Ownership, Hubris and the Sacrificial Conundrum

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by R. Francis Nataf, part 1 of 3, excerpted from the forthcoming book, Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Leviticus. Get more information about the publication here.

 

If the Book of Vayikra is difficult in general, there are some themes especially so. And somewhere near – or even at – the top of the list is the topic of sacrifices. There are two main obstacles in trying to appreciate the Torah’s various discussions about the topic:

The first is that sacrifices have not been offered by Jews for almost two millennia. Even purity and impurity has had some sort of extended continuity through the practices of Niddah and Netilat Yadayim. In contrast, essentially nothing remains of what could arguably be the Torah’s most central ritual. This is compounded by the attitude of most surrounding cultures – and all the more so in the Modern period – that this lacuna in contemporary Jewish practice is actually a good thing. Nor is this notion exclusively foreign. Many readers will already know that such a position is echoed by no less a Jewish thinker than Rambam. 1)Guide to the Perplexed 3:32. This is not to say that Rambam would not agree that were the conditions right to rebuild the Temple, it would again have sacrifices. What is important is that even if that were to be the case, it is an institution that reflects a historical weakness and not an ideal form of Divine worship. For him, sacrifices were only instituted because the Jews had become overly used to the physical worship of idolatry in Egypt. Nor was Rambam a lone voice about this. Though controversial, the idea that sacrifices are a carryover from a more primitive form of worship is one that many rationalist Jewish thinkers welcomed and adopted. 2)An interesting variation on the theme is expressed by Seforno on Shemot 25:9 and 31:18, et.al., who makes the claim that the entire Temple rite was a response to the inability of the Jews to do without some sort of physical worship, as represented by the failure with the golden calf. But even if we do not accept this critique of sacrifices, our lack of experience with it (and with the killing of animals in front of us more generally), makes it hard for us to look at this part of the Torah as something significantly missing in our lives.

The second obstacle to the appreciation of sacrifices is making heads or tails of its various details. Even some of those most dedicated to the explication of the various commandments draw a blank when it came to these laws. 3)See Sefer HaChinukh, Mitzvah 95 (Building the Temple). And while the actual details are meticulously discussed in the Talmud, there is very little discussion about the reasons for the specific processes and the differences among the various sacrifices. To give just one example, why are certain animals offered in one case as opposed to another? Determining why bulls are given in some circumstances while sheep in others would presumably require much conjecture.

And yet in spite of these and the many other obstacles that create distance for the Modern reader, the core notions behind sacrifices are actually quite rich. We will start our discussion of the topic by identifying a few of these notions. Once we have done so, we will make our way to a few of the particulars. And when understood within an accordingly more conceptual framework, I think we will find that many of the particulars may take on much greater significance than we originally might have thought.

The Gifts of the First Couple

I want to preface my discussion by locating sacrifices within the more general human institution of giving. On the one hand, this is exactly what makes it sound primitive; as how can one give to God? On the other hand, it is also what makes it more profound than the disembodied worship to which we are accustomed. For on some level, there can be no more meaningful bond than that created by ceding possession of something in favor of someone else. As the expression goes, “words – which is what we use today to worship God – are cheap.” Gifting is a concrete way of showing that the words we say are truly meant.

Of course, as with any other gifts, sacrifices can be given from a variety of motivations – some more noble than others. For example, a gift can be a way of saying, “Thank You,” or “I am sorry.” But it can also be a way of currying undeserved favor – what we call a bribe. On the other extreme – and this is what we will assume to be the sacrificial ideal – they also allow for the possibility of giving purely out of love for the recipient. 4)The three positive motivations mentioned here are embodied by the Torah’s thanksgiving (todah), sin (chatat) and freewill (nedavah) offerings. But before we develop this further, we will turn to the Torah’s development of what it means for humans to try to give to God:

While one doesn’t see it with Adam and Chava, sacrifice is found immediately with their children. This makes it one of the very first human institutions, coming before government, city-building and healing – just to a name a few basic human activities. Yet the fact that it could wait for the second generation shows that it is not an intrinsic part of the human condition. But even before there was giving to God, there was giving to man. After all, one of the first things we read about the first two human beings is that Chava gave the forbidden fruit to Adam. True, her choice was rather unfortunate, but the simple reading is that it was a classical act of gifting. 5)The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 19:5) made famous by Rashi on Bereshit 3:6 suggests that her interest was not in the giving, but rather in bringing down Adam once she had fallen. Be that as it may, the simple reading of the verses read otherwise. While Chava had come in with the understanding the she should not eat from the tree, it would appear that the serpent and the appearance of the fruit convinced her that it was actually a good idea to partake from it. The first realization that she may have been wrong about this (3:7), does not occur until after she gives the fruit to Adam (3:6). This is very different than eating or getting dressed, which are responses to more obvious needs. Yet if it wasn’t a response to an obvious need, where did Chava get the idea to take something in her possession and cede it to another? Given that she ostensibly had no one from whom to learn it, how did she know it was not something that God would think of as theft and that her partner not think of as invading his private space? The fact that she did it nonetheless signals that it may have been part of her basic consciousness that came with her very humanity. 6)One could relate this to it being part of the physiologically-based female drive to nurture, and claim that whereas it was intrinsic to her, it was only learned from her by Adam. But from such a perspective, it is hard to know whether the giving, that is intrinsic to Chava and that she teaches to Adam, is limited to gifts that will nurture others. Moreover, as we will mention forthwith, Adam’s immediate acceptance of the gift indicates that the concept may well have existed with him even before he might have learned it from his wife. Hence, I would prefer to think that this is part of both Adam and Chava’s makeup in being created in the image of God, given that one of the primary – perhaps, the primary activity – of God is to give. Alternatively, but along the same lines, we can suggest that it is perhaps the first example of imitatio Dei, wherein man seeks to emulate God. See Chapter Seven of my Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Deuteronomy (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2016). And Adam’s natural – and under the circumstances, even surprising 7)Regarding Adam’s surprising lack of resistance, see Bereshit Rabbah 19:5. – agreement shows to what extent it was clear to him as well, that gifting was an entirely appropriate activity. So though the Torah does not seem to view giving to God (i.e. sacrifice) as an automatic human response, it may well see the desire to give to other humans as such.

