The Torah portion of Tazria opens with the offerings of women who recently gave birth. Amazingly, it was on account of these birth-offerings that a distinguished family of priests was forever disqualified from serving in the Temple. Even worse: this sorry affair led to the destruction of the Shiloh tabernacle, forerunner to the Temple in Jerusalem, after nearly four centuries of service as the spiritual center of the Jewish people (Yoma 9a).
The book of Samuel describes the ignominious state of the Temple service in Shiloh. The sons of Eli were insensitive priests who would take their portions by force, treating the Temple offerings with contempt (I Sam. II:17). Their worst sin, according to the reports reaching the ears of their father, was that “they slept with the women who streamed to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (v. 22).
The Talmud cautions against taking this verse literally: “Anyone who says the sons of Eli sinned is mistaken” (Shabbat 55b). So what does it mean that “they slept with the women”?
According to the Sages, they failed to promptly offer the birth-offerings. In this way, they indirectly prevented them from returning home. The women did not trust the priests to bring their offerings, so they would remain in Shiloh until they saw with their own eyes that their offering was completed. Since the inattentive service of Eli’s sons caused the women to be unnecessarily separated from their husbands, the verse refers to their irresponsible behavior as if they had slept with them.
Is this just a case of Talmudic whitewash, a rabbinic cover-up? Why should this be the cause for the destruction of the Tabernacle?
If we wish to understand what brought about the fall of the Tabernacle in Shiloh, we should not give too much weight to passing incidents, grave though they may be. Rather we should look for signs of moral decay which undermined very foundations of the Temple service and its purpose.
The Divine service is integrally connected with the goal of sanctifying life. We cannot fully elevate life in all of its aspects, in its pinnacles and its crises, unless we are able to connect life to its Source, to the Creator of all life.
Life also includes times of trouble and distress. What will give it light, restoring its natural happiness and joy? What will rejuvenate it and grant it nobility and grace? This can only be accomplished by uncovering the holiness to be found in all aspects of life.
The birth of a child is a wonderful occasion, bringing new life and joy to the family. But the birthing experience itself is a challenging one, involving great pain and suffering. The complex experiences of the woman giving birth can generate stress and tension, and are only overcome with the passage of time, as life returns to its usual joy and happiness.
What can cleanse the difficult impressions and feelings that result from this suffering, rooted in the ancient sin of Eve in the beginnings of humanity? Their remedy requires an act of drawing near to God. As the new mother elevates her birthing experience with her chatat and olah offerings, she rectifies the shortcomings caused by the rebellious tendencies of the human heart. These offerings allow her soul to be lifted up in feelings of love for the greatness of the Creator of all life, the Source of love for all creatures.
In short: the Temple offerings must reflect a harmony between the Divine service and the goal of elevating life. This is especially true for the offerings brought after giving birth. True morality cannot sanction the idea of a mechanical Temple service, disconnected from the people and their lives.
The unfeeling, even tyrannical, atmosphere that existed in the Shiloh Tabernacle — the absence of ethical sensitivity, the lack of integrity and compassion, the disconnect from the needs of the people, by an order of hardhearted priests who paraded their elevated station over the people — this climate created an artificial divide between the principles of morality and the Temple service. In the end, it destroyed the reign of the priestly family of Eli. These callous priests saw no connection between their service and the sanctification of life. Ultimately, their actions brought about the fall of the Tabernacle in Shiloh.
The priests should have seen the birth-offering as a vehicle to elevate life. How could they delay these offerings, thus impairing their primary purpose, that which God desires in His world — shalom bayit — harmony and peace in family life?
Eli’s sons mistakenly viewed their priesthood as an entitlement. Instead of a service based on purity and holiness, their service reeked of high-handed arrogance. They were functionaries, focusing only on the technical aspects of the Temple service.
It was this corrupted service that led to the Tabernacle’s destruction — something that an individual sinful act could not bring about. If Eli’s sons had actually sinned as written, such a state could not have continued for long without correction. The service in Shiloh did not suffer from any particular evil incident, but rather from a moral decay in its very core, for which it needed to be destroyed in order to be corrected.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. IV, pp. 49-50)