Call to the Wild
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
"... The kohen will burn the entire [animal] on the altar as a completely
burnt Fire-Offering to G-d, an appeasing fragrance." (VaYikrah 1:9)
With the beginning of Sefer VaYikrah, also called "The Book of Holiness,"
we again begin a serious discussion about korbonos (sacrifices). In our
day-and-age of "Animals Rights," the idea of sacrificing an animal to atone
for our sins, or worse, just to give thanks to G-d, is, to use the term of
Such people often cite the Rambam (Maimonides) as a proof. According to the
Rambam, the Torah sanctioned the slaughtering of animals for religious
purposes to "wean" the newly freed Jewish nation from idol worshipping
practices. These are his words:
... The reason for the offerings is because the Egyptians and the Kasdim in
whose lands the children of Israel were strangers and sojourners, used
always to worship the herd and the flock, the Egyptians worshipping the
sheep and the Kasdim worshipping the demons whom they imagined as assuming
the form of goats. To this day men of India never slaughter the herd. It
was for this reason that He [G-d] commanded [Israel] to slaughter these
species [the herd, the flock, and the goats], to the Revered Name, so that
it be known that the very act which the idol-worshippers considered to be
the utmost sin [i.e., slaughtering the above species], that same act should
be done as an offering before the Creator, and through it Israel's sins
should be forgiven. For such is the way to cure people of false beliefs,
which are the diseases of the human soul, for all diseases and sicknesses
are healed by medicines which are antithetical to them ... (Moreh Nevuchim,
Needless to say, many disagree with the Rambam's point of view on this
matter, especially the Ramban (Nachmanides), who argues at length bringing
all kinds of evidence to the contrary (VaYikrah 1:9). However, there are
many who run to the defense of the Rambam, citing sources to support the
Rambam's point of view (such as the Pesach-Offering) and answer the
Ramban's questions; Rabbi Meir Simcha (Meshech Chochmah) even harmonizes
the two views.
The Ramban's concluding words begin:
By way of the Truth [Kabballah], there is a hidden secret contained in the
offerings. You may be introduced to it by that which our Rabbis have said
in the Sifre and at the end of Tractate Menachos:
Shimon ben Azzai said: Come and see what is written in the section of the
offerings! It does not say with reference to them E"l (G-d), or Elokecha
(your G-d), nor Elokim (G-d), nor Sha-dai (Al-mighty), nor Tzevakos (G-d of
"Hosts"), but only "Yud-Heh" the proper name of G-d [i.e., the
Tetragrammaton], in order not to give an opponent an occasion for a point
of attack. (Sifre, Pinchas 143)
The Meshech Chochmah explains:
It is known that the name Elokim means "Master of all Natural Forces," or
the "Force of Forces." Therefore, if the name Elokim or E"l had been used
for the section of the offerings it would have given opportunity to the
opponents that He is in need of food. Therefore, only the Tetragrammaton is
used in this whole section in order to indicate that His Existence is the
only true Existence, and that everything exists only through His existence,
for they are all in need of Him, but He is not in need of any of them.
(Beginning of Parashas Shoftim)
Part of the ongoing debate has also been, as implied from the Ramban's
statement, did the Rambam learn Kabballah? Though the Ramban makes overt
references to his knowledge of Kabballah (as we just saw above), the Rambam
never does. For this reason, and because of statements the Rambam has made
that seem to run contrary to Kabballistic teachings, some have concluded
that Kabballah was one area of Torah learning the Rambam did not focus on,
especially given that he was extremely busy with organizing the Revealed
Torah, taking care of the infirm, and often on the run from his enemies.
As well, Kabballistic teachings in the Rambam's day usually flowed only
from the mouth of the few existing masters, to even fewer worthy students;
writings were not nearly as widespread in the Rambam's time as they are in
our day. The Zohar itself, the primary classic work of Kabballah, wasn't
even published for the first time until around 1380 CE (by Rabbi Moshe de
Lion), and wasn't printed until even later (1558-1560).
