So, this caught my eye when I was reading through the parasha for this week, Re’eh (Look). What does it mean…that all this time in the wilderness, since Sinai, the people have been acting as they wanted to, not following the lists and lists of laws because they don’t count until the people actually get into the Land? Turns out, according to commentary, the Rabbis said what the text is talking about here is the ability or prohibition of making sacrifices wherever and whenever one chooses, and that depends on whether you’re in or out of the Land. But, naturally, I’m thinking of it a little differently.
For me, it isn’t a question of whether or not the people could slaughter an animal that wasn’t headed for the Tabernacle, and eat meat. Or whether one could offer up an animal someplace that wasn’t the Tabernacle. It seems there’s a bigger question here, about laws applying in or out of the Land, and more specifically, what exactly had the people been doing all these years in the wilderness? Following the laws? Or learning about them to act upon….later.
Well, for some of the laws that makes sense. You can’t divide up the land into the various tribes if you’re not there yet. You can’t follow agricultural laws, like leaving portions of your field aside for the poor and vulnerable in the community, if you have no farms yet. You can’t follow the rules about what to do if someone falls off your roof or gores your ox, if you have neither roof nor ox yet.
But were all those Tabernacle practices being implemented all along? So many instructions throughout the book of Exodus, and the moving and taking down and putting up…surely those laws were practiced, along with the ones about tamei and tahor (loosely translated as impure and pure) – when to be out of the camp, when to return, etc. And all of the sacrificial rules – the way the priests functioned in the community, when to bring the offerings, who could, who couldn’t, and more. What about the whole section in parashat Bo (Exodus 12) goes into great detail about how to celebrate the annual festival of remembering the Exodus from Egypt – paschal lamb, no leftovers, eat with girded loins. Were there no Seders during that whole wandering time? Or were all those laws just supposed to kick in once the people crossed the Jordan river?
It’s an interesting concept – that of knowing when the guidelines by which you’re told to live actually have to be followed. When is it “practice time” and when is it real? When did they start being aware of the vulnerable in the community, even if they weren’t leaving fields to be gleaned? When did they start acting on the difference between sacred and non-sacred – between “kadosh” and “hol”.
Personally, I think the Israelites were indeed “practicing” in the wilderness. They were learning all the instructions, the teachings, the values that the Torah presents, so they could be ready to hit the ground running in building this new Land. They were becoming practicing at being aware, because becoming aware takes practice.
If certain laws weren’t followed by the Israelites in the wilderness, they still had their purpose in focusing the people on not only the tasks ahead in settling a new land, but on the crucial elements of building a caring society. Be aware of when you slaughter your animals.
Be aware of who needs help in your community, and make sure you give it. Be aware of where your holy places are, and if, as it says in the text, you are too far from them, then here’s how you bringing holiness into where you are; you don’t just get to ignore holiness. Mindfulness and awareness; intention and values – these are the core of Torah, whether we’re in the Land or not. This is what makes a sacred community.