Human beings will go against every natural instinct for reasons that often cannot be explained. We will give away our food, despite being hungry, when others are in need. We will give another our coat in the winter because someone else is suffering. And sometimes, we will sacrifice everything for something greater than ourselves.
Half an hour’s walk from the gates of the Old City of Jerusalem is a hill that today sits in the heart of Ramat Eshkol. Situated overlooking the main road from the Damascus Gate, the average visitor will miss this little hill unless he knows what to look for.
But to any Israeli paratrooper, and any Israeli who knows the story of the Six-Day War, this strategic bump is no ordinary hill. Known as Ammunition Hill, its legend has made it a towering mountain.
In June 1967, after years of regular mortar and sniper fire from Jordanian-held Jerusalem into the western Israeli-held segment, the Israelis finally decided it was time to come home, and plans to retake the Old City were implemented.
For 19 years, barbed wire and mine fields had cut a wedge through the City of Gold, and Jews all over the world had dreamed of the day they would be free to wander the ancient alleyways of the Old City or climb the Mount of Olives.
But in order to free the Old City, the IDF first had to take command of the strategic vantage points around it. The prophets described Jerusalem as a city surrounded by hills, and the Old City, which sits on a smaller hill below, was strategically unapproachable, unless the army could first wrest control of the surrounding mountains from the Jordanians.
In the middle of the night, tanks and paratrooper infantry units advanced towards the fortifications of Ammunition Hill. But before long, the tanks became ensnared in the minefields and obstacles at the base of the hill, and the paratroopers had to proceed alone. They made it into the Jordanian trenches and bunkers that dotted the top of the hill, then came under murderous fire from the police tower at the top of the hill. As the Israelis crouched down, unable to return accurately, the Jordanians began to lob grenades into the trenches, decimating the Israeli troops.
Realizing the implications, one of the men jumped out of the trench and began to return fire, running alongside the men in the trenches below to cover their advance. It didn’t take the Jordanians long to cut him down, again exposing the troops, but another paratrooper immediately jumped up to take his place. And every time the Jordanians shot down the man above the trenches, another Israeli soldier would jump up — all this without ever being ordered to do so.
In the aftermath of the battle, the men tried to recall if any commander had asked for volunteers for this suicide mission, but none could recall any such order. By nightfall, Ammunition Hill was in Israeli hands. After 2,000 years of dreaming, the Jewish people came home at last to the Old City and the Western Wall.
One wonders how men of flesh and blood rose above their physical reality to reach such a level of determination and sacrifice.
And one wonders as well why G-d needed such painful and challenging sacrifices.
Sacrifice: a loaded word, to say the least. This week’s portion, Vayikra, introduces a book of the Torah almost completely dedicated to the concept of sacrifices in the Mishkan and later the Temple. Nearly a quarter of the Torah is dedicated to the how, when, where and what of animal offerings.
If the Torah is meant to be relevant to every Jew, in every generation, what are we meant to do with sacrifices in the twenty-first century?
The Ramban suggests that the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, comes from the root karov, to be close, because the aim of the sacrifices is to bring us close to G-d. How does slaughtering and burning animals do that?
Maimonides, in his Guide to the Perplexed (3:32), suggests a challenging way to understand the basis for sacrifices in the Torah: that their purpose was to keep us from falling back into a culture of idolatry. Although the Jewish people had left Egypt, they had not necessarily left it behind, and animal offerings to pagan gods were still a part of their psyche. As such, suggests Maimonides, it was better for the people to offer sacrifices to G-d rather than have them fall back into idolatrous practices.
This is nothing short of incredible. An entire book of the Torah is dedicated to this topic, an enormous wealth of detail and complexity — all so the Jews leaving Egypt would have a healthier outlet for their desire to slaughter and burn animals? What relevance would this then have for us today?
Sacrifices have been around since the dawn of man. Cain and Abel offered sacrifices to G-d long before we struggled with idolatry. The first thing Noach did upon alighting from the ark at the end of the flood was to build an altar. Why? What were they trying to say?
If sacrifice is a form of thanks, why must a man take an animal, slaughter it, and burn it for G-d? What does this act have to do with saying thank you?
It is interesting to note that idol worship is one of only three transgressions (along with murder and adultery) that one should be willing to die for rather than transgress.
Now, it is easy to understand why I should give up my own life rather than take someone else’s. After all, as the Talmud points out, who am I to say that “my blood his redder than his”? Even adultery is an action one can understand as beyond the pale.
But why is idolatry included? Have I really transgressed if I am under duress? I may bow to the idol, but if in my heart it is just a carved piece of wood, what have I really done? Idolatry is the worship of nature: its power, beauty, and even cruelty. Essentially, the idolater worships all things physical. Sexual immorality and the worship of the body were an integral part of pagan practice.
There are two aspects that make up who we are. There is the part of us that is physical, even animal. We have the same need as animals to eat and sleep and attend to our physical needs. From this perspective, we are limited beings with temporal existences in this world.
But there is an aspect of us that extends far beyond the physical; that part of us that strives to reach out to a reality that is endless. This is the spiritual part of us, what we often call the soul. It is that aspect of our makeup that experiences the Endless One. It is the part of us that has the capacity to love, to give, to care, and to experience purpose: the human experiences that have no limits.
The ancient pagans became so immersed in the physical world that there was no room for G-d in the world. Such a world no longer has a reason to exist, hence the flood.
We often become so immersed in the physical world around us that we come to view it as the essence of reality, forgetting that it is merely an extension of the true reality, which is G-d.
This, then, is the purpose of the korbanot. When we become too immersed in that physical reality, when our desires rule us instead of the other way around, we are dangerously close to the world of pagan idolatry, where the animal world of desire is the only reality. And that is when we offer up the animal, representing both the animal within us as well as the physical world around us, to remind us what this world is really about.
This is the essence of the sacrifices: what do we desire? Do we allow ourselves to be animals, letting our physical desires rule us? Or do we strive to a higher level? The sacrifices are an opportunity to bring things into perspective, to put the animal within us back in place. And this is the gift of the sacrifices: to reconnect with what life is meant to be, and to let go of the illusions that we are so immersed in all the time.
If this is what sacrifices are all about, then they have never been more relevant.
Fifty years ago, on a barren, windswept hill overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, a small band of Israeli paratroopers remembered what really matters in this world, and themselves became the sacrifice, reminding us to see a reality so much bigger than our needs and desires. In so doing, they changed history.