However, from many of the Rambam's teachings, one can wonder in the
opposite direction. Many of his writings verge on the esoteric, and point
in the direction of a great mind at work, and then some. For this reason,
even the statements of the Rambam, like the one quoted above about
sacrifices, are interpreted Kabballistically as well (as we will now see).
Very briefly, there are basically three effects that sacrifices are
supposed to have on creation. To begin with, korbonos are supposed to
purify the world of the spiritual "filth" (Hebrew: zuhama) first brought
into the world through Adam's eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and
Evil, and its resultant effects. This "filth," the Talmud states, was
removed from the Jewish people at the time they received Torah at Mt. Sinai
(Shabbos 146a), but involvement in the golden calf plunged us back down
into the post-sin reality once again (to some degree). Since all sin only
happens on the level of our animal-soul (Nefesh), burning the animal helps
to purify this aspect of our existence.
Secondly, korbonos help to re-elevate creation back to a less physical
plain on which it existed before the eating. For example, before the sin,
Adam's skin was closer to being like "light" than the skin we have now.
Hence, eating from the Tree caused creation to become spiritually lowered,
which always has the effect of concretizing the physical reality, making
life more "natural" than miraculous and more of a "veil" for the hand of
G-d (which results in "hester panim," the hiding of G-d's face,
so-to-speak, and a more judgmental form of Divine Providence). Burning an
animal for spiritual reasons reverses this trend, which is why Divine
Providence then becomes more mercy-oriented (this is the concept of the
sacrifices smelling "sweet" to G-d; Bereishis 8:21; VaYikrah 1:9; Rashi,
The third rectification of a korban is even more Kabballistic, and
difficult to understand without sufficient background. However, it too
works on correcting one of the damaging effects of the sin of eating from
the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, to bring spiritual completion to
the world along the way to a perfected society and the period of Moshiach.
Affected through the sacrifice are all four levels of existence: domaim
(literally, "silent" referring to the mineral world), tzomayach ("spouted"
referring to the vegetation world), chayah ("living" referring to the
animal world), and medabehr ("speaking" referring to man). The salt used
rectifies and elevates the mineral world; the wood used for the altar
elevates and purifies the vegetation world; the animal itself impacts the
animal world, and man, who performs the sacrifice is affected by all of
this, and through him, everything is elevated closer toward G-d.
If that is so (I read recently), then it is true: sacrifices draw us away
from idol worship, which is similar to what the Rambam said above. After
all, it is "hester panim" that gives nature the appearance of being
powerful in its own right, and which blinds the minds of men; idol worship
is the direct result of the spiritual "filth" inflicted upon mankind as a
result of succumbing to the snake's allure to eat from the forbidden Tree
of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In short, idol worship is the result of all
that sacrifices comes to spiritually "cure."
This explanation of the Rambam, admittedly, is not a perfect fit. However,
it does leave room to conclude that the Rambam could have meant more than
what some would like to believe. In any case, when all is said-and-done,
animal sacrifices as instructed in the Torah appear far from being
"animalistic," doing an awful lot to bring creation to its desired level of
G-d called to Moshe and said ... (VaYikrah 1:1) Why did the Torah precede
the "calling" to the "saying"? To teach good manners (derech eretz): a
person should not speak to his friend before calling him ... R' Menashe the
Great said: Where do we learn that when one person gives over information
to another that the latter has no right to disclose it to another without
permission? The Torah writes, "And He [G-d] spoke to him from the Appointed
Tent saying (lomar; this can be divided into two words, "lo" and "mar"
which mean "don't say") ... " (VaYikrah 1:1; Yoma 4b)
Sometimes the messages learned out from the verse are obvious and absolute,
that is, the verse seems to "beg" to be interpreted that way. Other times,
like in the case above, it seems like a case of an interpretation in search
of a source. When that is the case, we have to ask ourselves, "Why here-why
Sacrifice is a matter of the heart. It is a way of revealing on the outside
what, hopefully, is felt on the inside. Time and time again the prophets
warned us that G-d does not need to eat animal offerings; He desires our
hearts, our loyalty, our love.
However, we know from the world around us and our own personal experiences
that it is far easier to "go through the motions" than for the motions to
go "through" us. In this very action-packed world that seems to inspire the
yetzer hara to dance all over us and squelch our spiritual drive, in a
world that turns our minds into "public domains," it is far easier to go
and doven (pray) than it is for dovening to "come to us" (that is, that we
can give it our full attention).
