This week’s parasha is Vayikra (and He called), Leviticus 1:1—5:26,[i] which deals with the offerings and sacrifices that would be presented in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. The parasha begins “Now ADONAI called to Moses and spoke to him out of the Tent of Meeting, saying: “Speak to Bnei-Yisrael, and tell them: When anyone of you brings an offering to ADONAI…” (Leviticus 1.1-2). The word translated “offering,” in Hebrew is קָרְבָּ֖ן (korban). While offering or sacrifice is a proper translation, there is a nuance that English readers and even some Hebrew readers might miss. The root of the word is קרב (k-r-v). This is the root for the word קרוב meaning close and להתקרב to draw close. With these related words in mind, the “korban” is not just a “sacrifice,” it is a means to draw closer to Hashem. This becomes especially important as we look at this week’s haftatah, Isaiah 43.21 – 44.23.
You have not brought Me sheep for your burnt offerings; nor have you honored Me with your sacrifices. I did not compel you to serve offerings nor wearied you with incense. You have not spent money buying Me aromatic cane, nor have you satisfied Me with the fat of your sacrifices. Rather you burdened Me with your sins, wearied Me with your iniquities. (Isaiah 43.23-24)
Most of the time, the prophetic writings are concerned with social and economic injustices between the “haves and the have nots” often to the seeming nullification of the ritual aspects of the Torah. But here the LORD seems to be prompting Isaiah to focus on Judah’s lack of offering proper “sacrifices.” However, why would the people forsake the LORD’s required sacrifices when it is He who affirms
I, I am the One who blots out your transgressions for My own sake, and will not remember your sins. (43.25)
The answer appears in chapter 44, where Hashem details not only Judah’s attention to but construction of idols. The very fact that Judah (the Southern Kingdom) would turn so strongly to idol worship is unfathomable, especially considering that idolatry was one of the main reasons for the exile of Israel (the Northern Kingdom). Instead of drawing closer to ADONAI, in the manner prescribed, the people chose idolatry, gods made of wood and stone. Isaiah’s account would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
He chops down cedars for himself, or he takes a cypress or an oak. He lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a pine and rain nourishes it. Then it is something for a man to burn. So, he takes one of them and warms himself. He also makes a fire to bake bread. He also makes a god and worships it. He makes an idol and bows before it. He burns half of it in the fire. With this half, he eats meat. He roasts a roast and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm, I have seen the fire.” Yet with the rest he makes a god, his carved image. He falls down before it and worships. He even prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (Isaiah 44.14-17)
From the same wood that is used for warming and cooking, the idolater crafts his gods. This shows either the depth of foolishness or the height of conceit. Man becomes his own master and the creator of his own, personal god. Lest one think that this only happened in the ancient past, but it would not happen today, think again. In a recent episode of Origins, The Journey of Humankind, a National Geographic production, one of the commentators made the following statement: “The greatest moment in the history of humanity is fire, because fire transforms humanity and human beings in such a fundamental way that there is nothing else that you can compare it to.”[ii] While not speaking about wooden idols, like Isaiah, this episode of Origins considers fire the godlike tool that “man” used to forge his own destiny. Jeremiah agrees with the futility of “man-centric” activity when he writes “Will man make gods for himself? Yet they are not gods” (Jeremiah 16.20).
Answering why He taught the multitudes in parables, Yeshua, using this haftarah, told His disciples,
“For this reason, I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear nor do they understand. And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, ‘You will keep on hearing but will never understand; you will keep looking, but will never see. For the heart of this people has become dull, their ears can barely hear, and they have shut their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts. Then they would turn back, and I would heal them’” (Matthew 13.13-15; cf. Isaiah 44.18).
The important thing to realize however, is not so much the issues of poor sight, unhearing ears or even the dull heart. Instead, the issue to be remembered is that in Isaiah, it was the inhabitants of Judah who seemed to be dull witted idolaters. Yeshua broadened the application of Isaiah to the multitudes who heard him speaking, and to account for His speaking in parables. This is still the situation today, and like the crowds during Yeshua’s lifetime, one with which we should be concerned. Most of us do not carve idols out of wood or chisel from stone, but we do have those things that strive to take front seat between us and our God. These things could be work and striving for financial security, or it could be leisure time, taking our “much needed” rest from the cares of the world. It could even be family time or putting relationships ahead of the LORD. I am not pointing and will not point a finger specifically at any of these issues. That is between each of us and Hashem. I can, however, say to each of “us” that we need to be careful not to fall into the subtle trap of putting the important, expedient or urgent, even “our ministry,” before the LORD, making whatever we put there essentially an idol. Yeshua affirmed that if anyone would do teshuvah “they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts. Then they would turn back, and I would heal them,” which by the way is the same thing the LORD told Judah, “Return to Me, for I have redeemed you” (Isaiah 44.22).
[i] Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the Tree of Life Bible (TLV). Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society 2015
[ii] Amanda Foreman, PhD, commentator on Origins and author of A World on Fire, Random House Publishers, 2012