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Self-Sacrifice

By: Rav David Milston

“And the Lord called to Moshe, and spoke to him out of the Tent of Meeting saying, Speak to Bnei Yisrael, and say to them, if any man of you bring an offering to the Lord, of the cattle shall you bring your offering, of the herd and of the flock.” (Vayikra, 1:1-2

As we enter Sefer Vayikra and the world of Korbanot (sacrifices), let us examine the phrase, “if any man of you bring an offering to the Lord,” which in Hebrew is, “adam ki yakriv mikem korban laHashem.” We are interested in two specific words: “adam” and “mikem.” 

Why does the Torah prefer the word “adam” to describe man as opposed to the more commonly used “ish”

Furthermore, what is the meaning of the word “mikem” – of you? It seems superfluous. The opening verse already tells us these words are meant for Bnei Yisrael, so why repeat the address? Why can’t the verse simply say, ‘If any man brings an offering to the Lord’

Regarding “adam,” Rashi suggests it alludes to Adam HaRishon. Just as the first man offered sacrifices solely belonging to him (because everything in the world belonged to him at that time), so too Bnei Yisrael. When they bring their sacrifices they must ensure they are not stolen; whatever they bring must be genuinely theirs. 

Although Rashi’s comment seems fairly straightforward, we are still left wondering why the Torah introduces sacrificial offerings with such negative innuendo. Why warn us against theft and dishonesty specifically here? Surely these verses are relating to Am Hashem, who have recently accepted the Torah and built a Mishkan with their very own money! Why should the opening words of our parasha infer dubious dealings? We can certainly appreciate that this law must be mentioned at some stage, but in the very opening words of the sefer?! 

Perhaps we could suggest that Rashi is establishing a fundamental principle before we even begin to contemplate sacrificial offerings. 

When studying the Ten Commandments, we are often taught they can be sub-divided into two categories – those alluding to man in his relationship with God, and those referring to man in his dealings with other people. Indeed, as we grow, we even begin to religiously differentiate between them, often placing much more emphasis on our relationship with the Almighty than our attitude to others. 

However, as we have explained on numerous occasions, nothing could be further from the truth. Not only does Bein Adam LeChaveiro share equal standing with Bein Adam LeMakom, but the way in which we act towards our fellow human beings is a prerequisite to our relationship with the Almighty. Indeed, Man is God’s creation. By dishonoring man we dishonor the Almighty. Furthermore, if man cannot honor the tangible human being, how can he possibly honor the physically intangible Creator of the Universe? 

So from the very outset, as we prepare to enter the world of sacrifices – a world describing our active relationship with Hashem – the Torah lays down the rules. If our sacrifice was bought through illegal business dealings it is not only a worthless act, but a complete abomination. If we approach the Almighty having ‘trampled’ over our fellow human beings, it is preferable we don’t come in the first place. 

But isn’t that obvious? Why does Rashi bother to say this at all? Wait. Let us ask ourselves: How often are we actively involved in a mitzvah whilst simultaneously showing blatant disregard for our fellow human beings? Is this not a daily occurrence? For example, how many arguments and disputes occur in shul during davening? Or in the Beit Midrash, when a student ‘borrows’ a sefer but ‘forgets’ to return it to its place? Or walking to selichot at , to pray to the Almighty for forgiveness, whilst waking up an entire neighborhood!  

As we approach the Beit Mikdash with our sacrifice, we must be aware we have to appear before the Lord as good, sincere Jews. The sacrifice is not the aim; it is a conduit to something higher. It represents a certain level of spirituality, and that level must be thoroughly pure. Performing righteous deeds at another person’s expense is quite farcical, but all too common. 

In the very first chapter of Yeshayahu, the Haftarah we read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, we see how frustrated the prophet is with this reality: 

“Hear the word of the Lord, rulers of Sodom; give ear to the Torah of our God, you people of Amora. For what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to me? Says the Lord: I am sated with the burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts, and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. When you come to appear before me, who has required this at your hand, to trample my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense of abomination they are to me; as for new moons and Sabbaths and the calling of assemblies, I cannot bear iniquity along with solemn meeting. My soul hates your new moons and your appointed feasts; they are a trouble to me; I am weary of enduring them. And when you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you: even when you make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.” (Yeshayahu, 1: 10-15)  

What is the Prophet referring to? At first, his rebuke alludes to Sodom and Amora, and we know these two terrible cities were noted for their inhumanity, promiscuity, and a gross lack of basic civil behavior; fundamental respect for the rights of others was simply non-existent.[1] And at the end of this section the navi refers to our hands being full of blood, implying acts of murder and other atrocities.

From this short but emphatic paragraph, we can see the Almighty bans the hypocrite from the Beit Mikdash, yet the examples are not the man who does not put on Tefillin, or the married women who does not cover her hair. The navi is not preaching to the ‘less religious’ Jew, but rather to those who consider themselves ‘the elite;’ those who come to the Mikdash every Shabbat and every Rosh Chodesh. They come with their priceless Tefillin, their beautifully woven Tzitzit, and their Mehadrin sacrifices. They have spent thousands of shekalim on their offerings, but they have forgotten how they accumulated those shekalim – and so the prophet turns them away. Go home! Go learn the basics!  

Because a house built without the appropriate foundations cannot and will not stand; a superficial religiousness with no basic respect for fellow human beings is of very little worth. It is far better to bring a cheaper offering that was truly earned; it is much better to stand 20 meters back from the Kotel than push one’s way to the front, ignoring anyone and everyone in your path.  

