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Another Take on the Korbanot Section of the Morning Service

A couple of years back in this series, I devoted an essay to the traditional inclusion in the preliminary prayers of the daily service of a study session on the korbanot, the various sacrifices, and other Temple rituals. In that piece, I noted that, even in some Orthodox synagogues, it has become customary to omit most of this lengthy section and to recite just the concluding passage which is the introduction to the Midrash on Leviticus, the Sifra, citing the thirteen principles of Rabbi Ishmael, on the derivation of laws from the Torah. I also mentioned how in Conservative and Reform prayerbooks, the concept of study at this point was embraced, but in place of reading about sacrifices, other alternative readings were provided on deeds of lovingkindness or on other Jewish values in our tradition. However, looking at this passage again, there seems to be more to it than just a collection of some dry biblical passages on rituals that we no longer perform.  Is it possible for us modern Jews, instead of substituting different readings, to find meaning in those original passages relating to the ancient Temple service?


There is a brand-new volume that has just appeared, by Rabbi Arthur Green, the recently retired rector of the rabbinical school at Hebrew College in Boston, who is a theologian and a well-recognized scholar of Hasidism. He was one of the founders of Havurat Shalom in Boston back in the ‘60s, has served as President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Seminary some years back, and is Emeritus Professor of Judaic Studies at Brandeis. Rabbi Green is also a practitioner, so to speak, of what is known as “Neo-Hasidism,” a philosophy which draws on Hasidic teachings, but views them from a modern perspective. In this new volume, entitled “Well of Living Insight,” Green collects some of his thoughts on the Siddur, on prayer and the prayers we offer. While I have only begun to dip into this new anthology of thoughts and insights on various phrases from the traditional prayer book, I happened upon his discussion on this portion of our prayers that so many people either skip over or have replaced with something else, the korbanot section of Birchot HaShachar, the opening morning prayers. Green takes a different approach to these passages and uses the traditional text to provide us with an introduction to the act of prayer itself each day.


He begins by noting that Hasidic tradition, including Neo-Hasidism, singles out four elements from this collection of texts: the passages on the Kiyor, the basin for washing hands and feet; Terumat HaDeshen, the removal of the ashes from the altar; Parashat HaTamid, the daily offering; and Parashat haKetoret, the incense offering. We had spoken before of these various sections being a reminder of the ancient practices in the Tabernacle in the wilderness and later in the Jerusalem Temple. In the absence of that central shrine, we no longer perform these rituals. Nonetheless, by reading these passages taken from the Torah as well as rabbinic texts on the Korbanot, we are not merely studying ancient writings, but symbolically we can fulfill these mitzvot as we review their laws. Green, however, takes these four passages and utilizes them not simply as memorials to past rites, but rather as representing our current activities, thoughts, and intentions as we begin our prayers each day.


He begins with the Kiyor, a basin placed between the sacrificial altar and the entrance to the Temple, that was filled with water for the kohanim, the priests, to wash their hands and feet before beginning their service at the altar each day. As we begin our prayers, we too are called upon to purify ourselves, both our hearts as well as our hands. Rabbi Green reminds us that, according to rabbinic tradition this basin was made out of small copper mirrors donated to the tabernacle by the women of Israel. As we purify our hands, we might look into the basin and into our own eyes, seeking that inner purification, looking at our ourselves and within ourselves. This reminds us of the verse in Psalms, “Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord and who shall stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart.” By placing the basin between the altar and the entrance to the tent of meeting, the kohen, and by extension, we who are part of the kingdom of priests, kohanim ourselves, are reminded that whether we turn toward God, toward the tent of meeting, or toward our neighbors, toward the altar, our thoughts and actions should be in purity, both in our hearts and through the works of our hands. 


You may note that the original basin was intended both for washing hands and feet. While some synagogues, particularly in Israel, still provide a place for handwashing as one enters the sanctuary, we no longer expect people to wash their feet as they enter, as our Muslim neighbors still do. Green feels that’s unfortunate, for washing the feet might well remind us to purify ourselves not only in the actions of our hands, but also in the directions which our feet take us as well. I have also thought that it might be a good idea to place a handwashing station outside the sanctuary where we might prepare ourselves to enter into prayer with clean hands and hearts. The statement that the priests were enjoined to wash their hands so that they will not die (this warning appears twice in this passage), may seem extreme, but perhaps, Green suggests, it indicates that no matter what burdens of guilt we may bear, we may wash our hands, the possibility exists for us to purify ourselves, and to enter into the community of prayer. This reminds me of the statement we make at the beginning of Kol Nidre permitting us to pray with “those who have transgressed.”


