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03.10.2019 19:28    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parasha  vayelech  

“The place that He will choose”

Parashat Va-Yelekh mentions for the last time the demand to come to the Lord’s Sanctuary.  This location is defined in Deuteronomy as “the place the Lord will choose” (Deut. 31:11), a definition which appears twenty-one times in this book.  This multiplicity of references is similar to the continual and varied repetition of the prohibition against idolatry.  Indeed, having a unique site for the Sanctuary is part of the struggle against paganism, and first appears along with the command to destroy the sites of pagan ritual:

You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshipped their gods…obliterating their name from that site.  Do not worship the Lord your G-d in like manner, but look only to the site that the Lord your G‑d will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there.  There you are to go (Deut. 12:2-5).

Several reasons can be suggested for choosing the expression, “the site that the Lord will choose,” to describe the location of the Sanctuary.  The first is that such a definition, not specifying a certain place, was designed to continue the wilderness experience of the Israelite camp with the Tabernacle at its center.

The Tabernacle moved from place to place, and all of its forty-two resting places were determined solely by the movement of the cloud that hung over it, as we read in Scripture:  “At a command of the Lord the Israelites broke camp, and at a command of the Lord they made camp; they remained encamped as long as the cloud stayed over the Tabernacle…On a sign from the Lord they made camp and on a sign from the Lord they broke camp; they observed the Lord’s mandate at the Lord’s bidding through Moses” (Num. 9:18-23).  When they were in the wilderness they did not know ahead of time what place would be chosen for the Divine Presence to dwell, yet everyone perceived with their senses that it was accompanying them, and thus it would be in the future in the Promised Land.

Indeed, the experience of the wilderness continued until a fixed House was built in the days of Solomon.  For 480 years (I Kings 6:1) the Tabernacle erected by Moses accompanied the people as they wandered from place to place.  As the Lord stressed in His words to David, “From the day that I brought the people of Israel out of Egypt to this day I have not dwelt in a house, but have moved about in Tent and Tabernacle” (II Sam. 7:6).

A second reason was fear of spiritual threats arising from the influence of the surrounding peoples if there were to be a fixed sanctuary from the outset.  Many pagan cultures ascribed intrinsic sanctity to the ritual site, independent of the will of G-d.  This caused the cultic sites of pagan gods to become places of refuge for criminals.[1] The people of Israel were not altogether immune to this danger, as the prophet Jeremiah attests:

See, you are relying on illusions that are of no avail.  Will you steal and murder and commit adultery and swear falsely, and sacrifice to Baal, and follow other gods whom you have not experienced, and then come and stand before Me in this House which bears My name and say, “We are safe”?—[Safe] to do all these abhorrent things!  Do you consider this House, which bears My name, to be a den of thieves?  (Jeremiah 7:8-11)

The first places chosen in the land as sites for the Tabernacle had no prior sanctity associated with them, apparently due to apprehension of this danger.  The Tabernacle did not dwell in Bethel, or Shechem, or Hebron, or Beer Sheba—places that were sanctified in the time of the Patriarchs.  Gilgal, Shiloh, Nob and Gibeon—places privileged to have the Tabernacle dwell in them—had no special qualities associated with them prior to the Lord’s choosing them and hence retained no traces of sanctity after the Tabernacle moved on to another location.

In addition, another option was given for worshipping the Lord before the Tabernacle was commanded, namely permission to worship at an altar made on a high place (heter bamot):  “Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you” (Ex. 20:21).

Permitting such worship made it clear that the Tabernacle itself had no exclusivity or intrinsic significance; only the Lord’s will determined that it and the place it was situated have sanctity.  Essentially, any simple altar that a person built himself was of equal value to the Tabernacle.  The spiritual and practical implications are described in the Mishnah (Zevahim 14.4-8):

Before the Tabernacle was set up, the high places were permitted, and the [sacrificial] service was performed by the first-born.  Once the Tabernacle was set up, the high places were prohibited, and the service was performed by the priests…After they arrived at Gilgal, the high places were permitted…When they came to Shiloh, the high places were prohibited.  There was no roof to it, but below [were walls] like a house of stone and curtains above, and this was the resting place [Heb. menuhah]…After they came to Nob and to Gibeon, the high places were permitted…When they came to Jerusalem the high places were prohibited and were never again permitted; and this was the inheritance [Heb. nahalah].[2]

By its continual repetition of the expression, “the place which the Lord will choose,” the Torah sought to instill in the people’s consciousness that the sanctity of the Temple stems from Divine choice.  Sanctity is conferred by His will, and by His will it is cancelled.  Later on, the destruction of Shiloh provided concrete illustration of this fact, as Jeremiah makes clear (Jer. 7:12-14).

These reasons and others[3] apparently account for Jerusalem not being marked from the outset as the chosen place.  Precisely because this location was sanctified at the incipient stage of the nation by the great act of the binding of Isaac, the Tabernacle had to be stationed for lengthy periods at alternative locations, in order to instill in the people’s mind the notion that the walls of the Temple are no guarantee against destruction.

Immediately establishing Jerusalem as the exclusive location for the Temple posed an especial danger, since the idea of the binding of Isaac could easily become associated with a central idea in the pagan culture of Canaan, namely the worship of Molech.  Deuteronomy 12:31 admonishes:  “You shall not act thus toward the Lord your G-d, for they perform for their gods every abhorrent act that the Lord detests; they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods.”

The worship of Molech posed a real spiritual danger since it could be seen as an expression of religious devotion.  Indeed, on the eve of the destruction of the First Temple the people of Israel adopted this cruel ritual and did not see it as contradicting their spiritual heritage.  Quite the contrary, the story of the binding of Isaac was viewed as giving Divine sanction to such acts.  It was this that the prophet Jeremiah decried in the name of the Lord:  “And they have built the shrines of Topheth in the Valley of Ben-hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in fire—which I never commanded, which never came to My mind” (Jer. 7:31).

Thus we see that despite preventive measures, unacceptable ideas intruded into the minds of the people, but since this intrusion did not last long it sufficed for a short period of exile and the destruction of the First Temple to root out the mistaken notions regarding the inviolability of the Temple and the value of human sacrifice.  During the Second Temple Period there even developed a certain disregard for the Temple, as proven by the story of Miriam daughter of Bilgah.[4] After Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed for the second time, the Sages underscored their continual sanctity, but the people’s conceit that since they were chosen no harm would come to them had been done away with forever, leaving only awe of the Temple and the sacred.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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