Exposing the ‘True Face’ of God / Parashat Vayikra

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A well-known story in the Babylonian Talmud explains why Bilga's family, one of the priestly families in Jerusalem, was punished: "Our rabbis taught: 'It happened that Miriam, a daughter of Bilga, became an apostate and married a Greek officer. When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, she entered with them, stamped with her sandal on the mizbeyakh [altar] and cried out, "Wolf, wolf, how long will you consume the money of Israel but not stand by them in their hour of need?" When the sages heard that, they sealed up Bilga's ring and window [i.e., punished the members of Miriam's family who until then had served in the Temple]'" (Tractate Sukkah, p. 56b).

The sages offer readers few opportunities to get a glimpse of the world of apostates who have left their parents' home and their faith, and have moved into a new religious and cultural context. Here we have the monologue of Miriam, daughter of Bilga, who is such a person and who, upon entering the sanctuary where her priestly forefathers were employed, desecrates the altar while creating a fascinating metaphor. Using a parable, Miriam compares the altar - literally, the center of religious observance in the middle of the Temple, on which animal and other sacrifices are offered - to a wolf. This creature, on one hand, "consume[s] the money of Israel," while, on the other, it does "not stand by them." In making this declaration, and kicking the altar with her sandal, Miriam seeks to expose the "true face" of the God of the Hebrews.

Special attention should be paid to the author of this story: It is not a Greek tale written about Miriam, but rather a fantasy by scholars who invented a historic reconstruction of the basis for the public disgrace of the members of the Bilga family. In "placing" the above pronouncements in the mouth of this apostate Jew, the sages seek to depict what is transpiring in her soul. The mythological metaphor is also a product of their thinking.

A similar metaphor can also be found in the midrashic work Genesis (Bereisheet ) Rabbah. Toward the end of the Book of Genesis, when the patriarch Jacob is lying on his deathbed, he blesses each of his sons personally, each in accordance with his respective character. The blessings are couched in poetic language and the sages seek to give them meaning through identification of historical events alluded to in each blessing's phrasing. Jacob's blessing to Benjamin, the youngest, is "Benjamin is a wolf that raveneth; in the morning he devoureth the prey, and at even he divideth the spoil" (Genesis 49:27 ).

Why is Benjamin compared to a ravenous wolf that devours his prey throughout the day? Among the various suggestions of the sages, we find the following: "Rabbi Pinhas interpreted this biblical text with reference to the altar, thus: Just like the ravenous wolf, the altar consumes the sacrifices. The words in Jacob's blessing 'in the morning he devoureth the prey' allude to 'The one lamb shalt thou offer in the morning' [Numbers 28:4], while the words in his blessing, 'and at even he divideth the spoil' allude to 'and the other lamb shalt thou offer at dusk' [Numbers 28:4]" (Bereisheet Rabbah 99:34 ).

The ravenous appetite of the wolf, which devours its prey in both the morning and the night, is similar to the "ravenous appetite" of the altar in the Temple, built in the territory belonging to the Tribe of Benjamin. Like the wolf, the altar daily "devours" one olah tamid (continual burnt offering ) early in the day and another later on.

The sages have put a legitimate metaphor in the mouth of Miriam. Thus, her sin does not lie in depicting the altar as a wolf, but rather in something else. In mentioning the consumption of "the money of Israel" and inability to "stand by them in their hour of need" - Miriam accuses God of not keeping his side of the bargain (namely, the covenant with his people ). According to Miriam, God uses the money without offering anything in return.

In her own past, Miriam the apostate was one of those whose money was being "consumed" by the altar; now she speaks as someone from the other side of the fence, as a Greek from whom the Jews must defend themselves. From this ostensible position of power, she directs her criticism at the Temple's system. In this anecdote, Miriam's sin is neither her apostasy nor her marriage to a Greek army officer, nor the fact that she compares the altar to a wolf: It is her depiction of the relationship between God and his people as commercially unsuccessful. In her description, God is portrayed as a deity that consumes sustenance without paying for it.

This distinction returns us to the legitimate metaphor of the wolf, which constitutes a fascinating introduction to the "book of sacrifices," the Book of Leviticus. According to this metaphor, the wolf-altar stands in the heart of the Temple and consumes its prey during the day - not as payment for protection or as part of a mutually beneficial economic relationship, but rather as the somewhat oxymoronic expression of the existence of a living, wild god who chooses to dwell in a permanent structure.

All the work in the Temple, which bustles with activity, and involves many participants and huge expenditures, appears to be intended to supply God with food. This entire system is described in great detail, starting with this week's Torah portion, the first in Leviticus, in which information is given that explains the various categories of sacrifice: the olah, the sacrifice offered voluntarily to the Temple and is totally consumed by fire; the minha (meal-offering ), which is a vegetable sacrifice; the zevach shlamim (peace-offering ), part of which is eaten by the priests; and the hatat (sin-offering ), which is brought to atone for a specific sin.

The altar, which is metonymic of God himself, is compared to a wolf. Not a wild one that wanders about in the forest and ambushes its prey, but rather a wolf-king that dwells in the center of civilization and demands to receive his prey from that civilization. Priests are appointed to be responsible for the wolf's prey, and their relationship with the wolf is one of servitude and fear, admiration and caution.

Early 20th-century depiction of the Temple’s altar.

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