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Vayikra 5767-2007

“Balancing Heart and Mind”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, we encounter, once again, the challenging issue of animal sacrifice.

Over the years, we have attempted to demonstrate both the relevant metaphorical meanings and even the presumed benefits that may accrue to a society that practices animal sacrifice. We have also highlighted subtle hints in the nuances of the texts that teach profound messages that are exceedingly relevant to contemporary society.

In Leviticus 1:2, G-d instructs Moses to speak to the children of Israel and tell them: “Ah’dam kee yahk’reev mee’kem kahr’bahn la’Hashem, min ha’b’hay’mah, min ha’bah’kahr, oo’min ha’tzoan tahk’ree’voo et kohr’bahn’chem.” When a person among you brings an offering to G-d, from the animals, from the cattle or from the flock you shall bring your offering. Well crafted though it is, this English translation distorts the subtle emphasis of the scriptural text. The actual text reads: “Ah’dam kee yahk’reev mee’kem,” which literally means a person who sacrifices of you. It does not say, “Ah’dam mee’kem kee yahk’reev,” a person from among you who sacrifices. Because of the verse’s particular syntax, our rabbis deduce that when a human being wishes to come close to G-d he must bring an offering of himself, that is, give with a full heart and with full intent.

Giving with a full heart is one of the earliest and most compelling messages of the Torah. Already in chapter 4 of Genesis, the Torah tells of the two sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. Cain was a tiller of the land, an agriculturalist, while Abel was a keeper of sheep, a shepherd. After the passing of time, both Cain and Abel see the fruit of their labor, and in gratitude bring offerings to G-d. Cain brings of the fruit of the ground, while Abel brings of the firstlings of his flock and from their fat. Scripture informs us (Genesis 4:4): “Va’yee’sha Hashem el Hevel v’el min’cha’toh,” and G-d responded to Abel and to his offering, but to Cain and to his offering, He did not.

Cain is quite upset by the fact that G-d has not accepted his offering. According to the Midrashic tradition, a flame came down from heaven and consumed Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. Another tradition states that a column of smoke went directly up from the altar of Abel’s offering, but the smoke column of Cain’s offering was blown away, a sign of non-acceptance. G-d tells Cain that he need not be distressed or upset. He can, after all, mend his ways and be forgiven. Some of the commentators theorize that it was the rejection of Cain’s offering that led him to attack and ultimately murder his brother, Abel.

In order to understand the subtleties of this dramatic saga, it is important to note that scripture emphasizes that Cain’s offering consisted “of the fruit of the earth”–a rather pedestrian offering. Abel, on the other hand, went out of his way to choose from the “choicest flocks and the firstlings.” It is not surprising then that our sages conclude (Talmud Berachot 5b): “Echad ha’mar’beh v’echad ha’mameet, oo’bil’vad sheh’y’chah’vayn et lee’bo la’sha’ma’yeem,” The one who gives more and the one who gives less have equal merit, as long as their hearts are sincerely directed to heaven.

The message that the Torah teaches in both parashiot Vayikra and Bereishith, is most profound. In our sophisticated and achievement-oriented society, increasingly often, we seem to be missing the forest for the trees. With the recent growth in the emphasis placed on testing in both the educational and vocational realms, the human element necessary to prepare students for success is often overlooked and neglected. The rigidity that has resulted from the vaunted emphasis on accountability has caused many good and talented people to walk away, simply because they can not achieve the “score” that experts insist is necessary for success. In our increasingly “digitized” era, scores reign supreme, and other vital factors such as commitment, sincerity, devotion are too often disregarded. The Torah certainly does not negate the importance of mastering skills. Nevertheless, right at the outset of parashat Vayikra, a parasha that empasizes the abundant skills that are necessary for offering sacrifices properly, we are taught that if one wants to successfully offer sacrifices, one must sincerely offer up one’s self, one’s heart, one’s soul, one’s passion.

There is much that we may learn from the Torah’s emphasis on the heart and its application to contemporary times. We frequently hear that synagogues looking for rabbis establish a list of criteria, the first often being the insistence on a gifted and talented orator, or an exceedingly accomplished scholar. Too often, minimal emphasis is placed on the human qualities of the leader. How wrongheaded this approach is, can be seen from the frequent turnover of rabbis in various communities.

One of the remarkable successes in Jewish life today are the accomplishments of the Lubavitcher Chassidim. One might assume that without advanced secular education and with their distinctive vintage dress, these emissaries would be singularly unsuccessful in their efforts to reach out to modern non-committed Jews. And yet, these Chassidim are universally admired. Whether one agrees with their philosophy, the Messianism of some, the methodology of others, there is virtual universal agreement about their mesirut nefesh, their abiding commitment and devotion, to the cause of helping fellow Jews. Their passion and commitment often more than compensate for their academic shortcomings and their seemingly lack of contemporary worldliness.

There is hardly anything more demanding or exacting in Jewish life than the regimen of training necessary to become a certified ritual slaughter. The ancient sacrificial rites were similarly demanding. The person bringing the offering needed to have the proper awareness, as well as the intention to eat the sacrifice at the authorized time and in the proper place. Only those specifically designated at the time were qualified to partake of the sacrificial offering. The details are mind boggling. And yet, in the midst of this exacting detail and punctilious process, the Torah reminds us that as we emphasize the precision of the mind we must not lose focus on the qualities of the heart.

It is not the pro-forma action that is essential, it is the inner feeling and sincerity that G-d desires and cherishes. As we rapidly progress to an age where computer chips are measured by microns and sub-atomic widths, we must not lose focus on the human qualities that G-d truly desires, in order to make our mission in His world successful.

May you be blessed.