In both the Haftarah and this past Shabbat's reading of the Torah, we find the discussion about the building of the Altar of Sacrifice. In the book of Exodus it is described in this manner, “you shall make an altar as a place for burning incense; you shall make it of acacia wood. Its length shall be a cubit, and its width a cubit, it shall be square, and its height shall be two cubits; its horns shall be of one piece with it. You shall overlay it with pure gold, its top and its sides all around, and its horns; and you shall make a gold molding all around for it. You shall make two gold rings for it under its molding; you shall make them on its two side walls—on opposite sides—and they shall be holders for poles with which to carry it.” This is a special altar and the Israelites are ordered, “You shall not offer any strange incense on this altar, or burnt offering or meal offering; and you shall not pour out a drink offering on it.” The High Priest Aaron may use it “once a year; he shall make atonement on it with the blood of the sin offering of atonement once a year throughout your generations”.
The prophet Ezekiel describes another altar this way, “these are the measurements of the altar by cubits (the cubit being a cubit and a handbreadth): the base shall be a cubit and the width a cubit, and its border on its edge round about one span; and this shall be the height of the base of the altar.” Ezekiel also provides a detailed description of the preparation of the altar for its ultimate use. The description is detailed and, may one add, bloody. “For seven days they shall make atonement for the altar and purify it; so shall they consecrate it. When they have completed the days, it shall be that on the eighth day and onward, the priests shall offer your burnt offerings on the altar, and your peace offerings; and I will accept you”.
The use made of an altar for the process of sacrifices was routine in those early days in our history. In many ways what we read is not what we yearn for today. However, viewing these activities in the context of their times, when the sacrifices of humans was common place, may provide some comfort of going in the right direction. It may make sense to on one hand cease something terrible but continue with another practice allowing for the sanctification of human lives. In the world of today there is no justification to the sacrifice of animals and as a community we do not wish or pray for the revival of such ancient traditions. There is a place though to study them, learn from them and continue a trend of change and improvement so that we fix a broken world and make it better.
Maybe a good comparison is the use of animals in experiments. If at earlier times animals were used without any measure of control, under tough conditions and without regard to the suffering of the victim, now there is an attempt to take a different route. The idea is to minimize the suffering of the subject of the experiment and keep the number of animals used to the necessary minimum. This must be done with special care not cause unnecessary suffering to the poor animal that is unable to fend for itself so that it may continue its natural course of life.
It is sad to say that though we may think that the sacrifice of humans is a long gone tradition, that this does not seem to be the case. True, there is no altar to which a victim is hansed to before being sacrificed, however, this is done by other means, usually by leaderships that do not take into account their people’s sufferings. It may be the lack of funding to public health, or sending troops to fight and be killed without providing them with available and necessary protection gear, it can be the police that is ineffective in combating storms of murders or the distribution of drugs. The altar may be the road or the sidewalk that are not designed well enough to protect humans from being killed thereupon. We may not think of that as them being sacrificed but it seems to actually be the case, the unnecessary loss of precious lives.
Certainly not all sacrifices are of that nature. Some have to do with the processes that led to the foundation of the State of Israel and that has consumed human lives for sure. This evening is the 11th day of the month of Adar, and it marks the 100th year to the loss of the lives of eight defenders of the northern stronghold Tel-Chai. Joseph Trumpeldor is quoted to have said, “Remember that you are on your way to Eretz Israel, not for bravery, not for sacrifices, but rather so that you can work.” The sacrifice is not the target, sometimes it is a price that has to be paid but it is not what we want to achieve. The sacrifice is the end of life – work is their essence. A mobile or permanent altar, grand or simple is not an alternative for life itself. The altar symbolizes the place were life ends and must be always understood by us as the place we do not want to reach.
Next week we are going to celebrate Purim. The reason for celebrating this occasion is that an altar that was prepared to sacrifice Jews upon was smashed to pieces and ended as a festival. Instead of sacrifice there is a celebration of life, and where there is life there is also continuity. Therefore, with the necessary caution that we must take facing the coronavirus threat, we still must rejoice life, continue it, build upon it and from it, and get rid of the unnecessary altars.
Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Purim.
Reuven Marko, 6 March 2020, 11 Adar, 5780