Monday, September 13, 2010

Ata bechartanu

1. Introduction

You chose us from the all nations; you loved us and were satisfied [ratzita] by us; you elevated us [romamtanu] from all the peoples; you sanctified us [kidashtanu] with your commandments; you brought us close [keravtanu] to your service...

This prayer, recited on every holiday mentioned in the Torah, troubles some people because of its seeming "we're so great" message. It seems imply that we Jews are better than other human beings, and therefore deserve everything and are responsible for nothing.

But our unease with that idea should disappear when we look more closely and see that the passage is in fact troublesome due to quite the opposite idea.

Most of the verbs in the above passage are well known from the Temple service:
ratzita - ritzui, God's acceptance of a sacrifice
romamtanu - terumah, a gift of part of something to the Temple or priests
kidashtanu - hekdesh, property which has been donated to the Temple
keravtanu - korban, a sacrifice

This series of allusions implicitly compares the Jewish nation to a Temple sacrifice.

Taken literally, this seems like a troubling glorification of death as a religious experience. It reminds one the deviant theology which says that the Holocaust had positive value, because it was mankind's special opportunity to offer a "sacrifice" to God in the form of the Jewish people. (The very word "holocaust", which originally meant an animal sacrifice, reflects this interpretation.)

In fact, I think Ata Bechartanu's comparison of Israel to a sacrifice means no such thing. The concept of "korban", i.e. "sacrifice", does not necessarily imply death or suffering at all. Here is why.

2. Sacrifice

I think the basic conception of "sacrifice" (in Tanach and Jewish tradition) is not that the object of sacrifice is killed, but simply that the object is committed and transferred to God. The word "sacrifice" is in fact somewhat inappropriate; the equivalent Hebrew words "korban" and "lehakriv" literally meant "to bring close". Once the object has been transferred to God's domain, the act of sacrifice is over; what happens next depends on what the object is best suited for. If the object is an animal, then it is killed (the word “hikriv” in the Torah is often followed by “shachat”). If the object is a person, then the person becomes committed to serving in the Temple.

Therefore, what we call "human sacrifice" is problematic, not because of the "korban" aspect, but because AFTER the "korban" the person is killed instead of performing one of the meaningful tasks that people are capable of performing. It is an example of giving a gift, which is good, but then using the gift in a way the recipient would not like.

This understanding is evident in the following commandment, one of the first in the Torah regarding sacrifices:

"You shall give your firstborn sons to Me. Thus you shall also do to your ox and sheep: seven days it shall be with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to Me." (Shemot 22:28-9)

Thus the firstborns are "given" to God. Given the context (the animals in the next verse are killed as sacrifices), you might think this means the firstborns become human sacrifices. Whatever its meaning, the command is later overridden, as the firstborns are replaced by Levites:

"Behold, I have taken the Levites from the children of Israel - in place of the firstborn of each womb among the children of Israel - and the Levites are now Mine." (Bamidbar 3:12)

What is the fate of the Levites? Will they now become human sacrifices in place of the firstborn? The answer appears shortly afterwards:

"God spoke to Moshe saying: ... 'Aharon shall offer the Levites before Hashem as a wave-offering from the children of Israel, that they may be in the service of Hashem.' ... Aharon waved [the Levites] as a wave-offering ... Afterwards the Levites entered to perform their service in the Tent of Meeting before Aharon." (Bamidbar 8:1-22)

So the Levites DO become "sacrifices", but not in the expected sense of the term. They are called a "wave-offering" (elsewhere in the Torah "wave-offering" refers to ceremonially lifting a just-sacrificed animal) even though they aren't actually killed, just consecrated to their future task. Evidently, this was the original intention with regard to the firstborns, and this is what was meant by "giving" them to God.

