Parasha Re-eh

Our parasha this week instructs the Israelites not to offer sacrifices in any place that they may see, but only at the places that G-d may indicate. Earlier in the Torah sacrifices are offered throughout the land of Israel – Abraham, for example, offers sacrifices in multiple sites. By the time the Israelites are about to enter the Land of Canaan, however, the Book of Deuteronomy prohibits them from offering their sacrifices anywhere they want. Eventually, the only authorized place for sacrifices will be Jerusalem.
In his comment on this verse, Rashi notes an exception to this general rule. He refers us to the story of Elijah.  Elijah the prophet offered a sacrifice of a bull to G-d on Mount Carmel, outside of the present day city of Haifa. You may not remember the story. It is told in I Kings 18. At the time of Elijah, many Jewish people fell into worshipping two gods, Adonai and Baal. The worship of more than one god was common in the Middle East at the time – we are talking about 850 BCE. In fact, monotheism was having a difficult time taking hold in Northern Israel. The Queen, Jezebel, had introduced pagan practices, and the Jewish people adopted them alongside the worship of G-d.  Elijah, however, was a radical monotheist. He insisted that the Jewish people had to make a choice. He urged them to abandon their worship of Baal and to worship Adonai exclusively.
So he gathers the people on Mount Carmel and makes a challenge to the 450 priests of Baal. Both Elijah and the priests of Baal will offer a sacrifice to their G-d. They will each cut up a bull and place it on the altar that they construct. But neither will light a fire to consume the sacrifice. They will ask their god to light the fire. Whos ever god can do so is the true Creator of the Universe.
The priests of Baal set their sacrifice on their altar. They pray to Baal from morning till noon but nothing happens.  They then hop around in a dance and shout and gash themselves with their knives and spears, in the manner of pagan worship of the time.  Their blood is flowing from their self inflicted wounds  but still nothing happens. They do this into the early afternoon. Elijah taunts them.  “Shout louder,” Elijah says, “Maybe your god is sleeping. Maybe he is talking to someone else. Perhaps he is on a journey.” No matter what the priests of Baal do, nothing happens. When it comes time for Elijah to offer his sacrifice, he prays to G- d, “Answer me that they may know that You, O Lord, are G-d”. Immediately fire descends from heaven and consumes his offering. This is what was known in Ancient Israel as a “slam dunk”.
The question is – why is Elijah able to offer a sacrifice at the place he chooses when the Book of Deuteronomy says one can only offer a sacrifice at the Jerusalem Temple. The answer the rabbis give – can you guess it? – is that he is a prophet!  He is an extraordinary person. He has the wisdom to decide where to make a sacrifice that is “out of the box”.  Not just anyone could have chosen to make that sacrifice in that place. Elijah is special and his goal was a lofty one. He was trying to bring the people of Israel back to the exclusive worship of the One True G-d.
Symbolically this prohibition to sacrifice only in certain places has broader implications for all of us. Human beings make sacrifices for many things.  For example, parents will make great sacrifices to allow their children to participate in sports.  Societies make great sacrifices when they determine they need to go to war. How do we know that we are making our sacrifices in the right place? How do we know that the sacrifice that we make is worth the effort?  The Torah is cautioning us to exercise good judgment in choosing the sacrifices that we make in our lives. “Be careful,” says the Torah, “That you do not offer a sacrifice at everyplace you see”. Do not be ruled by your emotions when it comes to sacrifice. Do not sacrifice your time, your effort, your money impulsively. Evaluate your options. Seek the advice of others. We all need to think carefully about where we are going to invest our time and our energy.
One place where we have been told it is good to sacrifice is in getting a college education. But even here, we must heed the Torah’s warning to be cautious. There is nothing sadder than seeing a young person graduate from college with so much debt that they cannot afford to leave their parents home and start independent lives as young adults. All that sacrifice of time, energy and money and still they do not feel they are able to live independently, marry, start a family or buy a home.  All of the money they do earn is going toward paying off their college loans. This has become a real problem in our society.  70% of college students graduate with debt. The AVERAGE college debt upon graduation is $30,000, which means many students graduate with far more to pay back than that.
The Torah warns us not to sacrifice at every place we see. We need to evaluate carefully whether our sacrifice is worth it or not. We ought to ask three questions before we decide to make a sacrifice: Are we making our sacrifice in the right place?  Are we making our sacrifice for the right reason? Are we making our sacrifice at the right time?  Shabbat Shalom