Friday, March 6, 2009

Who's this for, anyway?

An interesting debate, of sorts, comes out of the traditional commentaries on this week's Torah portion. God tells Moses "...instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil" (Exodus 27:20). A few sages wonder why it says "bring you" instead of "bring Me." Two of them give answers that are, on the surface, contradictory, but somehow both seem completely right!

The Bekhor Shor says that, even though God says "bring you," God really means, in fact, "Bring Me." Of course the oil is for God - no one would ever think that we're lighting lamps to sanctify or honor Moses - God forbid! So, why then use the phrase "Bring you"? Perhaps it's a reminder that this is a mistake that people often make - they start to think of their religious leaders as a stand-in for God. We become intermediaries, necessary for reaching God, rather than teachers and facilitators, helping others to reach God themselves. Maybe the Torah is trying to remind us that, even when we do something with a Rabbi (or, maybe, a Priest, or Imam, or anyone), we have to remember that that person isn't really the point - they aren't any holier than we are. It's really about God.

But at the same time, Hizkuni says that the reason that the Torah says "bring you" is because the oil is, in fact, for Moses (the "you"), not for God. How so? Well, God has no need for light! Light is a human need, not a devine one. So it is for all rituals - God doesn't need these things. God can't literally eat a sacrifice, or enjoy a light, or be impressed by a ritual - these are human endeavors. And, although this may get a bit more controversial, I think the same has to be true with prayer. If prayer was a simple, straightforward act, then that would mean that my asking God for something is informing God that I want something (as if, before I started, God didn't know that I wanted a pony. But, now that I've asked for it, God knows). But, that would mean that, before I prayed, there was something which God didn't know, which means that God doesn't know everything - and that just ain't God anymore.

The Rabbis are willing, for the most part, to admit that the entirety of the sacrificial system (which was, in its day, the main religious activity of our people, and the primary way to pray to God) were a concession to human needs. God doesn't need the sacrifices, but we needed them, as a way to structure and concretize our relationship with God.

So, what are we left with? The idea that, according to the Bekhor Shor, all ritual acts are always directed at God, balanced against Hizkuni's belief that, in reality, all ritual acts are always for us. And, strange as it may seem, they both seem completely right.

Shabbat Shalom

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