Shemini: Unwilling Sacrifice & the City of G-d

A Lada

I’m trying to write more light-hearted (or perhaps even funny) divrai Torah (thoughts on Torah). Last week’s dvar Torah was a bit forced (and apparently too long), but this week should be much easier. After all, I’m planning on touching on the deaths of millions, the occasionally horrifying hand of G-d in human experience and other such topics. There’s a natural confluence between a light and fun style and this sort of content. It really ought to be a breeze.

Before we get to all the fun and games, though, let’s cover some serious material.

One of the Greatest Christian Theologians of all Time (GCTOAT doesn’t have quite the same ring as some other acronym, but I tried) was a guy named Augustine. His life story provided a template for generations of televangelists and cult leaders. You know, the whole sinner rebirthed to a life of holiness and purity and talking incessantly about the need to give up physical wealth in the pursuit of spiritual wealth thing. He was apparently very very convincing. Really, those televangelists and cult leaders are carbon copies of his original. Except, well, Augustine didn’t acquire his own airplane or fleet of Rolls Royces. At least I don’t think he did. (I’m being mean to Augustine: he actually pushed the idea of giving money to the poor. He wasn’t collecting it for himself.)

Any, Augustine was also very prolific. He preached something like 10,000 sermons during his life and 500 remain today. He was basically the Joe Rogan of 5th Century Algeria, except, given the lack of podcasting, he’d deliver the same 10,000 sermons again and again in order to reach a broader in-person audience. He also wrote a few books. One was Confessions (an autobiography of sorts, sort of a knock-off before its time of A Multi Colored Coat). And this other book you might have heard of: The City of G-d (not the movie, which is a great illustration of the problems in Brazilian slum society, but the book).

A central idea in The City of G-d (sorry if I get this wrong, it has been decades since I read it and I’m only using it here to step into other ideas), is that there are two realities. One is the City of Man, the world you physically live in and whose laws you follow and whose suffering you must endure. But there is another City. A City that joins believers all over the world. The City of G-d. You can spiritually dwell in that City, no matter which physical City of Man you find yourself in.

It is a powerful concept that has taken almost literal form with the rise of the Internet. You may live in Chicago or Madrid, but you can also be a part of another City, say a City of Radial Tire Lovers. Chicagoans might fight about corruption and crime and policing, but those in the City of Radial Tyre Lovers just fight about proper spelling. It is a much nicer place. Most of the time.

So, why am I bringing it up here? Well, first because Augustine is fascinating and not enough Jews know about him. And second, because Jews have long struggled with a very similar set of ideas. And, when I say ‘long struggled’ I mean the forefathers had a hard time with this divide. Does the elder son inherit, or does Yaacov (Jacob) get to act contrary to established norms and follow his own path? Does Yaacov submit to local convention and accept the marriage to Leah? Do you get to follow G-dly instructions and ‘cheat’ Lavan out of his flocks and flee? Do the 12 brothers submit to a contract with Shechem or does a G-dly rule allow them to slaughter the city in retaliation for rape and forced marriage? Did Abraham live by the law of G-d or was he somehow subject to the laws of those he lived among? As far as the Torah was concerned, there is no mention of local laws or rules in Abraham’s life. The weight seems to come firmly down on G-d’s laws and G-d’s reality. Abraham effectively lived in a very very small Village of G-d.

Now this isn’t exactly what Augustine was talking about. He wasn’t talking about ‘real life’ law following G-d or Man. He was talking about spiritually dwelling on another plane. But Jews love Law, so the City of G-d isn’t real for us unless it has a whole bunch of rules. And there is a shared underlying question: What ‘plane’ do we really live on? To quote a hotdog advertisement, do we, in fact, “answer to a higher authority?”

In fact, the Purim story deals with a very similar problem. The Persian Empire devised by Cyrus the Great had different Satrapies (provinces). They had local kings, local laws etc… They just owed tax and some soldiers to the central empire. Otherwise, they kind of managed themselves. Every geographical location had its own legal system with limited oversight from above. Then there were the Jews – still hanging on, just a bit, to laws from a land they no longer occupied. Haman complains that they don’t follow the laws of the places they live. They have a sort of real, physical-world, City of G-d. And they don’t fit in the geographically-based law system that Cyrus laid down. Obvious answer? Harmonize the system. Erase the Jews.

