“Moses said the community, “This is what the Lord has commanded to be done.” (Leviticus 8:5)
The altar or the iPad? That’s the challenge Parashat Tzav presents this week. Not literally, of course, but metaphorically. Tzav repeats the instructions for how to perform the sacrifices and describes the ritual for ordaining the kohanim, the priests. This is the prelude to sanctifying the mishkan, the Tabernacle, as the site of Jewish sacrificial worship.
Now, sacrifice is already a long-established practice in the Torah. Cain, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all offer sacrifices to God (as does Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law). Those sacrifices, though, are offered spontaneously. Each individual chooses when to sacrifice, what to sacrifice, how to sacrifice, where to sacrifice, and perhaps most important, why sacrifice. The establishment of the priesthood and the inauguration of the mishkan change all that. Now the schedule of sacrifices is prescribed, the animals permitted to be offered listed, the ritual defined, the location specified, and the reasons codified. Sacrifice (read: worship) is now a ritualized communal activity, rather than an extemporaneous expression of individual experience. And since only the kohanim are given permission to perform the ritual, they become the religious authorities.
The destruction of the Temple ends the sacrificial rite of Jewish worship, decentralizing Jewish religious life. The local rabbi becomes the religious authority and the local synagogue the place of worship. The Enlightenment fragments the unity of the Jewish people again by challenging the centrality of ritual observance in Jewish life. Today’s revolution in information technology pushes the boundaries of authority even further: more people turn to the internet than to rabbis for answers to their Jewish questions and then make their individual decisions. Which raises this question: in this increasingly iPad world, is there any altar to connect us as Jews?