The Wild Ox, the Leviathan and be sure what you pray for!

In this real world of disappointment and weakness, as the High Holy Days come nigh, we recall Isaiah speaking for God who promises “Shalom, shalom to those far and those near.”

A fresco depicting Isaiah painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A fresco depicting Isaiah painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Many decades ago, my friends in Habonim Toronto taught us a Yiddish song probably written by a lapsed Lithuanian Orthodox Jew to poke fun at the belief that God will give a festive meal for the righteous when the Moshiach arrives. (I use the traditional Jewish name and spelling to differentiate between the Moshiach and the Christian Messiah, with no disrespect for my non-Jewish friends and readers.) The song shows affection for tradition, while sardonically ridiculing the Hasidic notion of such a meal. Naturally, the first question the song asks is “What will we eat at the seudinyu (the loving festive meal)?” And the answer is “the Wild Ox and Leviathan.” Of course, the Wild Ox must be ritually slaughtered to be kosher; the Leviathan is a fish, and thus requires no special ritual preparation.
Now, to the uninitiated in the Orthodox world, there is much animosity between some of the various groups and sub-groups. With the rise of Hasidism, both physical clashes took place and the dreaded herem – the total ban of any religious or social contact with the outcast person or group – was solemnly applied. So dreaded was the herem ban that my Gemara teacher would not even pronounce the word herem but would refer to it by its first letter only.
Against this background, the following yeshiva “joke” was phrased – naturally – as a question: “Why will we eat both the Wild Ox and the Leviathan at the Moshiach’s festive meal?” The response was a jibe: “Because Lubavitch hasidim don’t trust the Holy One’s (God’s) ritual slaughtering!” To paraphrase Marie Antoinette: “Let them eat fish!” After this convoluted opening, let me come closer to the point. When discussing the “Third Temple” with fervent believers, this writer – admittedly snidely – asks, “And whose Kashrut certificate will you accept?”
In other words, instead of a symbol of Jewish unity, I see it as a major cause for a rift among believers themselves. And what of those of us who are disgusted by animal sacrifice atoning for sins past, knowing full-well that we all probably will go right along committing the same sins a moment later.
And as for you who are shocked by this attitude, let me shock you even more. Who said the following?
“Who needs all your sacrifices? I am sick of your burnt offerings... and take no pleasure in the blood of baby bulls, lambs and goats. Who asked you for this? You just desecrate my courtyards! Stop bringing these useless sacrifices. I can’t stand your immorality. I cannot endure iniquity. Stop doing evil. Learn to do good: Seek justice, raise up the oppressed, help the weak.” This is what Isaiah said. The quote is a more modern translation of his condemnation of hypocrisy in the First Temple. Yishayahu, the Hebrew name I prefer to Isaiah, was the great commentator of his time. The Hebrew word usually translated as “prophet” is navi. However, the word does not mean a prophesier of the future, but rather an orator, a man whose conscience speaks out with Divine inspiration. It was Yishayahu who spoke these harsh words. He himself came from the privileged ruling class, and saw from close-up the evil perpetrated by both layman and priest.
If hypocrisy and falsehood were the hallmark of the First Temple, the Second Temple was even worse. The original Maccabees who led the revolt against the Seleucid Greeks were themselves of the priestly class, kohanim. Let’s leave them in their pristine glory, although historians have criticism as to how we recall them in our prayers. And let’s enjoy Hanukkah as the joyous eight-day child’s-gift holiday. But sadly their offspring, the Hasmonean dynasty turned rotten, as they grasped or struggled, brother against brother and son against father, for glory, power and wealth which went with their roles as combined rulers and High Priest.
The High Priest-rulers became increasingly corrupt. Disgustingly so. Mostly, the High Priests were Tzadukim (Sadducees), and many shafts of disgust were aimed at them in the Mishnah and Gemara. But eventually that role was transferred to the Hasmoneans. The Hasmonean descendants intermarried with an Edomite and thus created the Herodian dynasty.
It is not easy to keep track of these evil kings or rulers (ethnarchs) because the same names keep reappearing. There are three Aristobuluses and two Hyrcanuses, but one Hyrcanus pops up again after a civil war, so he ruled three times.
