A few summers ago, on a trip through Samaria, Israel, a passage in this week’s Torah portion jumped out of the past and came alive in front of my eyes.
The portion of Re’eh introduces us to a stupendous covenant ceremony that Moses commands the people to enact upon Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval when the Israelites enter the land of Israel after his own death. The outlines of the ceremony are further fleshed out near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy in chapter 27, where Moses instructs the people that the ceremony is to include, among other things, the construction of an altar on Mount Eval, “an altar of stones. Do not wield an iron tool over them; you must build the altar of the Lord your God of unhewn stones. You shall offer on it burnt offerings to the Lord your God, and you shall sacrifice there offerings of well-being and eat them…”
And indeed, after the death of Moses, it is reported near the end of chapter 8 of the Book of Joshua that the Israelites built the altar and performed the ceremony exactly as commanded in the Book of Deuteronomy.
And here we were, 3000 years later, gazing upon Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval from up close, and taking in the contours of the altar built by Joshua, Moses’ successor, exactly according to the biblical requirements. Our guide, Benny Katzover, grippingly described the discovery of the altar upon Mount Eval over two decades earlier by his friend Adam Zertal, a well-known archeologist. Zertal, so we learned, had been at that time part of the consensus of secular scholars at Tel Aviv University who were certain that most of the Bible has no historical veracity.
And then came the dig that was to change his life. Made of only unhewn stones, it was dated to the early Iron Age, about 3,400 years ago. At first they had no idea what this strange structure could be. A storehouse, a watchtower? But as the excavation progressed no entranceway was to be found. And the debris that filled it up—it slowly become clear that it was not random sediment, but rather had deliberately been placed there at the same time that the walls themselves had been erected; it seemed as if the use of the structure was not inside of it but rather upon its top. It was like no other edifice unearthed in the Near East. What could it have been?
A tremendous number of bones, representing over 700 animals, were found scattered about. Scientific analysis indicated that they were all from animals that had been roasted over an open flame fire of low temperature. Perhaps what had been discovered was an altar for animal sacrifice! And all the bones without exception were from kosher animals! Furthermore, all of these animals were within their first year of life, exactly as the Torah demands for sacrifice!
And then the ramp on the side of the altar, and the measurements of the alter itself—completely unlike pagan altars of the period, and conforming exactly to the specifications found in rabbinic texts.
I was almost brought to tears as Katzover described how Zertal, over the course of many seasons of the dig, gradually came to the conclusion that the only explanation for the amazing find was that it is indeed Joshua’s altar! The dating, the location, the measurements, the bones—it all fit like a glove. Here on the slopes of Mount Eval the Bible had been corroborated. For Zertal the discovery was life transforming, and he began to change his whole professional orientation towards the biblical text.
And here we were, spellbound by the saga and by the altar itself. The Bible had come alive before our eyes. And as the meaning of the whole thing penetrated my soul, I felt indeed that we had come one step closer to the real Bible, and to reuniting with our history and with the land!
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This past week in synagogues throughout the world we rolled the Torah scroll forward and began reading from the Book of Leviticus. Each week during Shabbat services congregations all over will be reading the account of the sacrificial system that encompassed the ritual life of the Jewish people throughout their wanderings in the desert with the Tabernacle, and later with the construction of both the first and second Temples. These readings can feel foreign and removed from the lives we lead, as people disconnected from a religion that revolves around sacrifices, whether animal or grain based. What can there possibly be to learn from these sections of Torah?
Maimonides in his chief work of philosophy, The Guide to the Perplexed, suggests that the sacrificial system instituted in the Torah was a pedagogical tool meant to transform us and to change us in radical ways. What precisely is the educational aim of the sacrifices?
Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann, the 19th century rabbi of Berlin, in his introduction to the Book of Leviticus, connects the sacrificial system recorded in Leviticus to that near sacrifice of Isaac at the hands of his father Abraham in the Book of Genesis. That moment, bracketing the psychological and emotional dilemmas it presents, demonstrated in an extreme fashion the notion of self-sacrifice, of giving up something precious for a more lofty purpose. It involved taking a “leap of faith,” as the philosopher Soren Kierkagaard understood the near sacrifice of Isaac to be, that giving of yourself, sacrificing a part of what is important to you for someone or something else, will not only benefit the recipient but will benefit you as well. Thus, we can see the Torah’s sacrificial system as being the institutionalized mechanism by which the Jewish people live that value on a daily basis.
This very much is reminiscent of the famous line by President John F. Kennedy: “And so my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Kennedy was leading the country towards understanding that when we all invest into the project of building America, not only will America as a whole become stronger and greater, but each citizen, each person who puts of themselves into the project, will also reap the reward. Likewise, the impact and meaning we want and need from Judaism in our lives will only be realized and only be possible if we take the time and the energy to give of ourselves into it. We will receive according to what we put in and we will benefit and all those similarly invested will benefit from our efforts as well.
As we progress through Leviticus, let us ask ourselves: What am I ready to give of myself into the Jewish project so that it becomes richer, deeper, more profound and meaningful and will come to enrich, deepen and add meaning to my life as well?