‘When a human being brings from amongst you a sacrificial offering to the Lord…’
(Leviticus 1:1, 2)
The Book of Leviticus is known throughout our midrashic
literature as Torat Kohanim, the Teachings of Kohen-Priests. A great part of
this third book of the Pentateuch is dedicated to the laws of sacrificial
offerings. Even from the opening words of the book, two questions beg to be
Firstly, since these specific sacrifices are unique to the
Israelites and since sacrificial offerings have been foreign to most of
enlightened civilization for almost two millennia, is it not strange that the
opening words of the book are, “when a human being (the generic and universal
”) brings...” rather than the more usual and specific word “Israelite”?
Secondly, the Kohen-Priest is strongly identified with love: The progenitor of
the Kohen “clan” was Aaron, who was distinguished by his love of humanity and
pursuit of peace. The Kohen is commanded to bless the nation “with love”; and
the major vocation of the Kohen is the teaching of Torah, which our tradition
identifies with sweetness, peace and love (see our prayer when returning the
Torah to the Ark – Proverbs 3:17 and the second blessing before reciting the
). What have the sacrificial offerings to do with love?
To answer these
questions, allow me a brief excursus into our mystical tradition, the Kabbala,
and specifically the concept of tzimtzum
, the “contraction” of the Divine. Rabbi
Haim Vital (1543-1620) asked two fundamental theological questions: Why did the
perfect God create a world with human beings and how did a world with darkness
and evil emanate from a God of pure light and consummate goodness? (“The creator
of light and maker of darkness, the maker of peace and creator of evil, I am the
Lord, Maker of all these things” Isaiah 45:7)?
Rabbi Vital explains that the
truest definition of the Divine which humans can grasp is love. When Moses asked
the Almighty “Show me now your glory,” reveal to me the essence of your being,
God responds, “YHVH, YHVH, a God of Compassion and Freely-Given Grace,
Long-suffering, with much Loving- kindness and Truth…” (Lev. 33:18, 34:6, 7).
The four letter, ineffable Name of God which appeared twice in this verse is
interpreted by the talmudic Sages to mean the attributes of love. Our Sages
further explain the repetition of this name to mean that God loves us before and
after we sin – God loves us unconditionally. It may even be possible to say that
the root letters heh
as in YHVH are identical to root letters heh
Love cannot exist in a vacuum; one must have
another to love. This idea is built into the two letter verb which is the basis
of the Hebrew words ahava
, love and hav
, give: A lover must give to his/her
beloved. And that “other” must be a “free” being who is not controlled by the
lover, for if the beloved is completely dominated, then the beloved is merely an
extension of the lover, and the lover is only loving himself!
Hence, God “had
to” create human beings who would be different from and independent of Him;
human beings created in His Image with free will, with the capacity to choose to
make independent choices even disobeying God. Only then would God have true
others to love, partners and not puppets or pawns.
But alas, there is a
tremendous price to pay for such free-will partners, and this can even lead to
the possibility of Auschwitz and Treblinka. Evil must perforce enter the world
if the partners make wrong choices. And just as a spouse must leave room
for his/her life’s partner to express themselves – even if it be against their
self-interest – and a wise and loving parent must relinquish control over their
children to allow them to develop into free and independent adults, so God chose
to “contract” Himself, as it were, and limit His Divine omnipotence to make room
for His truly beloved and therefore free partners.
Indeed, God gives us
only three guarantees: The seed of Abraham will never disappear, the Jews will
eventually return to their homeland, Israel (Lev. 26:42, 44, 45), and all
of the nations of the world will ultimately learn from us the ideal of ethical
monotheism and world peace (Isaiah 2, Micah 4).
The road to redemption is
long and arduous; the secret which eventually allow it to happen is
love. God’s love for humanity was predicated upon His sacrificing some of
His omnipotence. Human love for other people necessitates one individual to give
of his space and material possessions to another; and the possibility of good
overcoming evil demands individual sacrifice of time and even one’s own life for
higher ideals. God shows the way through tzimtzum
. Sacrifice is born out of
love, and since humanity is created in the image of the Divine, then to be human
is to have the capacity to sacrifice.
Descartes said, “I think therefore
I am.” Aristotle said, “I communicate, therefore I am.” Rav Soloveitchik taught,
“I have the capacity to sacrifice, therefore I am.”Shabbat shalom
Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1-5:26, is read on March 16.The writer is the
founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and
chief rabbi of Efrat.