You can’t have two legal systems for two kinds of people living in the same place. Right? The law applies equally to everybody in a particular place. Well, the Jews of the Ancient Persian Empire violated this precept. It was like the City of Michelin Tyre lovers deciding that they don’t have to pay the same car registration rate because their tires are holier than thou’s.

The Purim story doesn’t resolve this with legal harmonization. In fact, the separate laws principle is not only reinforced, it is redeployed to strengthen the whole system. See, the Satrapies were ruled by a local, but a regular Imperial Auditor (with the cool name ‘Eye of the King’) would come by and examine the books. It was a good system. But with the Jewish people living under Jewish law and connecting directly to Mordechai in Susa you could suddenly have full-time Eyes of the King living everywhere in the Empire. So, at the end of the story, letters are issued to “every provide according to its writing, and to every people in their own language, and to the Jews according to their writing, and according to their language”. They get their Jewish-Style City of G-d: Special Laws for Special People. Because it ended up tying the “whole world” together, taxes could be raised in the last chapter of the megillah. The emperor was stronger.

This whole idea is kind of repelling nowadays. Kind of. On the one hand, we see Segregation and Apartheid. Horrifying separate but ‘equal’ systems. But on the other hand, ideas of reparations or special rules based on ethnic or racial identity are growing in popularity. The idea of being treated differently, by the law, is gaining traction. It actually isn’t such a weird idea, historically. In early medieval Europe, you were often subject to the law of your people. If you were a Goth, no matter where you were, you were subject to Gothic Law. Steal another’s Goth’s tires? Death by hanging. But if a Vandal in the same place were to steal another Vandal’s tyres? Just three months of road-side service. (this, by the way, is a real-world example, passed on to me from a real, live, scholar of medieval law).

There are vestiges of this today. Jews can agree to subject themselves to Jewish civil law in a variety of circumstances in a variety of places. Muslims and non-Muslims are subject to different restrictions in various Muslim countries (and sometimes non-Muslims have fewer restrictions). And some argue that Haredi and Arab society in Israel today is effectively not subject to State law. Haredi society clearly has its own legal systems and enforcement and the State is kind of hands off. There are effectively special laws for special people. It just isn’t ‘legal’.

In the modern world, we like to see states and laws defined solely by geography. But many also believe an ethnic layer should apply. So, the Russian government believes it should govern Russians everywhere they form a significant part of a population. They want to unify the geography and the people. The Chinese Communist Party believes the same thing. The idea is self-determination around ethnic identity and geography.

Reports from the 20th century indicate this idea can get messy.

Should we instead seek a path where laws could differ by people, even within the same land? Thinking about this last one: would there be more peace in Israel if people could identify themselves with a set group (of a minimum size or concentration) and have all intra-group disputes and crimes subject to that group’s legal system? A sort of officially recognized sectarian law for Haredim, Muslims or Druze who pull themselves from the standard State system. Inter-group disputes would, of course, continue to be handled by the standard legal system. But intra-group disputes would be internally adjudicated. This is effectively what happens when states with strong ethnic divisions break down.

Maybe they wouldn’t break down so much if they were meant to run this way?

In related news, a recent study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports found that virtual reality ‘trips’ could mimic the effects of psychedelic drugs. So, you might treat depression etc… through a ‘dream machine’ that created a hallucinogen-like reality but without the less-controlled effects of LSD. The idea is that the mind-bending nature of such VR simulations could break the brain out of various mental ruts and conditions.

The study didn’t cover whether similar effects might be realized by reading the whacked-out ideas covered in my writing – but I’d like to think so.

All of this is interesting, but the really important question is: what forms legal systems? What forms ethnicities? What forms countries and group identities? That’s a big question, so we’ll basically skip it (plus, I have no idea what the answers are). Except that a tiny sliver of it is really relevant to this week’s parsha and that whole question of where law applies.

As I see it (as a totally uneducated theorist just guessing), a whole lot of identities are formed through effectively voluntary sacrifice. They are willing to fight and/or die for something. Christian martyrs. Ukrainians (whether of Russian or Ukrainian Ethnicity). American revolutionaries. Palestinian terrorists. There is a price paid, willingly, in blood. It is a kind of human sacrifice in the name of… X. The bonds that are formed through voluntary sacrifice are powerful. This is why the City of Classic Jaguar Owners is so much stronger than the City of Lexus Owners.

But there’s another sort of identity-forming sacrifice: the involuntary sacrifice: Black slaves in America, assimilated Jews in Nazi Germany. They don’t (necessarily) fight. They don’t (necessarily) resist. They don’t (necessarily) “stand up for who they are”. And yet they are oppressed and killed because of their identity.

