors.  

Three thousand years later the most gruesome part of our worship is how long it  takes. Since the construction of the tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant was captured  by the Philistines in the book of Samuel, the Babylonians in the book of Kings, and the  Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and since then its whereabouts are unknown. Without  the Ark, we cannot conduct the rituals we were commanded, and so we worship through  song, prayer, and fasting. The people in the time of Moses might have predicted that as  soon as Israel stopped practicing these rituals we would lose our connection with God,  and be destroyed or assimilated.  

Were they right? God no longer gives us specific instructions. Many times has  our number been greatly reduced by our enemies. And we struggle to maintain the  essence of our tradition against dilution in the culture of the nations. Is this because  God has turned his back on us? On the other hand, never in history have Jews been  safer and more able to practice their faith than today. We are free to maintain  synagogues, museums, and community centers around the world. And our people have  successfully defended our homeland from over seven decades of political and physical  attack. Never in history has the world been as wealthy, safe, and free as it is now, even  in the poorest and most dangerous places, and Jews have as great a share in these  blessings as anyone else.  

Unless we are blind to the amazing fortune we have inherited, how can we  believe God has turned his back on us? Despite our sins, we remain blessed. What  then was the purpose of animal sacrifice? Like all the commandments, I believe  sacrifice is not for God’s benefit, but for ours. It may be that the story gives so much  detail about the priestly robes not because that’s the robe you or I need to make, but  because a uniform represents the specific role life demands each of us fulfill. We are  instructed about sacrifice not because that’s the sacrifice we need to make, but because  life will demand we sacrifice something that is most precious to us. You or I might have  to sacrifice a bad habit, a relationship, or the opportunity to do our favorite thing. Drugs  actually are an effective way to make ourselves feel good, but life demands we sacrifice  them for alertness and presence. Sleeping with many partners is popular for a reason,  but life demands we sacrifice this for a deeper relationship with just one partner. We all  have someone we’d like to murder, but you get the idea. Once a ram is slaughtered, it’s  gone. But the sacrifices modern people must make can be undone in an instant, if the  opportunity emerges. 

God spoke to Moses and explained exactly what sacrifices needed to be made.  We may think we are not so lucky, and yet, if any one of us earnestly asks this question:  what one thing am I doing that I know is hurting me… 

The first time I heard that question the answer came to me immediately, as clear  as any voice from heaven. And unless you are the only perfect person here, you  probably heard an answer too. We all have a ram to sacrifice. Whatever success I have  today, I attribute to my decision to listen to the answer and stop doing the stupid thing I  knew I shouldn’t be doing. Am I done? No, I know what stupid things I’m still doing. I’ll  stop eventually. See, the faithful among the Israelites didn’t stress about giving up their  choicest animals because they had faith that if they gave up their animals now, God  would ensure they had enough animals to sacrifice in the future. They are role models  in this respect—the rest of us have imperfect faith, and we hesitate to make the  sacrifices, even when we feel life demands them. We believe God will replace the things  we sacrifice with something better, but we don’t always believe it enough to make the  jump. Don’t feel bad; that’s what makes life so interesting. 

I have heard from a number of Jews lately about the rising tide, the oncoming  wave of antisemitism. I am told that pockets of hate exist throughout our communities,  committing hateful acts and endangering our people. And of course there will always be  hate. The Jews are a fine people, but we can’t please everyone. Atheism is the fastest  growing religious identity in the world—even God himself can’t please everyone. Yet for  every public utterance of hate, for every act of violence against us, the public outcry is  far greater. When else in history have our communities and governments had our back  to the extent they do now?  

This week commemorates one instance when someone tried to wipe out the  Jews and failed. Yet our tradition does not tell us to grieve that an attempt was made,  nor to fret that someone will soon try again. Our tradition is to be joyful, to celebrate that  we are still here. And we are still here. If our enemies ever persecute us again, let us  not be the ones who say, we didn’t know how good we had it. We are living the dream of  our ancestors, to live in a time when we are safe and free. Want to keep it that way?  Here’s what worked for our ancestors: make the sacrifices God commands you to make.  Fulfill the role he commands you to fulfill. And keep the eternal light of hope, faith, and  gratitude burning

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