Torah for the Times

Friday, March 16 , 2012 - 22 Adar, 5772

Torah Reading: Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26)
Candle Lighting Time: 6:53 PM
Shabbat Ends: 7:55 PM

Parshat HaChodesh


No Sacrifice

The Book of Vayikra (Leviticus) devotes much of its content to the laws of Korbanot, usually translated as “sacrifices,” but more a more accurate translation could be either “offerings” or “agents of closeness.”

However there is a fundamental difference between these two translations: A sacrifice connotes that we are allowing one thing to be destroyed and given up, “sacrificed,” for another. This implies that certain things are dispensable. A soldier who dies in battle makes a sacrifice for his country. We do things that consume our time, energy, and resources for a desired end. We view that as a necessary investment for an ultimately better outcome.

A korban suggests an entirely opposite message. We are not declaring that an animal’s life is dispensable, but rather that the animal is fulfilling the true purpose for which it was created. Through this korban, the animal, along with the person who brings the offering—and by extension the entire physical universe—gets closer to G‑d. It is thus the very antithesis of a sacrifice where the object or person sacrificed is denied the benefits that will be enjoyed by the one for whom the sacrifice is made.

Proper Syntax

With this brief exercise in translation we can understand the deeper meaning of a statement made in the Talmud with respect to the way in which one designates a korban. One could theoretically do it in two ways: one can say that a certain animal shall be dedicated “to G‑d as a korban,” or “a korban to G‑d.” While it is only a minor difference in syntax, the Talmud (Nedarim 10b) says the difference between these two phrases is pivotal. One should not use the first formula “to G‑d as a korban” but rather one should say “a korban to G‑d.” The reason for this is that if one would say G‑d’s name first and neglect to finish his sentence he would have said G‑d’s name in vain. Therefore one must first declare that it is a korban and then mention that it is dedicated to G‑d. Some commentators explain that the fear is that they may change their mind and decide against the offering or that they may die before completing the sentence.

A first glance this concern appears to be a trivial one and farfetched. What are the odds that a person in robust health who is designating an animal as his sacrifice will die before finishing his declaration?

Three explanations can be given for what might seem to be an exaggerated concern:

A Stable World…

The simple answer is that saying G‑d’s name in vain is so serious a transgression—it is the third of the Ten Commandments—that one must go to extremes to avoid any, even, remote possibility of transgressing it. Our Sages (Shavuos 39a) tell us that when G‑d uttered the third commandment “Do not bear My name in vain" the entire world trembled. G‑d’s name is the vivifying force within creation. When that name is compromised the entire foundation of the world’s existence is shaken.

This ties in directly to the idea of a korban. A korban is said to be the agent which brings us closer to G‑d, but it simultaneously also brings G‑d closer to us. Just like the food we eat helps to keep the soul from leaving our bodies, so too, a korban, “G‑d’s bread,” as it were, is the spiritual food which keeps G‑d’s vitalizing force within creation. A korban and respect for G‑d’s name have the same objective: keeping G‑d within this world and thereby maintaining a stable world.

Thus to be respectful to G‑d’s name is to appreciate the role of G‑d as our Creator and Sustainer so that the korban can achieve its intended objective, especially bringing G‑d closer to us.

…or a World that is a Stable?

On a somewhat deeper level we can explain the reason for the extreme caution in not saying G‑d’s name before the word "korban" in the following way:

A korban is usually brought for an unintentional transgression. It suggests that the person lacks a certain measure of sensitivity to spiritual matters. An intentional breach of the law can be a onetime and uncharacteristic eruption of one’s evil impulse. An unintentional violation implies that one simply gravitates towards transgression, not even realizing that he or she has done something wrong. It points to a coarse and rather unrefined animal soul that covers the natural sensitivity of the G‑dly soul.

Eventually, the person realizes that his animal soul has taken over. He realizes that in order to rectify this situation he needs to bring an animal offering to indicate that the cause of his transgression is the uncouth nature of the animal soul that has been allowed to grow and dominate at the expense of the G‑dly soul’s spiritual nature. And even when one did not transgress and he brings a voluntary korban to G‑d, the fact that it generally involves the offering of an animal indicates that this korban, too, is about refining our animal nature so that we can get closer to G‑d.