The second passage emphasized here is that of Terumat HaDeshen, the ritual removal of the ashes of previous sacrifices from the altar, prior to the offering of the new sacrifice. This passage begins by speaking of the olah, the ascent offering with fire burning within it, which is entirely consumed on the altar and its smoke ascends to heaven. This offering represents our impassioned prayers. Hitlahavut is the term used in Hasidim. We translate it as enthusiasm, but it is so much more. Its root speaks of flame, lahav, “becoming enflamed in the ecstatic moment that lies at the heart of prayer.” In a sense, when we truly enter into this kind of prayer we become like a fire, ascending to heaven. However, this passage reminds us that prior to the offering of this new prayer, we need to clean out the ashes remaining from the old prayers so that they do not snuff out the new flame that we need to ignite at this moment. The priest in the Temple we read in the Mishnah, drew lots to see who got the privilege of performing this rite, it was that important. Young priests fought over it and those ashes from old sacrifices are not simply thrown into the trash. They are taken to a sacred place outside of the Temple itself.


Green reminds us that we are not talking merely of words ascending on high, but of our souls reaching for the spiritual heights. When the passage speaks of fire burning on the altar always and not going out, it should be a reminder that every word, thought, and deed throughout the day can add to the fire on the altar and keep it burning within us. We do not always know what may be important, what impact our words and deeds may have and how they might add to the flames of this service of the heart within us.


Turning to the third passage that speaks of the daily sacrifices, “olat tamid,” brought every morning and every afternoon. The word “tamid” does not mean eternal, but as I explained a couple of weeks ago when I spoke of the ner tamid, it means something that is done regularly. Every day, the olah offerings were placed on the altar in the morning and again in the afternoon. We cannot maintain the intensity of hitlahavut constantly, eternally, but we can light the fires again and again on a regular basis, continually. One of our sages pointed to this verse as one of the most significant ones in the Torah, reminding us of the importance of regularity of our service to God. As Green puts it, “We submit to a discipline that designates certain moments…to be the special times of devotion.” Everyone who serves God is considered a Kohen, a priest, but we know that we cannot stay focused constantly on the altar, maintaining the regularity of offerings twice a day is hard enough, but it is a much more realistic goal.


We are no longer offering lambs twice daily on the altar, but Green sees in the repetition of the words “v’amarta” “you shall say to them,” a hint of the fact that our words can indeed be appropriate substitutes for the offerings as well. The strange reference in this passage to “olat tamid ha-asuyah b’har Sinai,” the daily offering given at Mount Sinai, is seen as a reminder that whenever we offer our daily prayers, they are intended to take us back to Mount Sinai. They bring us back to that transforming moment for our people, as well as to our own personal “Mount Sinai,” whatever moment in our spiritual lives it might have been when “the heavens opened and truth became clear for us.” As Rabbi Baruch of Miedzybosh read this verse, “The Jewish soul’s constant ability and desire to rise upward was made at Mount Sinai.” Because we’ve been there already, we long to return.


The final section pointed to by Rabbi Green is the section on the incense offering, the ketoret. He sees this as referring to that which we take away from our experience of prayer each day. The aroma of the offering stays with us after we depart from the altar and our deeds throughout the day should retain the fragrance of that experience. The taste and aroma of our daily prayer should continue after we leave the sanctuary. The passage calls on us to internalize the message of our prayer experience and keep it as a holy of holies within us, a place to retreat throughout the day, away from the distractions of life when we need a place to retreat. As with the offering itself, so the aroma returns morning after morning, day after day, as we faithfully enter the divine presence and, in so doing, bind ourselves to that Source of all being.


What Green does in this chapter and, no doubt, in other sections throughout this volume as well, is to give us a model of how we too can go beyond the simple meaning of words and translations and translate them ourselves into meaningful teachings for our lives. This is nothing new. For centuries, our sages have taken the words of Torah as pointing beyond the printed page and providing us with direction toward a higher consciousness and significance than we might at first encounter from the printed word. Our commentators imagine the words calling out to us, “Darsheni,” “Interpret me!” It becomes our obligation to seek out the meaning of our prayers and scripture, demand that they speak to us in our language, for our time. Our tradition insists that no commentator or interpreter has the last word for all time. In every generation it is up to us to study the words and make them our own. In this new volume, Arthur Green reminds us of our obligation to do so, to open the prayer book and find a path to ascend in holiness through these ancient words.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Edward Friedman

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