We see the same meaning in Shmuel 1:1:11, where Hannah prays that "If You give Your servant a male child, I will give him to Hashem all the day of his life". Her words resemble and perhaps intentionally allude to Shemot 22:28 ("You shall give your firstborn sons to Me"). And when her firstborn son Shmuel is born, "giving" him to God does not mean killing him. Rather, once he is old enough he serves in the Mishkan, and eventually he becomes an important prophet and religious leader.

Probably the clearest example of this understanding appears in the Torah verses discussing the actual appointment of priests and Levites:
"You shall hakrev to you Aharon your brother and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, to be priests to me." (Shemot 28:1)
"Hakrev the tribe of Levi, and have him stand before Aharon the priest, and serve him." (Bamidbar 3:6)

In all these verses we see that consistently, the language is that of sacrifices, but the action is that of consecration for Temple service.

3. Ata Bechartanu and the priesthood

According to this theory, when a person is brought as an “offering” to God, it in fact means that they are committed to service of God in the Temple. Let us apply this to Ata Bechartanu, which speaks of the people as a whole as if they were sacrifices. The implication is that they must all serve in a priestly role. This role, of course, is well known and most clearly indicated by Shemot 19:6, which describes the Jewish people as a "kingdom of priests, a holy people".

We can see how apt this description is by looking broadly at Torah's guidelines for kohanim, Israelites, and non-Jews. All human beings must behave morally, but Jews must additionally observe a number of rituals and prohibitions. Similarly, all Jews must keep the Torah, but kohanim must observe several rituals and prohibitions unique to them. Kohanim have the additional task of teaching and inspiring the people of Israel (see Devarim 33:10), and in the broad picture, Jews have the same task when it comes to non-Jews. Jews truly are the priests of the human race – with the tasks, status, and material sacrifices that that role entails.

On Shalosh Regalim, all Jews come to the Temple and directly act out their role as priests. It is no accident that on these days we recite Ata Bechartanu, the prayer that most directly alludes to our priestly role.

* Ask your rabbi regarding practical applications of this.


R.E.L. said...

To the extent that kohanim have more of prohibition to leave the Land of Israel than other Jews, it’s because of the tumah of chu”l, which is a derabanan phenomenon (I beleive). So that doesn’t exactly fit with saying that because Yitzchak is a priest, he can’t leave Israel. Though you could make the comparison to korbanot that are not allowed to be removed from the mikdash.

Schulz said...

there are actually a lot of orthodox rabbis (poskim) who say that Kohanim today are not real Kohanim (with the exception of the Rapaport family) because they have become lost. see

Beisrunner said...

REL - You are correct. Chazal prohibited kohanim from leaving EY. Chazal also composed the midrash about Yitzchak. These ideas fit together on the derabanan level. On the deoraita level, neither of them exists (though both follow from "hints" which are deoraita - I could explain this in another post/comment).

And thank you for catching my omission of the fact that it can be problematic even for non-priests to leave Israel :)

Schulz - maybe. As I said, ask your rabbi.

Rabbi Schulz said...

actually, many poskim say kohanim today are not real kohanim


מתהלך בארץ said...

A footnote to section 2, which I just deleted from the article for clarity:

Regarding a couple other Biblical passages that seem to allude to child sacrifice:
1) Chazal describe Yitzchak after the Akedah as an "olah temimah", a uniquely holy individual not allowed to leave Israel (unlike Avraham or Yaakov). What is the point of this interpretation? I think Chazal wanted to preserve the idea that the Akedah was unique, and thus that a uniquely important sacrifice (not just a ram) was performed there. One way of doing this was to say (like some midrashim) that Yitzchak was killed and then resurrected. Another way was to describe Yitzchak as a "sacrifice" even while alive. As we have seen, human "sacrifice" typically means consecration for Temple service. Thus Yitzchak is portrayed as taking a holy, priest-like role for the rest of his life. And halacha* prohibits priests from leaving the land of Israel.
2) Yiftach's killing his daughter does not disprove our idea. He vowed to bring a "burnt-offering" rather than a generic "sacrifice".