Rabbi Eli Blum
Former Rosh Kollel in Cleveland
Our parsha contrasts the nations’ avoda zara (idolatry) – which is performed everywhere – with Hashem’s demand that our korbanot (sacrifices) be offered only in the Mikdash:
“Destroy, you shall destroy all the places where the nations, that you shall possess, worshipped their gods, on the lofty mountains and on the hills, and under every lush tree. And you shall shatter their altars, and you shall break their monuments, and their Asherim you shall burn with fire, and the graven images of their gods you shall cut down; and you shall destroy their name from that place. You shall not do so to Hashem, your God. But only at the place which Hashem your God will choose from all your tribes, to set His Name there; you shall inquire after His dwelling and come there.” (Devarim 12:2-5)
Yet, a few p’sukim later, the Torah contrasts between the existing conditions in the midbar (literally, desert – i.e. before Bnei Yisrael entered Eretz Yisrael) as opposed to the ideal situation to be instituted when the Beit HaMikdash will be built:
“You shall not do as all that we do here this day; every man as he deems fit. For you have not yet come to the resting place and to the heritage, which Hashem, your God, is giving you. And you shall cross the Jordan and settle in the land that Hashem your God, is giving you as an inheritance; and He will give you rest from all your enemies all around, and you will dwell securely. And it will be, the place that Hashem, your God, will choose to establish His Name, there you shall bring all that I command you; your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, your tithes, and the contribution of your hand, and the choicest of your vow offerings which you shall vow to Hashem. And you shall rejoice before Hashem, your God, you and your sons and your daughters and your menservants and your maidservants; and the levi who is within your cities, for he has no portion or inheritance with you. Beware, lest you offer up your burnt offerings in any place you see. But only in the place Hashem will choose, among one of your tribes, there you shall offer up your burnt offerings; and there you shall do all that I command you. But in every desire of your soul, you may slaughter and eat meat, according to the blessing of Hashem, your God, which He gave you, in all your cities; the impure and the pure may eat it, like the deer and like the hart. But you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it on the earth like water. You may not eat within your cities the tithe of your grain or your wine or your oil, or the firstborn of your cattle or of your sheep, or all of your vow offerings that you will vow, or your donations, or the contribution of your hand. But you shall eat them before Hashem, your God, in the place which Hashem, your God, will choose, you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, and the levi who is in your cities; and you shall rejoice before Hashem, your God, in all your endeavors.” (Devarim 12:8-18)
Thus, there is a significant difference between bringing korbanot in the midbar and bringing korbanot in Eretz Yisrael. Even the korbanot’s goals diverge in the two locations.
Commentaries disagree as to the precise meaning of the pasuk:
“You shall not do as all that we do here this day; every man as he deems fit.” (Devarim 12:8)
Some understand this to indicate that there is a difference between the bamot (i.e., the altars where one was permitted to bring korbanot during specific periods of history only) and the Mishkan. (See Rashi and Tosfot – Zevachim 117b) Others – such as the Ibn Ezra – explain that this refers to the difference between voluntary korbanot in the midbar and obligatory korbanot in the Mishkan. Finally, the Ramban and the Netziv posit that this pasuk’s message is that korbanot in Eretz Yisrael have an inherently different objective than their counterparts in the midbar. As the Netziv says:
“Until this point, the Torah warned not to follow the custom of the nations with respect to their avoda zara. And now, it warns not to do what was done in the midbar. And behold, we have previously explained (Parshat Acharei Mot 17:5) that since it was forbidden for everyone to eat basar ta’avah shechutah (meat that was not brought as a korban) even according to R’ Akiva, because of this the Torah permitted bringing a [korban] shlamim to the Mishkan so that one could eat meat as his heart desired. But this was not permitted in Eretz Yisrael where basar ta’avah shechutah was permitted. Thus, this verse, ‘you shall not do… every man as he deems fit’ simply means that one would bring a shlamim because one wanted to eat meat and not for the sake of the korban itself. ” (Ha’amek Davar – Devarim 12:8)
In other words, according to the Netziv (but not according to the p’shat of Chazal’s words in Zevachim), in the midbar, people would offer a shlamim so that they could eat the meat. However, in Eretz Yisrael, where one could eat meat that had not been offered as a korban¸ all korbanot had to be offered for their own sake.
In the midbar, all food (the man, the slav, and even ordinary meat) was considered to be “achila mishulchan gavoah” (literally, eating from a high table – or eating from the mizbe’ach). However, in Eretz Yisrael, the objective is to live a natural life in which the holy and the mundane join together. Therefore, normal eating was achilat chulin (i.e. not from the mizbe’ach). But the Beit HaMikdash was the heart, and by connecting to it at least three times a year, one’s entire life was sanctified.
Hence, the Torah says, “but only in the place Hashem will choose” three times. Because without this emphasis, the nation would not share a single spiritual center; the Beit HaMikdash would not serve as a unifying force for the people and a means of connecting Yisrael to their Father in Heaven.
We see the same idea reflected in the halachah that one may not bring korbanot in every place once the Beit HaMikdash was built. As R’ Avraham ben HaRambam writes (Teshuvot, 32):
“When the Torah forbids offering korbanot anywhere – ‘beware, lest you offer up your burnt offerings in any place you see,’ (Devarim 12:13) – this only applies when the Mikdash stands. As it says, ‘but only in the place Hashem will choose.’ (Devarim 12:5) However, once the Mikdash was built, this is forbidden forever – even when the Mikdash is destroyed.”
We can now understand why Am Yisrael was scared when the two and a half tribes built an additional mizbe’ach on the other side of the Yarden and why they reacted strongly before learning the two and a half tribes’ true motive:
“Is the iniquity of Pe’or too little for us, from which we have not been purified until this day, and there was a plague in the congregation of Hashem. And you will turn away this day from following Hashem; and it will be, you rebel today against Hashem, that tomorrow He will be angry with the whole congregation of Israel. But if the land of your possession is impure, then move you over to the land of the possession of Hashem, in which Hashem’s tabernacle dwells, and take possession among us; but do not rebel against Hashem, nor rebel against us, in your building an altar besides the altar of Hashem our God.” (Yehoshua 22:17-19)
The term “rebel” implies a comparison to avoda zara; the nation was thus stressing their apprehension at the two and a half tribes’ actions. The Mikdash is meant to unify and to centralize the worship of Hashem and also to bring the people’s hearts closer to Hashem.
This message should resonate in our own time as well. We must elucidate to the many spiritual centers throughout the Diaspora that their task is to unify and to unite. In addition, we must ensure that Diaspora institutions do not replace the spiritual center of Eretz Yisrael. “For the Torah shall come forth out of Tzion and the word of Hashem from Yersushalayim.”