I have many times heard that people wish or feel they should be able to express their love for G-D and worship Him in whatever manner they feel comfortable doing. Where, when, how, and what – on their own terms. Why? Because if they can do it their way, they can show the most optimal dedication, love, and joy that they can possibly feel towards G-D, when they are ready to do it. Why all the restrictions?
An answer to this attitude can be found in the middle of this week’s Torah portion of Acharei Mos, when discussing the prohibition against bringing an offering outside the Mishkan or Beis HaMikdash. The Torah relates: “And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to Aharon and to his sons…Any man of the House of Israel, who slaughters an ox, a lamb, or a goat inside the camp, or who slaughters outside the camp, but does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to offer up as a sacrifice to Hashem before the Mishkan of Hashem, this [act] shall be counted for that man as blood, he has shed blood, and that man shall be cut off from among his people; in order that the children of Israel should bring their offerings which they slaughter on the open field, and bring them to Hashem, to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, to the kohen, and slaughter them as peace offerings to Hashem…And they shall no longer slaughter their sacrifices to the demons after which they stray. This shall be an eternal statute for them, for [all] their generations” (Vayikra 17:1-7).
The Ibn Ezra points out that Aharon and his sons were singled out by this prohibition before everyone else, because at that time the kohanim were for the most part the shochtim, the butcherers, of the Jewish people. The Ibn Ezra also mentions that this mitzvah applies not only in the Mishkan, but for the Beis HaMikdash as well. All sacrifices must be brought to the Beis HaMikdash to be offered to Hashem. The Ibn Ezra also explains in pasuk 5: “in order that the children of Israel should bring” is the reason for this mitzvah, and the explanation of “on the open field” is that it refers to pasuk 7 “And they shall no longer slaughter their sacrifices.” The demons that pasuk 7 speaks about are called “sheidim” in Hebrew but the pasuk refers to them as “seirim,” the Ibn Ezra says it is because they would cause people who see them to tremble or because crazy people would witness them in the form of goats. Indeed, the reason why the Torah says they shall “no longer” slaughter is because the Jews use to in Egypt which is considered straying from Hashem, and the Ibn Ezra says: “Because anyone who seeks them and believes in them strays from Hashem for he thinks that there is something other than Hashem The Honorable and Awesome who can make good or bad.”
The Avi Ezri, a commentary on the Ibn Ezra, says that in pasuk 5 the Ibn Ezra is explaining “that the main reason for this mitzvah is in order so that they will not sacrifice to demons which they were used to doing in Egypt, therefore all offerings shall be brought to the Beis HaMikdash.” He concludes by saying: “And I already explained that there are many open and hidden reasons for the burnt and peace offering and all who know and understand them can give the correct, praiseworthy reason, as long as your intent is for Hashem on High.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
A very bizarre thing is happening here. A person wants to bring a sacrifice to Hashem, showing his love and devotion to Him – but he doesn’t want to, or can’t, shlep all the way to Jerusalem to bring it in the Beis HaMikdash. He would rather do it in his backyard or someplace else. What’s wrong with that? And why would that lead to sacrificing to demons which his ancestors did hundreds of years ago in Egypt, before all the miracles of the Exodus and the giving of the Torah?
It would seem that even though this person has complete devotion to Hashem right now, if he were to continue to sacrifice outside the allotted place of the Mishkan or Beis HaMikdash, then he would revert back to his ancestors’ old ways. How is that possible? Because by requiring the sacrificial service to be in the House of G-D, in a central location Hashem is causing us to focus on what we are doing and on Him. Without that focus it is possible for a person’s mind to go astray or mixed up and decide to do something strange like reverting back to his ancestors’ ways of worshiping demons.
So a person could have all the right reasons for serving Hashem, but if he wants to do it his way and not the way Hashem wants it to be done, then he might lose focus and stray from Hashem.
This does not mean that Judaism is rigid and that there is no room for expressing one’s personality and creativity. Everyone is an individual with their own mind, different means, and unique circumstances. For example, the Torah does not say one can only sacrifice bulls worth one thousand dollars. There is a selection of sacrifices based on one’s means. There is no Jewish law that says one must wear black and white, rather there is a dress code which is based on modesty, looking elegantly conservative. So there is room for creativity as well. There is no one way to make your food on Shabbos or Yom Tov, or what you can eat during the week, rather there are guidelines.
So there is room to express oneself within the framework of Jewish law but it must be done within the framework in order to keep on the Path of Hashem.