By Yehudis Golshevsky
In our parshah, we learn of the issur bamot, the prohibition against making private altars for personal sacrifices once the central focus of Divine service is established in “the place that Hashem, your G-d, will choose”–Yerushalayim. Until we came to our “portion and rest” in the Land, and according to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, this meant until the building of the first Beis Hamikdash, that private altars were permitted even during the time of the Mishkan in Shiloh.
I was thinking about this relationship between private avodah and the centralization of service in Yerushalayim, and the tensions between the two. While some of our sages maintained that the bamot reinforced the tendency to syncretism and idolatry within the Jewish people, the Netziv touched upon a point that can easily get lost. The place of private Divine service and the availability of offering sacrifices spontaneously, through devotional impulse, is a powerful outlet for love of G-d. That private expression is a force that can’t be discounted within us. The text emphasizes that even Shlomo HaMelech frequently brought offerings on a private altar prior to his building of the Mikdash, and this is not any sort of slight to him–quite the contrary.
Of course, after the contstruction of the Beis Hamikdash, that devotional door was closed and the use of illegitimate bamot later on did become entangled with the people’s involvement with avodah zarah. But if we return to the idea of the Netziv, that private offerings are a means of enhancing, or an expression of a powerful love of G-d, then what is exchanged for that once the bamot are prohibited?
The Beis Hamikdash is the focal point of avodah that transcends the personal. Even though the personal is encompassed within it, the private devotional experience is subsumed inside something greater than any individual could hope to come to on their own.
In Yerushalayim, all of our personal Divine service became encompassed within a totality. Instead of being individual cells, so to speak, living our own individual spiritual lives spread throughout Eretz Yisrael, the Beis Hamikdash drew us all together into a synergistic avodah of a full body, in thriving and organic relationship with all of its individual cell parts. This is what we received in exchange for the loss of the bamot, which did have a place in avodah for us, some say for hundreds of years.
I was thinking how this parallels the private place of Shabbos and the mitzvah of Shemittah, which is explored toward the end of the parshah. Shabbos is a kind of private affair. Shemittah is all of us together. May we all, together, grow in our private space of avodah, while holding strong to the sense of ourselves as part of a single, organic whole, serving G-d with all that we have and are.