Along with the first couple’s awareness of the appropriateness of giving was almost certainly a realization that their bond was enhanced by the act – even as the actual contents of the gift ended up being so catastrophic. Chava had experienced something good. And rather than keeping it to herself, she showed her love for her husband by sacrificing her own consumption of it and allowing him to eat it instead. 8)Moreover, it can easily be read as having transpired within the context of complete scarcity: The Torah speaks about “the tree’s fruit,” which is just as likely speaking about a singular piece of fruit that did not have any others like it, as it is about one of many fruit waiting to be taken. If that is the case, there was no way to replace that which she had just given away. And it is part of our own common experience that putting someone else first in this way is a unique and powerful conduit through which we build a relationship. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it brings about a mixing of identities that, on some level, blends the giver and the recipient into one.

It took another generation, however, to apply that paradigm of giving in order to enhance a relationship, to the relationship between man and God. A single generation is actually very quick, given the major – and far from obvious – jump required to move the paradigm over to its new context. Yet assuming that jump could be made, there would seem to be no question about its desirability. For if we established gifting as a unique and powerful way to build a relationship, would we not want to use it in our ultimately most important relationship? And perhaps its obvious desirability is why it came to so relatively quickly.

Still, there is good reason that Adam and Chava were not able to make the leap. To the extent that the Biblical characters understood God’s basic nature, giving to Him would require a disconnect between the practical basis for giving and its interpersonal impact. What I mean is that a gift has two major functions: a practical function of providing someone with something they do not have, but would be able to use and enjoy; and a more emotional function of engendering love and appreciation for the giver (and for the recipient 9)See R. Eliyahu Dessler, Miktav Me’Eliyahu, vol. 1, “Kuntros HaChesed.” ). In the human realm, the latter component is generally predicated on the first. That is to say that the appreciation caused by a gift will generally be proportionate to the enjoyment one derives from it. Hence the concept of giving to a God who does not lack anything, required the imagination to disconnect the emotive impact of the gift from its practical function. And it would seem that the first sacrificer, Kayin, had just such an imagination.

The Gifts of the First Children

And yet Kayin’s pioneering endeavor failed (Bereshit 4:3). It is curiously only his brother’s copy-cat sacrifice that seems to actually work (Bereshit 4:4-5). In this case, the textual clues as to why this should be are easy to find. Whereas Kayin’s sacrifice is non-descript, Hevel’s is explicitly described as being from the first-born sheep and from their fats (or from the fat ones). In short, he gave more select products to God than his older brother. 10)Bereshit Rabbah 22:5 Yet it was the very logic of giving to God that made Kayin do what he did: Since God does not need products of any type, should it not literally be the thought that counts? That being the case, Kayin’s offering seems to show much better understanding than his brother. For what did Hevel hope to accomplish by giving God something better, when better or worse should only relate to how much benefit will accrue to the recipient? In this case, both the standard offering of Kayin and the more deluxe offering of Hevel would be equally immaterial to God.

The reason the quality of the gift to God is actually not immaterial is that the whole notion of giving to God is metaphoric. What I mean is that the giving is predicated on acting as if God were a person, while knowing that He is not. And once that metaphor is in place, all the major parts of it have to be in place: A very important part of the metaphor is how we choose the gifts that we give to other humans. We all know that choosing a gift is at least as essential a part of gifting as the actual transfer of ownership. It certainly requires more thought, and usually more time, as well. That is because the quality of a gift is understood as a reflection of the recipient’s importance in the eyes of the giver as well as the level of the relationship. As many of us have undoubtedly found out the hard way, choosing incorrectly can turn the gifting into something that not only does not enhance the relationship, but actually sets it back. How do we adapt this to the realm of giving to God? Obviously, nothing will be able to match the importance of God or the relationship we seek with him. Still, what we choose to give to him must reflect God’s importance as well as the importance we place on our relationship with Him – at least on some minimal level. Since we are used to evaluating human gifts this way, offering something of quality will provide the correct metaphoric associations, whereas ignoring the quality makes it more difficult to relate to God as would be in order.