Perhaps we could even be ‘blasphemous’ and suggest it is sometimes better to daven by yourself on an airplane if the alternative means blocking access to the bathrooms, waking people up, preventing the stewardesses from performing their duties, and showing a general lack of consideration for any other passenger who might get in the way! What kind of prayer do we offer to Hashem if – at the very same time we are praying – we show absolutely no concern for those around us? We ask God to be kind and merciful with us when we are doing the exact opposite to other people! 

As we enter the Mikdash with our Korban, we are at the end of a process. A process we began in our home town, with repentance, self-analysis, deep contemplation and regret. We make our journey having examined every sphere of our life. We are about to go up to Yerushalayim, the holiest place on earth! It will be an unparalleled spiritual experience!  

We must therefore check ourselves again and again before embarking on this religious journey. Of course we will adorn our Tefillin, and our beautifully woven Tzitzit, and if we can afford it we will bring our Mehadrin sacrifice too, but these halachic requirements must be accompanied by an inner clarity; real sincerity. Our true religiosity must express itself in every sphere of our lives.  

This is very logical. The Torah cannot possibly enumerate the countless details of sacrificial offerings before emphasizing the basic necessary prerequisites.  

And clearly what is true when visiting the holiest of places must also be applied when preparing for the holiest of moments. So many of us simply ‘arrive’ at Shabbatot, Chagim, and the Yamim Noraim, with all of the respective ‘costumes,’ but without the real internal preparations necessary to make these unique times really meaningful. One cannot truly experience Shabbat by putting on a nicer suit; one cannot receive long-term atonement on Yom Kippur through the thin white cloth of the kittel, or just because we don’t eat all day. Our Rosh Hashanah greetings will not materialize if they are nothing more than good wishes. 

Externalities are important and they do have their role to play, but they are not enough if unaccompanied by inner truth. This is Sefer Vayikra and this is the principle with which we open our sefer: the holy of holies in our inner world of purity and sanctification.  

The fact we are even able to approach the King of the Universe is something that should leave us in absolute awe. To think we could even contemplate such a journey without real understanding, or truthful intent; to think we could approach the Mikdash in such a superficial state is nothing less than brazen chutzpah

Would we prepare ourselves so pitifully if we were to meet the President or any other human dignitary? 

Hashem has gracefully given us the opportunity to approach Him in person! We must seize the chance and elevate ourselves to a Godly reality, and not – Heaven forbid – relate to Him as another human being to swindle. 

All we have done so far is discuss one word in the Torah – “adam”! Let us now address the seemingly superfluous “mikem” – of you. 

The Kli Yakar makes a most insightful comment.[2] There are many psychological reasons why we act as we do. We do not live in a vacuum, and more often than not we do things not because we really want to do them, but because everyone else is doing them, or perhaps because we wish to be seen doing them. Is it not scary to contemplate whether our actions are truly and sincerely ours?[3] 

If one was to join the community on their way to Yerushalayim because of social pressures, or because one wanted to be perceived in a certain way, the ensuing act of sacrifice would be considerably diminished to say the least. 

Here too we must aim to emulate Adam HaRishon. We know he offered up his sacrifices with the purest of motives. He was not influenced by peer pressure because he had no peers; he was not worried about his image in the community, because there was no community. He was not trying to ‘keep up with the Cohens’ because there were no other families in the world. His act was an act of absolute sacrifice, of real commitment – it was his act and his alone.  

And that’s why the Torah opens the book of Vayikra by telling us our sacrifice must be “mikem” – of you; an act that is totally yours, a genuine expression of true sacrifice to the Almighty.  

So our preparation for this beautiful occasion, traveling to Yerushalayim to offer a sacrifice to the Lord, is very well-grounded indeed. Firstly, we must be sure our religious persona is absolutely genuine. We must undergo deep self-analysis to ensure we are true believers in every sphere of halacha. We must be sure we are as stringent in our business ethic as we are in our Mikdash one. A sacrifice bought with money gained through illegitimate tax evasion is not only a pointless ceremony, but an insult to the Almighty.  

However, as we approach our contemporary ‘burning bush,’ when we approach the King of Kings, we must be wary of something else as well. Even if we are sure we are the most honest businessman in the community; even if we are as careful in our social behavior as we are in the theological arena, our act will still be inadequate if our motive is the wrong one.  

Our truest service of the Almighty; our approach to the Holy of Holies, can only bear fruit if our motives are pure; if my sacrifice is from me and me alone. I present my offering with complete and pure devotion, for no reason other than the love of the Almighty. 

How many crucial decisions have we made in our lives through superficial, egotistical motivation? We often don’t know who we really are because we have habitually managed to fool ourselves every day of our lives! Our real religiosity, our true self-definition, is tested when we are alone; when no-one can see what we are doing or hear what we are thinking. Adam was alone in the world, and so his motives cannot be questioned. 

It might be very useful to ask ourselves this daunting question every so often: if no-one else existed, would we still offer our sacrifice to Hashem? Would we still act the way we do now? That is the standard we must strive to adopt in all areas of our lives.  

Let us conclude with the wise words attributed to Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk on the verse: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God but those revealed belong to us…” (Devarim, 29:28) The Kotzke Rebbe says the things we do in secret, our actions behind closed doors, are the really true ones, and so they belong to Hashem. But our revealed actions, our public statements and behavior, belong to us. They are less holy, because more often than not our motivation is questionable. 

Are we ready to sacrifice some of those actions in order to come closer to Hashem?



[1] See Bereishit, 19.

[2] Vayikra, 1:1.

[3] The Kli Yakar makes a similar comment to the verse in Bereishit, 4:4, where he notes that Hevel apparently only brought his sacrifice because Cain had done so first. His explanation is derived from the words: “And Hevel also brought.”

 

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