We are currently in the midst of ‘The Three Weeks,’ a time of year that Chazal call ‘bein hametzarim’ (between the confining barriers), or, if you will, ‘between a rock and a hard place.’ This is a negative, unfavorable time of year, a time that we have –to a degree– the halachic status of mourners and are expected to act accordingly. We may not listen to music (‘a cappella’ tapes notwithstanding —this is a perfect example of gross violation of the spirit of a law), we hold no weddings, we do not recite the berachah of shehecheyanu and we do not take haircuts (this is all according to Ashkenazi custom). The intensity of these forms of mourning increase, with additional restrictions in effect, from Rosh Chodesh Av until the day following the fast of the ninth of Av.

This three-week period commences with the fast of the seventeenth of Tammuz. The Mishnah in Taanis tells us that five tragic events occurred on that date, manifesting the gezeiras shamayim in depriving Bnei Yisrael of spiritual treasures. These were:

  1. Moshe Rabbeinu’s breaking the Luchos by when he came down from Har Sinai to find the people worshipping the golden calf.
  2. During the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, the kohanim were prevented from bringing the daily tamid offering. From that day, until the second Beis Hamikdash was built, there were no more tamid offerings.
  3. The walls of Yerushalayim were breached, exactly three weeks before the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed.
  4. Apostomus, a Greek General, publicly burned a Torah scroll during the years leading up to the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdash.
  5. An idol was placed in the Heichal (sanctuary) of the Beis Hamikdash.

It seems logical to assume that something being a horrible sin is not a reason for it to be placed on a list of events that occurred on a specific day. Accordingly, we may presume that the inclusion of the placing of an idol in the Heichal and the cessation of the offering of the korban tamid on this list of events reflects that a specific low, a specific spiritual disintegration, developed on that day through these events. How can we understand the precise deterioration reflected? This is especially peculiar in light of the Gemara’s citation of a passuk that seems to associate the placement of the idol in the Heichal with the discontinuance of the tamid offering (see Taanis 28b).

The very concept of the korbanos (animal sacrifices), as familiar as we are with it, is actually a huge riddle and an enigma of great perplexity. What is it that we are doing, as we go about slaughtering an animal “for Hashem?” Does Hashem benefit from this? Do we benefit from it? Yet the sacrifices were definitely the focal point of attention in the Beis Hamikdash, the most visible symbol of our avodah. We bewail and mourn their loss in our prayers, pleading many times daily for their restoration. Nevertheless, it is really so foreign to us, so strange, so mystifying, that it borders on (chas veshalom) hypocrisy, thus demanding some form of satisfactory explanation! Even after we know what the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim says about korbanos, even after studying the Ramban’s commentary in Vayikra about them, we still feel that there is something essentially lacking in our understanding of just what the person involved in the sacrificial offerings is doing! What is the essential meaning of avodas hakorbanos, and why do we yearn for its return?

Maharal in his Nesiv Ha’Avodah (chapter 1) opens a portal into this realm. However, in order to understand what the Maharal teaches us, we must first envision a world without electricity and without modern machines. The Torah framework, as we know, is essentially an agricultural one, and more importantly, an agricultural society that predated the Industrial Revolution. Think of the importance, the essentiality, of domesticated animals in such a life. The animal is everything to you. It is a source of food, it is how you plow, plant, thresh… It is how you travel and how you transport anything. It is a major source of the clothing you wear, with the other source being plants, for which you need the animal to plow, plant, thresh… In short, man’s most essential partner in living in this world is the animal. (The closest modern equivalent that I can think of would be electricity, or other sources of energy. Everything we do, our lives, are inextricably bound up with the harnessed energy of electricity or other such sources.)

With this in mind, we will approach the Maharal’s teaching. When one offers up an animal, slaughtering it ‘for Hashem’s sake,’ (and only domesticated animals can be a korban), one makes a huge statement. That is what the person is ‘doing.’ He is stating that everything he owns, all of his possessions, anything belongs to Hashem. Nay, much more. It is a statement that everything exists only as an aspect of Hashem’s will, and has no independent existence. Realize that burning something is the most intense destruction of an item available to us. This is a proclamation that my animal, my life —my everything— is all really nothingness, is all but a manifestation of Hashem’s will. I make this statement when I bring and burn a korban. Really, conceptually, a person should be prepared to bring himself as a korban, for the above idea is true vis-à-vis the person himself! We belong to Hashem to the extent that we ourselves objectively have no existence! For our existence is subjective; subject to being a manifestation of Hashem’s will. The entire world is such: different aspects, different glimpses, so to speak, into Hashem’s mind, which is of course interwoven and inseparable from Him. (It is a specific idea in and of itself that we are told that Hashem does not want human sacrifice —meaning, conceptually it would make sense that human sacrifice should be a valid form of worship. Yet this is not so, since part of Hashem’s plan for this world is for human beings to live, feel and act as if they are independent, though the vehicle of bechirah (free choice). But that is a topic for another column…)

Thus, Maharal explains: In bringing a korban, we are declaring that all is Hashem’s; moreover, that all is Hashem! We are declaring, says Maharal, the essential unity of Hashem, “…when we bring a korban we proclaim Hashem echad… there is no possibility of anything else… Therefore, you will not find in any discussion of korbanos in the Torah using any other Name of Hashem other than His essential (forbidden-to-pronounce) Name. That is because it is through this avodah that we state: Hashem echad!

To be continued…