Command the children of Israel and say to them: Be punctilious in bringing me my bread-sacrifices upon my fires, those scents that please me, each at its appointed time (Bamidbar 28:2)

The words of this part of Parashat Pinchas are familiar to anyone who prays the Musaf prayers on Shabbatot and holidays, on Rosh Chodesh (the new month), or Seder Korbanot, the selected Torah texts traditionally read before Shacharit prayers every morning. The sacrifices for every time are listed and described here. The Tamid offerings of the morning and of the late afternoon, and every Musaf sacrifice, are described and commanded in order, from those brought most often to least often, from earliest in the year to latest in the year.

It is well-known that there is a tradition which teaches that the prayers of every time of day and for every holy-day are based on those sacrifices; in some ways, even replacements for them. When we say the Musaf prayers for the holidays, we include the words “Because of our sins, we were exiled from our land… and we cannot go up and appear and to prostrate ourselves before You because of the hand that was sent against Your Temple…. Show us and your deserted Temple mercy, and may it quickly be rebuilt and may its glory grow….” This suggests that our prayers are poor replacements for sacrifices. They are simply the best we can offer under the circumstances.

This message is especially emphasized during these Three Weeks between the fast of the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’av, this period called “Bein Hamtzarim (literally: between the narrow straits).” Tisha B’av commemorates many tragedies that befell our people, but the tragedy that is most focused upon is the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, first at the hands of Babylonian forces, and later at the hands of Roman armies. The sacrifices that we recall in this week’s parashah cannot be offered.

What is the significance, though, of no longer being able to bring sacrifices? Does having priests slaughter and burn animals in Jerusalem make us more spiritually focused, more caring, less selfish? Is there any safeguard against the institution of the priesthood being corrupted, as in the time of Chofni and Pinchas, the sons of Eli? What are we actually mourning? What did we actually lose?

At the time of the physical Temples’ destructions, the center of the Jewish religion, both organizationally and theologically, was destroyed. God could no longer be served according to the Torah. This means that God could no longer be served in an ideal way.

When we mourn the loss of the Temple many centuries after the fact, it is not the fact that we no longer burn sheep and goats on an altar that we are mourning. We are acknowledging the inadequacy of our spirituality. The fact that when we pray, we do not do so with sufficient concentration, sincerity, or selflessness. We do not give tzeddakah adequately. We are not as discerning of the needs and thoughts of those around us as we need to be. We as individuals are not living up to our full potentials, and neither is the Jewish community as a whole. When we pray for the restoration of the Temple, it is not a building where religious clerics with political authority burn sheep, eat the meat of sin offerings, and adjudicate legal proceedings, but rather, we pray that we be better as people and as a people; that our prayers be heard because we offer them with full clarity and sincerity.

Shabbat Shalom!

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