In any event, though Kayin’s own sacrifice was rejected, he opened the way for Hevel to show that God would welcome gifts from man. And once the first hurdles were overcome, the lessons of both Hevel and Kayin were learned and imitated by those that come after them: When Noach survives the flood, he immediately knows to give sacrifices. Though the rabbis read the larger number of pure animals God commands him to bring on the boat as an indication that God wanted them to be sacrificed, Noach received no explicit command. And yet in spite of the lack of explicit command, Noach gives from all of the pure species with alacrity (8:20), prompting Divine favor (8:21). Nor should the actual sacrifice of a major source of food in a world recovering from the flood be so easily overlooked. Noach’s sacrifice showed a very real appreciation of the need to use them to communicate with God in a way that went beyond words.

Yet as with Hevel and Kayin, Noach’s sacrifices seems to be saved for very special occasions. And the same is true with the forefathers, who also only offered sacrifices in response to a command or as a reaction to auspicious events. Why they are not given more regularly is not completely clear. Perhaps it is an indication that its metaphoric nature continued to present a difficulty long after Kayin. For while a man may be happy to go through the motions and be sincerely motivated to develop his relationship with God, it will forever remain difficult to act as if He actually needs our gifts. And yet without playing through this metaphor – as we saw from Kayin – it is difficult to go through the motions required for it to succeed. Hence the enlightened man is caught in a Catch-22 type situation, wherein he needs to act as if God is human and yet simultaneously know that He is not. 11)See note 1 in the next section for a different explanation of what was holding man back from sacrificing more regularly.

Whether we are right or not about the reason for the rarity of sacrifices, however, the theory of giving to God is firmly established by the Torah’s early narratives. Of course, there is still much room for debate about this institution. Its parameters can be debated. So can the relationship between the relative frequency with which the Torah will expect Jewish society to be involved with them and the penchant for physical worship that the Israelites had become accustomed to in Egypt. 12)See the first part of this chapter. One can also debate whether or not animals are the best thing to sacrifice. All of this being said, however, the book of Bereshit leaves us with no doubt as to the Torah’s positive outlook on the practice more generally. And given our understanding of gifting, this should make perfect sense: Barring some messianic and utopian state where our relationship with God is already idealized and giving to Him superfluous, sacrifices represent a significant way to enhance this all-important relationship.

(Next installment to be published Sunday night/Monday morning)

 

Endnotes   [ + ]

1.Guide to the Perplexed 3:32. This is not to say that Rambam would not agree that were the conditions right to rebuild the Temple, it would again have sacrifices. What is important is that even if that were to be the case, it is an institution that reflects a historical weakness and not an ideal form of Divine worship.
2.An interesting variation on the theme is expressed by Seforno on Shemot 25:9 and 31:18, et.al., who makes the claim that the entire Temple rite was a response to the inability of the Jews to do without some sort of physical worship, as represented by the failure with the golden calf.
3.See Sefer HaChinukh, Mitzvah 95 (Building the Temple).
4.The three positive motivations mentioned here are embodied by the Torah’s thanksgiving (todah), sin (chatat) and freewill (nedavah) offerings.
5.The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 19:5) made famous by Rashi on Bereshit 3:6 suggests that her interest was not in the giving, but rather in bringing down Adam once she had fallen. Be that as it may, the simple reading of the verses read otherwise. While Chava had come in with the understanding the she should not eat from the tree, it would appear that the serpent and the appearance of the fruit convinced her that it was actually a good idea to partake from it. The first realization that she may have been wrong about this (3:7), does not occur until after she gives the fruit to Adam (3:6).
6.One could relate this to it being part of the physiologically-based female drive to nurture, and claim that whereas it was intrinsic to her, it was only learned from her by Adam. But from such a perspective, it is hard to know whether the giving, that is intrinsic to Chava and that she teaches to Adam, is limited to gifts that will nurture others. Moreover, as we will mention forthwith, Adam’s immediate acceptance of the gift indicates that the concept may well have existed with him even before he might have learned it from his wife. Hence, I would prefer to think that this is part of both Adam and Chava’s makeup in being created in the image of God, given that one of the primary – perhaps, the primary activity – of God is to give. Alternatively, but along the same lines, we can suggest that it is perhaps the first example of imitatio Dei, wherein man seeks to emulate God. See Chapter Seven of my Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Deuteronomy (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2016).
7.Regarding Adam’s surprising lack of resistance, see Bereshit Rabbah 19:5.
8.Moreover, it can easily be read as having transpired within the context of complete scarcity: The Torah speaks about “the tree’s fruit,” which is just as likely speaking about a singular piece of fruit that did not have any others like it, as it is about one of many fruit waiting to be taken. If that is the case, there was no way to replace that which she had just given away.
9.See R. Eliyahu Dessler, Miktav Me’Eliyahu, vol. 1, “Kuntros HaChesed.”
10.Bereshit Rabbah 22:5
11.See note 1 in the next section for a different explanation of what was holding man back from sacrificing more regularly.
12.See the first part of this chapter.

About Francis Nataf

Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker. His most recent book is Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Leviticus.

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