They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. — Jeremiah 7:31
The Torah portion for this week is Tzav, which means “command,” from Leviticus 6:1–8:36, and the Haftorah is from Jeremiah 7:21–8:3; 9:22–23.
The Jewish term for heaven is olam haba, which means “the next world,” implying that there is a place where people live after they die. There is also a Jewish term for hell, gehinom. This term is actually a combination of several words, which have their source in this week’s Haftorah reading from the book of Jeremiah. Gai Ben Hinnom, the valley of Ben Hinnom, is a very real place that still can be seen next to the City of David in Jerusalem. It has a chilling history, one that truly embodies hell on earth.
In this reading, Jeremiah scolded the children of Israel who continued to offer sacrifices to God even as they participated in evil idolatry. “God doesn’t want your sacrifices,” Jeremiah told them. Then, he described one type of idolatry specifically — the worship of the pagan god Molech.
Worshipers of Molech followed a particularly detestable practice of offering their first-born children to their god. In the Valley of Ben Hinnom, fires were kept burning day and night where human sacrifices were made as parents brought their children to be burned alive: “They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire.” Topheth means drums, and the place was so named because the idolaters would beat drums to drown out the cries of the innocent children.
But God heard their cries.
God told the people that this was “something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.” This kind of sickening worship bears no resemblance to the worship that God desires. The sages teach that the worshipers of Molech would taunt the Israelites by saying, “You only offer animals to your God, but we are so much better than you. We are willing to sacrifice our children!” The idol worshipers glorified death, but our God says, “Now choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19b).
True service of God is life-affirming. It is life-giving and life-saving. We value living, building, planting, and growing. God doesn’t ask that we surrender our lives in order to serve Him. Rather, He says,“Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them” (Leviticus 18:5). God wants us to thrive and help others do the same, not the opposite.
Today, how will you serve the Lord in a way that affirms life? Can you help to feed the hungry, comfort the sick, nurture a child? By serving God in ways that bring more life into the world, we will achieve the very opposite of the Molech-worshipers; instead of demonstrating the fires of hell, we will create a slice of heaven here on earth.