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Sacrifices and the 'Value' of Idol Worship

Shmini (Leviticus 9-11 )

by Rabbi Boruch Leff

It sounds funny doesn't it. Can there really be something valuable in worshipping idols? Isn't idol worship Public Enemy #1 in the eyes of the Torah? Don't we find tens of admonishments against idol worship in the Torah?

The answer, of course, is a resounding "Yes!" However, we will discover that the drive for idol worship comes from a holy place. The concept of sacrifices, which has some of its aspects described in this week's Torah portion, very much relates to the positive elements of idol worship.

We first turn, by way of introduction, to Abraham and his idol-worshipping father, Terach.

We studied recently on Passover night the following passage:

"Originally our forefathers were idol worshippers, but now God has drawn us close to serve Him ... As the verse states, 'Your ancestors ... Terach, the father of Abraham and Nachor, worshipped other lords.'"

It is strange that we credit Terach as being one of our forefathers. Usually, we think of Abraham as the first father of monotheism and Judaism, not an idol worshipper, Terach. Somehow it appears that we owe some credit to Terach. Why?

Another question. Genesis (11:10-32) lists the 10 generations between Noah and Abraham. The Torah describes the ages when each generation began having children. The average age was 30. Yet, Terach had his first child at the age of 70. What is the reason that Terach married so late?

It must be that Terach was a very uniquely spiritual person and did not want to have children until he felt himself ready. He was spending his time growing in his idolatrous service, what he believed was spirituality. He was misguided but sincere in his realizations of the spiritual realm and the need to serve a higher power. This is why we find Terach leaving his comfortable home and sojourning in the direction of the land of Israel (Genesis 11:31). Terach understood that holiness could be found in Israel and wanted to access it. So he sacrificed his cozy surroundings and moved.

It cannot be a coincidence that Abraham, who became, arguably, the greatest of all men, comes from Terach. Terach possessed great spirituality and devotion but utilized it improperly for the wrong purpose. Abraham would take the non-actualized and misguided potential that was present in Terach, and use it for true spirituality and service of the real and only God.

If Abraham's greatness is credited to Terach, it is no longer so far-fetched to say that much of the true service of God, and especially the service of sacrifices, can be found in the basic roots of idol worship.

Let us now begin to discuss the key to understanding sacrificial worship.

We no longer appreciate what the lure and temptation of idol worship was to the world more than 2000 years ago. We also no longer understand the beauty and meaning of sacrificial worship. These two phenomena are directly intertwined.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 64a), describes that the Sages of over 2,000 years ago fasted and prayed to God to abolish the temptation for idol worship. Idol worship had become such a powerful force that it was virtually an impossible challenge to withstand. The Sages request was granted. There is no longer a desire to worship idols present in the world. To us, the whole notion of idol worship seems foolish. This is due to the success of the Sages' prayers.

But this success and lack of temptation for idol worship did not come without a heavy price.

God made the world perfectly balanced. The goal for mankind is to use free choice to choose good over evil. In order for free choice to exist, it must be equally possible for one to choose good or evil. This means that if God removes a certain lure for evil from the world, he also must counter the imbalance by making good more difficult to achieve. If idol worship no longer exists, something that is utilized for choosing good must also be lost from the world. That thing became the service of sacrifices. Desire for idol worship and desire for sacrifices are interrelated and if one goes out the door, the other inevitably goes with it. If you remove the desperate need that people had to worship idols, you also remove the desperate need to worship God.

How are idolatry and sacrificial worship related? And just what is the element of goodness and truth found in idolatry?

The basic rationale for the obsession the ancients had for idolatry was the recognition that they were dependent on a higher power. Humanism as a philosophy and movement did not exist, and they did not feel, as the moderns do, that humans can solve all of the problems of the world. They knew they had to rely on the supreme controlling heavenly force of the world. The only question was whether there was a multiplicity of forces or a single one. No matter what, though, they desperately needed to relate to a higher power. So they constructed idols that represented in physical form the higher powers in which they believed.

Sacrifices are an outgrowth of a tremendous drive to serve and relate to a higher power. A man who really loves his wife cannot simply tell her that he loves her. He feels compelled to buy her flowers or chocolates to express his love and to give something of his self to her. So it is with relating to God. Because we are physical beings, we are driven (under normal pre-nullification of the desire for idolatry conditions) to show our love and passion for God in some physical form. And this giving of oneself to God must be in an ultimate sense. I want to give my entire existence, my whole life to God. I express this with the offering of my animal's life. As many have pointed out, this is why the word for sacrifice in Hebrew is "Korban," meaning closeness.

The minute we would truly feel God's reality, we would be overcome with an enthusiasm to worship and offer Him a sacrifice. This is why the Torah is replete with admonitions and violations of the commandment not to offer sacrifices on an altar (called a bamah in Hebrew) outside of the Temple. People had a very difficult time controlling their desire to offer a sacrifice to God. It was very much like a hunger to eat. It would be an extremely hard task to tell someone that he had to wait until they reached the Temple in Jerusalem in order to eat. The same was true with the offering of sacrifices to God.

So, after much contemplation, we have found the depth of truth within idolatry and how it relates to the proper service of God.

Our task now is to discover where in our lives we can maintain a concept of sacrificing for God. Which negative character trait needs to be weeded out of our system and burnt on the altar?

Remember that it can be an easier decision to die for God than to live day-to-day for God. True offerings and sacrifices for God involve the small but consistent decisions to do the right thing when there is no spiritual crisis or adrenaline present.

As the Yiddish expression goes, "Big actions -- small man. Small actions -- big man." If you are only concerned about the 'big' aspects of life, then you will remain a shallow person.

True greatness can only be achieved through the caring about the small but steady things of life.

Be a big man. Care about small actions.


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