It follows then that when this individual is in need of a korban to become re-sensitized, it is crucial that this person goes out of his or her way to show sensitivity to G‑d by avoiding any, even the slightest, most remote and unwitting possibility of showing disrespect to Him by uttering His name in vain. This reversal of the syntax is in and of itself part of the atonement process that helps bring the person closer to G‑d. Thus, by showing such acute sensitivity in delaying the pronouncement of G‑d’s name, it helps to make the korban process much more effective in bringing us closer to G‑d.

G‑d is Not an Abstraction…

One can offer a third, allegorical, explanation for this extreme approach to not mentioning G‑d’s name first lest the person have a change of heart or die before uttering the word "korban".

When a person says, “To G‑d a korban,” he is referring to G‑d as something in the distance, an abstraction. When G‑d is viewed as an abstraction there is a significant possibility that the person will have a change of heart or “die,” in the figurative sense of the word. “Dying,” the Zohar states, is a metaphor for one who falls to a lower level. And once one degenerates, he might never be able to conclude with the word "korban/closeness". This means that he will find it difficult to recognize his potential to get close to G‑d. How can one get close to an abstract and remote Being? His distancing of G‑d becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and undermines the efficacy of the korban.

The proper approach is to say the word "korban" first. This means that at the outset one recognizes that he or she has the ability to get close. This means that G‑d is accessible and His Torah and Mitzvot are accessible, as the Torah declares, “This thing is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to observe it.” Once that premise has been established there is no obstacle that can prevent us from getting close to G‑d.

…Neither is Moshiach and Redemption

One of the salient distinctions between the period of galut/exile and geulah/Redemption is sensitivity.

From the time the Beis Hamikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, was destroyed and the period of galut/exile commenced we have been collectively and individually desensitized. We have lost touch with our inner soul and find ourselves at a distance from G‑d. Our challenge now is to find our way back.

Tragically until Moshiach comes and rebuilds the Beis Hamikdash we can no longer rectify this situation by way of the literal korban. But we do have substitutes such as Torah study and prayer. Every time we study the laws of the Beis Hamikdash and the korban offerings therein, it is as if we are bringing that offering.

However the virtual offering of our studying does not suffice. We must also avoid the danger of mentioning G‑d’s name before we mention the word "korban".

How does that translate into our own lives?

First, we must study the parts of Torah that discuss G‑d’s name, i.e., His attributes and what connects Him to our world. This includes the teachings of Chassidus which focus on a better understanding of G‑d’s name that leads to a more sophisticated understanding of G‑d, an understanding that will prevent us from trivializing Him.

Second, we must instill in our virtual korban a healthy dose of sensitivity. For that, Torah study is also the answer, for Torah helps to fashion our way of thinking. Study of the parts of Torah that deal with the Beis Hamikdash, and Redemption specifically, help to open our minds to a higher reality and also condition us to feel comfortable with that higher reality. Becoming sensitive is already the first step in experiencing the energies of Moshiach and Redemption, the period that is characterized as the ultimate time of our spiritual awareness.

Third, we must also augment our Torah study with ardent and urgent prayers for Redemption. We cannot lull ourselves into thinking that the Redemption is far off and that it is an elusive goal. That is tantamount to the one who places G‑d on a “pedestal” and maintains that He is beyond our reach. We must approach our requests for Moshiach and Redemption as requests for things that are within range, nay, that they are right outside our doorway standing on the threshold. Moshiach and Redemption are within our grasp. Our prayers to G‑d for Redemption must therefore reflect the following sentiment, “We are so close; reveal Moshiach now!”

Moshiach Matters
"Since we find ourselves extremely close to the moment of the redemption, we have to increase our yearning for Moshiach to the extent that we will be recognizably changed people. It should be obvious to all that - even in the last moments of exile - we are totally prepared to welcome Moshiach." (The Rebbe, Shabbat HaGadol, 1990)
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