All in all, between 152-37 BCE, 10 different rulers were also High Priests, If we continue with the Herodian dynasty, which was part of Hasmonean and part of Edomite descent, we have four Herods, two Agrippases and another Atistobulus. All the Hasmoneans and Herodians played power games, shifting sides and loyalties from and to various Greek rulers, and then to Roman contenders. While doing this, brother fought (and killed) brother, and one Aristobulus put his own mother and three brothers in jail, and there – unimaginably – let his mother starve to death. One of his brothers, Alexander Yannai was later released from prison, became king and in quelling a civil war, crucified 800 Jews in Jerusalem. As my mother would say, “a fayne mishpocheh (a fine family).” These “holy” men were High Priests, and they were followed by the highest bidders for the role. Personally, to me, this was a source of great disillusion. As a pre-adolescent in Toronto, I had learned the opening chapters of the Mishnah Yoma, the rabbinic rules for “The Day” (Yoma is the Aramaic word for the Hebrew yom) – Yom Kippur. It contains a few elegant or unusual Hebrew turns of phrase that were etched into my memory almost 80 years ago, out of my love of language.
“My lord, the High Priest” was one. Another were the Hebrew words used almost two millennia ago for “snapping your fingers” – a term that would be unintelligible to speakers of modern Hebrew. I was so taken by these linguistic discoveries, that only now as I began writing this column did I put this in historic context.
The Mishnah speaks of a High Priest “who has not learned, or has forgotten” the intricate regulations governing his handling of sacrifices, timing, dress and change of dress in the drama enacted before he enters the Holy of Holies on that holiest of days in the Hebrew calendar.
If it had been written in modern language, the Mishnah would say: This ignorant or unintelligent man is being trained by the priests to appear to know what he is doing. In the commentary, I would write: Another crook or glory- and money-seeker speaking in the name of all Israel.
To add to my disillusion, I recall the many years in which, with love and with awe, we recited the Seder Avodah (the Order of Services) led by the High Priest as he prays for forgiveness for himself, his household and all Israel. While still a child, I remember my father kneeling and bowing to the earth, and the entire floor a sea of white prayer shawls of men prostrating themselves when recalling the High Priest’s pronouncing the full name of God, something that was only done on the Holy Day.
I remember with joy the poem “Mareh Kohen” (The Countenance of the High Priest) beatifically shining as he left the Holy of Holies.
Then came my deeper realization that these idealized poems were describing the killing of bulls and goats and sheep, sprinkling their blood on a curtain and sending a goat into a desert to break its neck as a priest threw it off a cliff.
At that point, farewell fond and often deeply-felt memories, I ceased saying the Seder Avodah and eventually began ducking out of the synagogue when the Shabbat Mussaf prayer began. Both Maimonides and Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook were vegetarians. The conclusion you may draw leaps out at you.
Furthermore, great Lithuanian Torah scholars wrap the building of a Third Temple in such vague Messianic gauze that one might conclude that it is a concept beyond our understanding of time.
The ideal of teshuva is sufficient for the Day of Atonement: to turn away from evil and to “learn to do good: to seek justice, raise up the oppressed, help the weak.” In the temple of our hearts and the hunger and fatigue of our bodies as we fast this Yom Kippur, let’s admit to ourselves the bad in us and remember the hungry and the weak, and determine to extend our hand to those nearby and to those far away who are in need.
And this final thought, based on a later chapter of Isaiah. In reading it, let’s remember that Shalom doesn’t just mean peace, but also embraces the idea of to be complete, wholeness, which implies good health and being at peace with yourself.
In this real world of disappointment and weakness, as the High Holy Days come nigh, we recall Isaiah speaking for God who promises “Shalom, shalom to those far and those near.” 
The writer has studied in yeshivot, the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University. A Jerusalemite for 68 years, a lover of Zion for eight decades, he has held senior government positions under Israel’s founding prime ministers and a leadership role in the WZO-Jewish Agency as World Chairman of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal. En route, he’s been a working journalist and radio correspondent, and a founding dean of the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.