This sort of involuntary sacrifice can also form a powerful identity. The thing is: the resulting identity is formed by others. Southern slave masters and their follow-on oppressors defined American blacks. Nazis seem to have defined many Jews. How many times have you heard: “Of course he’s a Jew (despite the fact he doesn’t identify as one or practice any aspect of the faith) – Hitler would have killed him!”

Can you imagine a Catholic saying: “of course he’s a Catholic (despite the fact he doesn’t identify as one or practice any aspect of the faith)! Emperor Diocletian would have fed him to the lions!”

Jews don’t necessarily die for our beliefs. We die for our being.


This is brings us to Nadav and Avihu.

Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, made a mistake sufficiently unclear that we argue about what exactly it was, even today. I’ve got my theories and have talked about them in the past. The important thing is: G-d kills them. And then He declares that He has been sanctified through their deaths. The idea of sanctification is simple enough: G-d is timeless and this extreme punishment serves as a vivid reminder that His laws are timeless and unchanging. There are a million varieties and explanations of this theme. Just attend pretty much any speech in a synagogue next week.

The thing is, as extreme as they are, these deaths don’t stand alone. It seems every major transformation of the people is presaged by an unwilling sacrifice. Avram (and Terach) leave Ur Kasdim because Haran (another of Terach’s sons) dies in front of Terach’s eyes. The Jewish people leave Egypt, but not before an unnumbered generation of children are drowned in the Nile. The Aron Hakodesh (Holy Ark) is moved to Jerusalem, but not before Uzziah is struck down trying to prevent it from falling. An entire generation is exterminated in the desert before the people can come to the land of Israel. The Holocaust occurs before the foundation of the Modern State of Israel.

Again and again, and I’ve got no way to make this light (and maybe even funny), G-d takes an unwilling sacrifice from the people. G-d is sanctified through death. It goes so far that the Jewish people say the Kaddish – literally the ‘Sanctification’ – as a marker of every death. We say it in the lingua franca (at least of the time it was written) of Aramaic so that it is clear what it means. The prayer starts with: “May His great name be exalted and sanctified.” The central phrase is: “May His great name be blessed for ever, and to all eternity!” Holiness is timelessness and G-d is somehow sanctified with every death.

We are a nation defined by unwilling sacrifice. But we aren’t really defined by the Hitlers, Ferdinands, Czars, Peasants, Emperors, Hellenists or Pharaohs who we think were persecuting us. The Nazis don’t define who a Jew is. No, we were, and are, defined by G-d.

G-d is behind every persecution. Every loss. Every slaughter.

If you ignore the nature of sacrifice and look for the other things that define a people, they just don’t apply. The Jewish people are not a people organically developed. We didn’t live in one location and learn to cooperate and form some sort of society and identity. We were always defined as not belonging. The very name of the people Ivrim (Hebrews) means ‘other siders.’ No, the Jewish people’s culture and freedom and initiative were erased by displacement and slavery and suffering again and again and again. From Germany, to Egypt, to Israel itself – we have never belonged. We are defined by displacement. We are defined by G-d alone. Our identity has been forged by the unwilling sacrifices – taken by our G-d.

In a classic Yom Kippur prayer, we read: “As iron in the hand of the blacksmith, who forges or withdraws it at will, so are we in Your hand.” G-d strikes us, forges us. We are finally withdrawn from the flames only when we take the form He desires.

Put another way, ours is not the City of Classic Jaguar Owners – willing martyrs to a beautiful vision. Biblical prohibitions on self-sacrifice reinforce that we do not get to choose our martyrdom. If we did, we would be defining ourselves. No, ours is the City of Lada Owners – forced into purchasing a Car meant to redefine us a sort of New Man (as if mechanical suffering would make you a better Communist).

In the story of Purim, Haman effectively serves as an agent of G-d. The community was near extinction; just think about Mordechai and Esther, named after Babylonian and Greek gods. Then it was forcefully rebirthed. Haman revived the Jewish people through his threats. They were facing involuntary sacrifice, brought on by G-d. They were defined by forces beyond them. By the end of the story, they were a people, with G-d’s Law, no matter where they lived. They formed a physical City of G-d in betwixt the Cities of Man they happened to also be a part of. They formed a society, separate and with its own rules – but living throughout the world. Many see Achashverosh as a stand in for G-d. In that case, the Jewish people were not only tying together the Persian Empire, but tightening the bonds between G-d and mankind as a whole.

