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The Link Between Shabbat & Civil Law

This second parasha of Sefer Vayikra completes the Torah’s description of the various sacrifices to be offered in the Mishkan and later during the existence of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem. Yet the sacrificial service was not an end in itself or even the primary object of its own commandments. Rather the sacrificial service was to be a means by which mankind could harness powerful instinctual emotions that lead to idol worship. Hence many restrictions were incorporated into these mitzvot. Among them included limitations on the place of sacrifice, the objects of sacrifice, the times of sacrifice and people who could bring a sacrifice.

The goal of the sacrificial service is more closely related to prayer, supplication, and activities that lead to true knowledge and recognition of God. Thus the Prophets in their books are frequently found to rebuke the people of Israel for being over-zealous and exerting themselves too much in bringing sacrifices. The Prophets distinctly declared that the object of sacrifices is not very essential and that God does not require them. Samuel declares. “Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings as in obeying the voice of the Lord.” Isaiah exclaimed, “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? says the Lord.” In this week’s haftarah portion, Jeremiah admonishes the people of his generation, “For I spoke not unto your forefathers nor commanded them on the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning sacrifices. But this thing I commanded them: ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God and you will be My people.’”

What were the first laws given to the people even before reaching Mt. Sinai? The first commands were given at the “place of bitter waters” called “Marah.” “There He made them a statute and an ordinance, and there He proved them.” (Shemot 15:25) Our Sages tell us that the civil laws and Shabbat were given at Marah. Shabbat teaches and inculcates into the nation true ideas about God. Civil laws are the means by which injustice is removed from human conduct and behavior. This verse makes clear that the first laws given were not about the sacrificial system.

Rather the chief object of the Torah’s laws is the teaching of truths about God and the removal of injustice from mankind. These two subjects are not unrelated to each other. In fact, they are fundamentally and intrinsically related to one another. True justice for mankind, not justice based on the relativism of the moment, can only be promulgated by the Creator of mankind. Only the creator of an object can know how best to maintain the object in its optimal form. The Creator of the universe, of which man is but one His creations, set down the laws by which the physical universe is sustained, also gave the system of laws by which mankind should regulate all his social interactions. In reciprocal fashion proper implementation of God’s civil law system reflects on the source of the system.

Possessing a true knowledge of God, the Creator, changes the person in a profound and fundamental way. This knowledge bestows upon the person insights into how human perfection emerges from imitating God’s actions. “Hashem, Hashem, God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and truth; preserver of kindness for a thousand generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error, and Who cleanses. These are the 13 attributes of God’s mercy.

Maimonides at the very end of his “Guide for the Perplexed” writes, “Having acquired this knowledge, a person will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment and righteousness, and thus imitate the ways of God.” This is the same idea that the prophet Jeremiah leaves us with at the very end of this week’s Haftorah. “Only in this may one who glorifies, glorify himself: in discerning and knowing Me. For I am Hashem, Who performs kindness, judgement and righteousness in the world; for these are what I desire. The word of Hashem.”

May we use this Shabbat to realign our priorities in life and to direct our energies in acquiring true knowledge of God. It is from this knowledge that leads us to perform true acts of kindness with whomever we interact.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan