Transcendence through Self-Sacrifice

This post is dedicated to Rabbi Jonathan, Aryeh, and Gavriel Sendler and Miriam Monsonego, z”l, who were brutally murdered in Toulouse earlier this week.

Welcome to Vayikra (Leviticus), the third installment of the Torah, which we began this week. The book of Vayikra is quite a challenging read, prompting the Medieval Talmud commentators known as Tosofot to comment that Vayikra is “the most difficult of the Five Books of Moses.”[1]  This volume of the Torah is chock-full of laws and it begins with those dealing with animal sacrifices in the Sanctuary (the Tabernacle in the wilderness and later the Holy Temple in Jerusalem).

For now let us put aside whatever personal feelings we may have regarding animal sacrifices[2] and try to make sense of how to apply these rituals, which we don’t seem to practice in this day and age (G-d willing we will again soon with the rebuilding of the Holy Temple!), to our daily lives. The classic Torah commentators offer varying opinions speculating as to why G-d commanded animal sacrifices, Ibn Ezra writing: “Heaven forfend to say that G-d actually needs animals to be burned! Rather the significance here is a mystical one.”[3] Indeed an in-depth study of commandments of sacrifices provides many lessons about self-growth and coming closer to G-d.

The opening line of this week’s Torah portion, which bares the same title as the third book in the Torah, begins with G-d commanding Moses (Moshe) concerning the sacrifices saying: “Adam ki-yakriv meekem korban”  – “When any person of you will offer a sacrifice…” However, a more literal translation of the Hebrew reads as follows: “When any person will offer a sacrifice of you.” The famous Chassidic interpretation understands this to be a commentary on the whole nature of sacrifice.[4] The term korban (sacrifice) derives from the word, karov (to approach; to come near). Thus, the verse is teaching us that when any person desires to draw close to G-d, they must make a sacrifice of themselves.[5] They must negate their own ego that keeps them far from attaining closeness with the Creator.

What does it mean to sacrifice oneself in order to come closer to G-d? Chassidic philosophy teaches that every Jew has both a G-dly Soul and an Animal Soul. The Animal Soul prefers physical pleasures and comfort while the G-dly Soul prefers spirituality and doing G-d’s will. The animal inside all of us (our animal nature) can be sacrificed by redirecting its passions and drives in a way that enables us to serve G-d with vitality. We do not do away with physical acts, but we redirect all of them toward a spiritual purpose. Several examples include sanctifying eating and drinking by making the proper blessings before and after eating, using physical wool in tzitzit (ritual fringes) and using physical leather in tefillin (phylacteries).[6] By elevating ourselves and the world around us we reveal the innate G-dliness hidden within it. By engaging our animalistic drives and utilizing them in the service of G-d, we are able to reach a higher level of closeness with G-d than we could by only tapping into the more ‘spiritual’ aspects of ourselves.[7]

Lest one think that one is too flawed to be able to offer him/herself up as a sacrifice to G-d (spiritually speaking of course!), the Rebbe Rayatz points out that the sacrifice is not only of ‘you’; it depends on ‘you.’ It is within the scope of every Jew, whatever his/her present or past…Every Jew has the right to ask themselves: “When will my acts be like the acts of my fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?”[8] Before a sacrifice could be offered upon the altar, the animal had to be checked to make sure it did not have any blemishes. The first step in coming closer to G-d is to do a self-examination, also known as a cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul), and resolve to put right our faults. [9] Once we discover our individual strengths and weaknesses, we will be propelled to work on ourselves, grow, and actualize our spiritual potential. When we reveal the G-dliness within ourselves and our world we make ourselves and the world a dwelling place for G-d.

[1] Chumash. The Gutnick Edition, 619

[2] I will note that many of you have no problem killing an animal for its food. If you will kill an animal in order to satisfy your physical urge for food, certainly there is nothing wrong with killing an animal (which likely would have been eaten anyway) for the holy purpose of fulfilling G-d’s will.

[3] Chumash. The Gutnick Edition, 620

[4] Torah Studies. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, adaptions of talks of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, 151

[5] Living with Moshiach. Rabbi Immanuel Schochet, 80

[6] Torah Studies. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, adaptions of talks of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, 155

[7] Ibid., 153

[8] Ibid., 154

[9] Ibid., 153

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