Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sacrifices: cycle of kindness, or vicious circle? / Parshat Shemini

In the wake of World War II and the devastation Japan experienced through the bombing of Tokyo, and the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was a frantic rush to rebuild. Cheap, low-quality wooden frame houses popped up everywhere. Lacking seismic reinforcement, many did not survive subsequent earthquakes and in short order did not meet heightened building codes, so they depreciated with time. Today it is common for people to buy land, demolish the existing house, and build anew. Architect Alistair Townsend, who works in Japan says, “The houses that are built today exceed the quality of just about any other country in the world, at least for timber buildings. So there’s really no reason that they should drop in value and be demolished.”

It seems that Japan has fallen into a vicious cycle: people don’t maintain or upgrade their houses, contributing to the sense that they are disposable. And that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Richard Koo, chief economist at the Nomura Research Institute, says that houses in Japan have become durable consumer goods. As a result, Japan is awash in a building boom and it’s an architect’s paradise, yet the population is shrinking, and the economy has been stagnant for two decades likely in great measure due to the building boom.

Vicious cycles of assumption about how the world operates are all too common. In this week’s parashah, Shemini, the Tabernacle is complete and Aaron and his sons have been ordained priests to minister there and make the sacrifices. Torah tells us that as soon as the sacrifices commence, God will appear.

On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel. He said to Aaron: “Take a calf of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering without blemish and bring them before the Lord. And speak to the Israelites saying: Take a he-goat for a sin offering; a calf and a lamb, yearlings without blemish for a burnt offering; and an ox and a ram for an offering of well-being to sacrifice before the Lord; and a meal offering with oil mixed in. For today the Lord will appear to you.” (Leviticus 9:1-4)

Isn’t this more than a tad peculiar? God suddenly appears to the people? God who, according to Torah, has appeared as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to lead them through the Wilderness for the past year? (Exodus 40:17 tells us the Tabernacle was erected in the first month of the second year after leaving Egypt.)

Is it possible that, with the sacrificial cult officially inaugurated and operating daily, the people have come to see God in a different way? In the midrash the Rabbis, keenly aware that the Tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem are no longer available to Israel, perhaps wonder: How does offering sacrifices affect how God “appears” to the Israelites? How do we, without sacrifices, experience God’s presence? Vayikra Rabbah (Leviticus Rabbah) 11:5, without even referencing the parashah, gives a striking answer, or perhaps we might say, a stunning warning. 

The midrash opens with Psalm 18:26:

With the merciful, You are merciful;
With those with integrity, You act with integrity,
With the pure, You act pure,
And with the crafty, You are wily.

The Psalm suggests that those who are merciful are inclined to see God as merciful; those who are crafty tend to see God as wily. A God who possesses the same attributes we do reinforces and justifies our behavior, be it good or bad.

Rav Yehudah, however, interprets Psalm 18:26 as applying to Abraham in a very concrete way:

When [Abraham] acted with mercy, the Holy One blessed be God was merciful toward him. When [Abraham] acted with integrity, the Holy One blessed be God acted with integrity. When [Abraham] acted craftily, the Holy One blessed be God acted wily. When [Abraham] sought clarification about his affairs, the Holy One blessed be God clarified for him his affairs.

Curiously, Rav Yehudah has changed the order of the four behavioral characteristics, reversing the third and fourth, perhaps in order to end on a positive note. His explanation, drawing on the account in Genesis, goes like this: First, when God, in the guise of three strangers, visits Abraham (Genesis 18:3), Abraham lavishes kindness on his guests, washing their feet and preparing for them a feast. When they take their leave, Torah tells us: Abraham remained standing before the Lord (Genesis 18:22), which R. Shimon handily explains in the midrash the Scribes amended to say that the Shekhinah (God’s presence) waited for Abraham (hence God’s kindness in repayment of Abraham’s). Second, when Abraham pleads with integrity the case of the innocent in Sodom and Gomorrah, God responds with integrity, promising not to destroy the innocent (Genesis 18:28). Third, when Abraham acted craftily, pointing out that since he is childless his servant Eliezer will inherit his estate, Abraham implies that God promised—but failed to deliver—progeny; God responds in kind with an evasive and incomplete answer, merely saying that Eliezer will not inherit (Genesis 15:2-4). Finally, when Abraham requests a clear and upfront accounting of where he stands vis-à-vis possessing the Land of Israel, God replies that his offspring will be strangers in a land not theirs—clearly implying that they will ultimately wind up in the land that is theirs (Genesis 15:8, 13). The midrash continues with R. Nechemiah’s exposition of Moses’ interactions with God along the same lines.

This is a peculiar midrash. Is Rav Yehudah suggesting that God merely follows peoples’ lead—if they’re nice, so is God, but if they’re not, God responds in kind? Tit for tat? This sounds like a petty version of retributive justice.

Is Rav Yehudah suggesting that, like the sacrifices, what we put out, we get in return? What you give out in terms of kindness, generosity, civility and respect on the one hand, and shrewdness, avarice, cruelty, and neglect on the other, determines what you get back—a kind of karma-in-this-lifetime? If so, the sacrifices are a means of propitiating God in order to manipulate God into treating us with kindness and generosity.

I suspect that this is his meaning, but for me, the midrash serves as a warning that in the world of sacrifices there is the risk of seeing sacrifices as “payment-in-advance” in a tit for tat universe. By such thinking, no gift is pure; it is always given with an expectation of being paid in kind because reciprocity rules. Our lives are complex enough to marshal “evidence” to prove the conjecture that God (or other people, or the world itself, for that matter) operates as Rav Yehudah reads Psalm 18:26. As his cherry-picking verses from Genesis to fit his interpretation that God responds in kind, do we find a warning that we do the same thing, recalling with emphasis words and events that fit our theory, ignoring those that fail to confirm a tit for tat perspective?

The Japanese housing market has fallen into a vicious cycle, one of waste and destruction, and one which prevents Japanese families from accumulating wealth and establishing an economically vibrant society. In a similar way, the thinking exemplified by this midrash can engender a vicious circle in our lives of seeing the entire world as tit for tat: a place that is unsafe, unfair, and unkind. In fact, the purpose of the sacrifices is to demonstrate love and loyalty to God without a definitive and detailed expectation of personal return on the investment, because when we give out of love and loyalty, we build vibrant and enduring relationships.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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