From a divine perspective, all of this can make sense.

Was it better for Haran to survive or Avram to find a unique destiny as the founder of monotheism?

Was it better for some Jewish babies to survive as slaves, or for the people to emerge as an example of divine power and values?

Was it better for Nadav and Avihu to live or for the people to understand that G-d’s laws are forever and immutable and ultimately what defines us?

Was it better for the people to live; but vanish into European and American society? Or was it better for them to be reforged… so that one can routinely say “Of course he’s a Jew (despite the fact he doesn’t identify as one or practice any aspect of the faith)! Hitler would have killed him!”

As mortals, we cannot embrace this divine perspective. We cannot say Kaddish and truly embrace that our loss is worth it because it furthers our definition as G-d’s people. But G-d does not demand that we embrace, or even understand, the forever perspective. We need only accept our reality; standing silent, as Aaron does in the moments after his sons are taken. When we accept that our pain is G-d’s decree, we accept that we are being forged by Him. Then, perhaps, we can be withdrawn from the fire. Then, perhaps, we can buy a Honda.

This week saw the celebration of Narwuz – a very, very, ancient Persian New Year festival. It typically happens between Purim and Pesach. There’s spring cleaning, sharing of food gifts, throwing wheatgrass into rivers so your sins float away, lighting bonfires etc… (stop me when things get familiar). The holiday is identified most strongly with Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism was an enormously influential religion. For example, the idea of kippot (yarmulkes) is attributed to them. Zoroastrians believed in dualism – that there is a good god and a bad god. Lada breaks down? That’s the bad god. Call him the devil. Lada drives for 40 years? That’s the good god. Call him Ahura Mazda (or whatever works for you).

It is very satisfying in its way.

But Judaism rejects it completely.

Every day we say the blessing: “Blessed are You, … King of the Universe, Former of light, Creator of darkness, Maker of peace, Creator of all things.”

For us, G-d makes the good and the bad. The light and the dark. The dark serves the purposes of G-d as directly and as powerfully as the light does. The Satan is just a Prosecutor in the divine court.


When I spoke about these ideas at my Shabbat shiur, somebody asked if I thought we were done with the exile and the slaughter. To me the answer is clear: it is up to us.

If we actually define ourselves as G-d’s people. If we walk in G-d’s path – as a people – as creators and embracers of His holiness… then the cycle of exile and slaughter will have ended. But if not? The Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) describes the people being brought back from the edges of the heavens – as if we live off-planet. I believe that it is possible that we will be exiled once again. It is possible that the word ‘Kaddish’ will remain as associated with loss and suffering as it is with joy, peace and blessing.

You see, we can be the forever people. We will be the forever people.

G-d has decided the “if”.

But the “when”?

That remains up to us.

p.s. All of the above is about the Jewish people’s relationship with G-d. Of course, ours is not the only relationship with G-d. Ideally, all of the nations of the world will relate to G-d. Nonetheless, our identity, forged entirely by G-d, is meant to serve a unique and powerful role in bringing this ideal to life.

p.p.s. for more about my perspective on human purpose – but a perspective that is actually light (and somewhat funny) almost all the way through – check out A Multi Colored Coat (available on Amazon). My wife (Rebecca) says that if I sell 200 copies, she’ll let me make an audiobook version!

Oh, and p.p.p.p.s If you enjoyed this, SHARE IT with others! Hand the print-out to the next person over in shul, put up a quick little comment about why you enjoyed it and post it on Facebook, Twitter or whatever. It would really be appreciated! Plus, I’ve heard that sharing pain can build community… and I’m simply too lazy to give 10,000 sermons a few times a piece.)

Photo by Bekzat Tanatar on Unsplash

  1. Nancy Dunham says:

    Hi, Joseph!

    As a Catholic, I’ve gotta say that the conflict in Northern Ireland can serve as an example of “Of course he/she’s a Catholic – even though he/she may not identify as one – look at the neighborhood he/she lives in… “. Incidentally, I’m also remembering people like Titus Brandsma and Maximillian Kolbe, among many others, who willingly joined in the suffering/dying of their ‘elder brothers and sisters in the faith’ during the Shoah.

    In the secular realm, people of faith energized and sustained resistance against “Jim Crow” and apartheid, right? To quote John Donne: “No man (generic singular) is an island. And, boy, I’m glad for it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *