Parashat Acharei Mot

ואף על פי שאינו כשפיכות דם האדם למעלת האדם ופחיתות הבהמה, מכל מקום שפיכות דם יקרא, מאחר שלא התירו הכתוב לשפכו ללא תועלת

Even though it is not actually bloodshed, as a person is far above an animal, in any event it is still called bloodshed, as Scripture never permitted spilling blood without benefit. — Sefer HaHinukh Mitzva 186.

The Torah shares an interesting commandment. Actually, it is two entwined commandments  Vayikra 17:2 tells us that the only slaughter permissible is at the Mishkan. Vayikra 17:8 states that the only valid site for sacrifices is also the Mishkan.

The Gemara in Hullin derives that the first commandment applies only in the Desert. When the Mishkan was right in the center of the camp, even if one simply wanted to eat meat, it was not appropriate to just slaughter and eat what could have been used to worship Heaven. Rather, one should bring bring the animal to the Mishkan and offer the animal as a Shelamim, a peace offering. Once people were settled in Israel where they would have to travel a potentially long distance to the Temple, this commandment was removed, and the Torah allows unsanctified slaughter.

The second commandment prohibits private altars in the presence of a public one. The only place sacrifices are welcome is at the central sanctuary, originally the Mishkan and later the Temple in Jerusalem. Altars in the backyard, termed Bamot, high places, are strictly proscribed. This is in fact the reason the first law is temporary. Since the Temple might be far away, and since one is not allowed to build an altar close by, the only solution is to not bring animals as sacrifices. But this seems almost paradoxical. How could it possibly be better to consume an animal in a mundane fashion than to use it to worship Gd?

King Hizkiyahu was determined to enforce this law, and therefore he had all the private altars and high places across Judea pulled down and destroyed. Rabshake of Assyria reacted with amusement. “You pull down all of your Gd’s high places and altars, and they you expect Him to  aid you in battle? Why should He do that?” Prior kings did not dare pull down altars and sanctuaries dedicated to Gd. But indeed, Hizkiyahu was meritorious for doing this. What is so bad about setting up altars, that it is even better to destroy them utterly rather than let them be used?

Part of this is the importance of having a unified nation. Every Shabbat we say “You are One, and Your name is One, and who is like Your people Israel, one people in the land?” When Yereboam seceded the Ten Tribes and founded the Kingdom of Israel in opposition to Yehuda, he created new rituals and new central altars at his calves (I Kings 12). These calves were  originally erected only that they should create new centers of worship outside Yehuda, for the purpose of serving Gd but while remaining apart from their brethren in Yehuda. But once they divorced themselves from their brother and from the center of religion, they fell into idolatry. So too, when Yehoshua gave leave to the children of Reuven and Gad and Menashe to return to their land on the west bank of the Jordan, and they built an altar there, Phineas and his delegation of ten elders immediately accused them of reembracing Baal Peor (Joshua 22:17). The ultimate outcome of creating a separate center of worship to Gd is creating a separate god to worship as well. The One Gd can only be worshipped at the One Spot by the One People.

But this would seemingly only apply to a Bamat Tzibbur, a communal altar. What about a Bamat Yachid, a personal altar? Surely, there is no danger that allowing sacrifices there would supplant the national religion in Jerusalem? Why shouldn’t one be able to bring peace offerings there? But it’s not enough to prevent the founding of a different religion. A sacrifice is meant to uplift a person and connect them to their Creator. As the Hinukh puts it, Gd wanted a central and awe-inspiring place of sacrifice so that petitioners would go there and be impressed by the surroundings and and turn their hearts to Him. Allowing private altars means compromising on the experience of approaching Gd. The main purpose of the sacrifice is wasted, and he counts it as purposeless bloodshed. Even if it means needing to allow unsanctified slaughter, better that than wasting the animal in a sacrifice that doesn’t accomplish its goal.

Jerusalem became more than just the city where the Temple was or the place where the king lived. It became the Valley of Visions, the Faithful City, the City of Righteousness. It could only achieve its potential if there was no city to rival it, and if people went there to congregate and learn. To this day, we are looking forward to the day “When from Zion will go forth Torah and the word of Gd from Jerusalem.”

Sometimes it’s easy to find a practice or stricture that makes us feel spiritual but that doesn’t go very far in promoting a community of Torah and Chessed. This we can think of as the bamot in our times. A spiritual experience is only worth something if it develops a person and turns their heart toward Gd in conjunction with the people. We need to continually ask ourselves what we are getting out of our practice. Are we bringing that vision of Yeshaya of sending the word of Gd forth into the world closer to reality, or are we simply denying ourselves true character growth? Remember the words of the Hinukh. Even an altar to Gd is meaningless slaughter unless we can channel the experience to something beyond ourselves.

{Rabbi Weintraub’s earlier davar torah for Tetzave on the clothes of the High Priest and their symbolism and surprising absence for the Yom Kippur service also relates directly to this week’s parasha, and can be found here.}