Some streams of Greek thought emphasized the dualistic nature of the human being the separation between the soul and the body, as well as the separation between the physical and the spiritual. This focus on dualism had a great influence on the development of western culture and the development of Christianity. This western view was opposed to the ancient Jewish view which emphasized the unity of body and soul, as well as the unity of the physical and the spiritual. This is why many people who have grown up in western culture have difficulty understanding the earthy and holistic nature of the Jewish spiritual path. The purpose of this letter is to help us to overcome our own western bias in order to better understand the holistic purpose of the "korban" the sacred Temple offering. In this spirit, we will begin to discuss the following verse:
"O God, You are my God; at early dawn will I seek You. My soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You, in a dry and weary land without water." (Psalm 63:2)
It is understandable that the soul - a spark of the Divine Essence - should yearn for God, but why does the "flesh" - the physical body - long for God? The beginning of an answer can be found in a verse where Hashem - the Compassionate One - proclaims:
"They shall make a Sanctuary for Me, so that I may dwell within them." (Exodus 25:8)
Two noted biblical commentators, the Alshich and the Malbim, point out that the Compassionate One does not say "I will dwell within it" - the Sanctuary, but "I will dwell within them" - the people. This verse is thereby expressing the idea that through the sacred service of the Sanctuary, including the offerings, the Compassionate One is to dwell within each member of the nation of Israel.
This insight is discussed in the biblical commentary Maor V'Shemesh, written by Rabbi Klonimus Kalman Epstein. In his explanation of the above verse, he cites the ancient teaching of our sages that the Shechinah - the Divine Presence - is to dwell on this earth (Genesis Rabbah 19:7). This includes the human body, states Rabbi Kalman; thus, the words "I will dwell within them" come to teach us that "each and every member of Israel should view himself as if holiness is dwelling within his inner physical organs."
If the human body was created to be a "sanctuary for the Shechinah," then we can understand why we pray: "my flesh longs for You." The body is longing for the Shechinah; it yearns to fulfill the purpose of its creation.
Although there were vegetarian offerings in the sacred service of the Temple, the majority of the offerings in the Temple were animal offerings. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out, the animals used for the offerings were those from the flock that by their nature submit to the human being, but animals of the wild were not used (Commentary to Leviticus 1:2). In what way does this animal offering enable the Shechinah to dwell within our bodies? The beginning of an answer can be found in the following explanation of Rabbi Hirsch:
"The one who brings it offers the 'animal' side within himself, that which still needs to be refined. He sanctifies and purifies his sensory drives by bringing near the 'animal' within himself." (Commentary to Leviticus 1:2 based on a teaching in Chullin 5a)
Rabbi Elie Munk, a noted Torah educator of 20th century, elaborates on the above idea in his biblical commentary, "The Call of the Torah," which includes the insights of Rabbi Hirsch, as well as the insights of kabbalistic commentators, such as the Ramban. In his commentary on Leviticus 1:9, Rabbi Munk reminds us that the Hebrew word for "offering" is korban, and he writes:
"The kabbalists point to the origin of the word korban which is based on the word karev - to come closer (Sefer Habahir, 78); thus, korban signifies a coming together of the upper and lower spheres...This means that by offering korbanos on Hashem's Altar, the human being elevates his animal soul so that it can temporarily rejoin its spiritual source. Furthermore, this ritual serves to elevate all of his sensual instincts to the level of holiness, with the result that the offerings bring the human being closer to his God. (This is elucidated in Shiurei Daas 1:15, by Rabbi Bloch of Telz. A similar approach is developed by the Maharal in Gevuras Hashem 69.)"
For our ancestors, the offering of the korban was an intense holistic experience which helped to elevate and purify their physical nature. In addition, many offerings, such as the communal offerings, were accompanied by the beautiful singing of the Levite choir and instrumental music. In fact, the thanksgiving and peace offerings were actually joyous feasts where the person bringing the korban would invite family and friends to share in the sacred meal. (Parts of the animal were offered on the Altar, and the rest was eaten.) There were also atonement offerings which helped a person to feel cleansed and renewed.
One of the major reasons why we mourn the loss of our Temple is because we no longer have the intense holistic and spiritual experience that the korban provided. Our sages, however, remind us that our spiritual path offers other ways of elevating and purifying our physical nature. For example, the table upon which we eat can become an altar, as the Talmud states:
"Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eleazar both explain that as long as the Temple stood, the Altar atoned for Israel, but now a person's table atones for him." (Brochos 55a)
Rabbi Hirsch elaborates on this idea in "Horeb" his classical work on the mitzvos. In chapter 69, he writes:
"Our sages dedicated the meal as the first step towards the ennoblement of the animal in the human being; thus, the table becomes the altar, and thus you prepare yourself for the meal as for the eating of sanctified foods in the Temple. If you eat only because of pleasure, in order to serve as a tickling of your palate - then your eating is not yet purely human If, however, you eat only so much as you need, and with the intention of strengthening yourself with the eating for a well-equipped life of righteousness and love, pleasing to God, then your eating becomes human and a Divine service." ( page 337)
Rabbi Hirsch adds: Just as the Kohen (Temple minister) dedicated himself to the service of the offerings by the ritual washing of his hands, so too, we dedicate ourselves to the service of sacred eating by the ritual washing of our hands before eating bread. At the conclusion of his commentary on Leviticus 11:47, Rabbi Hirsch reminds us that the traditional term for this ritual washing of the hands is "Netilas Yadayim" - the uplifting of the hands. This term is therefore conveying the following message: "We must elevate our meal from the realm of bodily, sensual gratification and give it the character of a human, holy act. Indeed, the moral sanctification of every bodily act is the first prerequisite for the sanctification of Jewish life."
As we approach Shabbos the Sacred Seventh Day - it is relevant to mention a teaching which I found in "The Vision of Eden" (page 276): The holiness of the Shabbos foods is comparable to that of the offerings in the Holy Temple. (Yismach Yisrael)
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. There are sources within the Jewish mystical tradition which mention that when an animal is used for a korban in a way which is in harmony with Torah teachings, the soul of the animal becomes elevated. There is also a tradition that some animals are reincarnated human souls who were placed in the body of an animal in order to achieve a certain "tikun" fixing - when the animal will be used for a sacred offering or for sacred eating. This reincarnated soul therefore yearns for its tikun. Rabbi David Sears discusses some of these mystical teachings in his book, "The Vision of Eden Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism."
2. I was reminded of some of the differences between traditional Jewish culture and modern western culture when an old friend from the United States visited me on her recent trip to Jerusalem. My friend, who is rooted in her own Jewish tradition, has engaged in dialogues with Native American spiritual teachers, and some of them told her that they identify with aspects of traditional Jewish culture. As my friend explained, they like the "tribal" nature of the Jewish people; moreover, they admire the way our sacred festivals are land-based and seasonal. They especially like the way the Torah emphasizes the unity between the physical and the spiritual. In addition, they appreciate the ecological awareness of the Torah, and how the Torah stresses that we should only take from the earth and its creatures what we need.