The Game of Altars

The Game of Altars
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

The challenge of a visiting rabbi when preaching is how do you share a little about yourself so people get a more rounded picture of who you are. I’ve spent half of Shabbat with you already and look forward to getting to know all of you much better. As for ‘a little more of me’: I’m a science fiction and fantasy nerd (most rabbis are). And I share a particular predilection for ‘Game of Thrones’.

‘Game of Thrones’ is a highly-successful television series based on George RR Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ fantasy novels. Set in a Medieval-esque world, the series distinguishes itself from the usual ‘sword and sorcery’ type through its explorations of power and political intrigue. The premise of the show centres around different characters vying for the Iron Throne, the centralized seat of power that unites the known world. The brilliance of the show lies in how it discusses questions of character and influence: how power corrupts, alliances shift and where accountability succeeds or fail.

We don’t tend to associate the opening chapter of Vayikra – Leviticus – with issues of power. Sacrifices and cultic practices? Sure. But power is the province of the Book of Exodus. Leviticus we see as arcane and perhaps irrelevant to our experience as 21st century Reform Jews.

But this is also Shabbat Zachor where we read the Book of Deuteronomy’s injunction to ‘remember what Amalek did to you’—a timely warning for Purim, commemorating the evil that Haman, the Agagite (a descendant of Amalek) did to us as well as preparing ourselves from Pesach, which forces us to confront the very issues of power that the Book of Exodus talks about.

So how does all this tie in with Vayikra? As I was reading the parashah’s detailing of who-brings-what-sacrifice, I came across a striking verse:

Asher nasi yecheta v’asah achat mikol mitzvoth Adonai Elohav asher lo te’asenah bishgagah v’ashem; o hoda elav chatato asher chata bah v’hevi et korbano…’ – ‘When a leader sins and he has done one of negative [or prohibited] commandments unintentionally and has become guilty, if the sin that he sinned becomes known to him, he shall bring his offering…’ (Lev 4:22)

There are a few noteworthy things about this verse.

First of all, why does it mention the ‘nasi’ – the leader – separately? Vayikra deals with the sins of the priesthood and the congregation of Israel. The leader’s onus to bring an offering is virtually identical as any other individual.
Second of all, why does the Torah use the word ‘asher’ – ‘that’ – the leader will sin? Is there a presumption of sinfulness?
Third of all, why does the Torah mention ‘Adonai Elohav’ – the Eternal his God?
We are so accustomed to hearing the Torah address us collectively: ‘Adonai Eloheinu’ or ‘Eloheichem’: our God or your God (plural). What is the significance that the leader is called to account by his God (singular)?
And lastly, what is the significance of self-knowledge?

According to the Talmud, Masechet Horayot 11a, ‘nasi’ refers to the king but not exclusively so. The ‘nasi’ can be a chieftain, a prince or any other form of secular office. This is a public office and thus accountable to public scrutiny. Making the ‘nasi’ public through his sacrifice is a way on instating accountability. We should not be surprised that political leaders are fallible and that they too, are in need of expiation. It is not only possible that political leaders will sin but expected. This is why the Torah uses ‘asher’ and not ‘im’ (if). The Zohar comments that the conditional term, ‘im’, if, is used to describe the fallibility of the High Priest not because he is a more holy person but by virtue of his continual soul-searching and punctilious commitment to Jewish observance in near-monastic fashion, he is deemed less likely to sin. The political leader, the Zohar cautions us, is so wrapped up with power, pride and influence that, with the best intentions of the world, he is still likely to sin.

This is the nature of power. The Torah places checks and balances upon the leader. We may all remember the verses in Deuteronomy that prohibits a king from marrying too many wives or having too many horses in his royal stables. Here, the checks and balances are more subtle: by establishing a deeply personal and intimate connection to God through the term ‘Elohav’ – his God – the leader is reminded that he too falls under the aegis of moral authority. God is God of all humanity, whether low status or high station. The leader needs extra reminding that God holds him (or her!) accountable. ‘Shiviti Adonai lenegdi tamid’ – I have set the Eternal before me always (Psalm 16:8). This in turn, can only be realized through self-awareness: ‘hoda elav’ – when the sin becomes ‘known to him’.

Checks and balances for containing power are as much external as they are internal. They are institutional (and constitutional!) as much as they are psychological. These next few weeks we can see the fall-out when those checks and balances are not properly managed: the invitation to demagogy, which unfortunately seems ever relevant in today’s world. Amalek abused his power over the vulnerable Israelites and generations later gives rise to Haman:a hateful, genocidal demagogue. There arose a Pharaoh who did not ‘know Joseph’. In the period of Purim and Pesach, where we are caught up in revelry and joy, it is easy to forget the darker spheres of these festivals. We remember evil in order to erase it. To challenge it. To circumscribe it. But the Torah teaches us well: evil is not external to us. It is neither accident nor fate – it is choice.

What Vayikra can teach us about the sacrifices is so much more profound than offal, blood and incense. The act of offering is an intrinsic act made extrinsic; an inward act made public.
We turn ourselves inside out, we vocalize our fallibility. We bring our pride, ego and selfishness and place them upon the Altar. According to Midrash, the small Aleph with which the chapter opens ‘Vayikra el Moshe’—‘He called to Moses’—teaches us that Moses was humble in his leadership.

Game of Thrones is engaging and thoughtful (though violent and explicit). Yet there are stories far older that prove to be wiser yet and more enduring. May we all be inspired to think deeply, act justly and listen to the still small, sacred, ethical voice within.


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