By Shlomo Riskin
“When a human being (adam) brings from amongst you a sacrificial offering to the Lord…” (Lev. 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. From the opening words of the book, two questions emerge.
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 “adam”) 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 (Avot 1:12). 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 Shema). What have the sacrificial offerings to do with love?
In order to answer these questions, allow me a brief excursus into our mystical tradition, the Kabbalah, 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, “Y-HVH, Y-HVH, a God of Compassion and Freely-Given Grace, Long-suffering, with much Loving-kindness and Truth…” (Ex. 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, vav, heh as in Y-HVH are identical to root letters heh, vet, heh in ahava, love.
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 (See Gen. 1:26, Seforno ad loc.). 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 in order to allow them to develop into free and independent adults, so God chose to “contract” Himself, as it were, and limit His Divine omnipotence in order 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 allows 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 borne 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.”
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.