It is the same with derech eretz, and raising children proves this true.
Children come home from cheder and are able to speak brilliantly on the
Parashas HaShavuah one moment, and then speak disrespectfully to their
siblings (and even their parents) in the next breath! Even watch the way
they play with one another during the school break ... not exactly what
they learned during school hours.
"Children will be children!" you say. Fine. However, will adults be
children too? Will these "geniuses" grow up and become even brighter, but
still lack the most basic communication skills and manners?
Perhaps this is why the Torah and the Talmud introduce this third and
crucial book with lessons in derech eretz, as if to say, "Let's get it
straight from the beginning: the goal of all the details in this book is
not only to change the world around you, but specifically to change the
world within you! Derech Eretz not only preceded Torah (Tanna d'Bei
Eliyahu, 1), it is the path toward holiness." And, it is, in the end, the
only true path to Torah:
G-d said, "The man has become one of Us knowing good and evil. Now, in case
he stretches out his hand to take also from the Tree of Life and live
forever [I will send him out]." And G-d sent him from the garden ... and
banished the man and set up angels and a flaming sword to the east of the
garden to guard the way (derech) to the Tree of Life. (Bereishis 3:22)
The way ... this is derech eretz-Tanna d'Bei Eliyahu Rabbah
Derech Eretz ... That is to say, the acquisition of positive traits ... The
essential existence of man in this world is to break his bad traits ...
As the Talmud points out, this is alluded to in the Shema, which commands
us to serve G-d with all our hearts, that is, both parts: the yetzer tov
and the yetzer hara (Brochos 54a). This means that our outer devotion to
G-d must be indicative of our inner devotion to G-d, and one of the best
ways to prove this is the way we behave toward others, especially when they
are more needy than us.
In fact, a friend of mine spends a lot of time and energy trying to raise
money to help extremely needy families survive, which necessitates
approaching very wealthy people for help (his own financial position is not
so secure, but he is devoted to helping those less fortunate than himself).
What bothers him the most, he told me, far more than be turned downed by
people who spend tens of thousands of dollars on Bar Mitzvos, Bas Mitzvos,
and even more on weddings, is not having his telephone calls returned by
the people he has tried to contact! In his own words, "I can handle a 'no,"
he says. "After all, no one has to answer to me for how they appropriate
their wealth. But a simple phone call to tell me one way or the other ...
That's a matter of derech eretz!"
Another person told me about how others, in the name of "helping people,"
have "stolen" her clients behind her back; another, about how, on a rainy
day, while walking up a hill with heavy groceries, was passed by
communities members who simply drove past them. That's derech eretz?
I'm not one to hang "dirty laundry" out in public (especially over the
Internet), and we certainly have a mitzvah to judge others to the side of
merit. On the other hand, if the Torah saw fit to begin the Book of
Holiness, one that is often taught to cheder children before all the other
books, with a heavy message about derech eretz, it is worthwhile for all of
us to stop on that point and contemplate just how deep our Torah ideals
have penetrated our hearts, and has helped us to help our fellow Jews.
"Furthermore, you must salt every Meal-Offering. Do not leave out the salt
of your G-d's covenant from your Meal-Offerings." (VaYikrah 2:13)
Salt ... covenant: There was a covenant established with salt during the
six days of creation, when He [G-d] promised the lower waters that they
would be offered on the altar ... (Rashi; salt is derived from the sea;
This highlights the importance of salt as part of the sacrificial service
in the Mishkan and Temple. It also helps explain why we dip our bread into
salt after making the blessing over the bread at our tables. After all, the
Talmud refers to our eating tables as replacements for the altar after the
Rebi Yochanan and Reish Lakish said: When the Temple stood, the altar
atoned for a person. Now the table of a person atones for him (when he
feeds guests; Rashi; Chagigah 27a)
Curiously enough, the same letters (mem, lamed, ches) can be re-arranged to
spell the word "lechem" (lamed, ches, mem), or bread. In fact, the same
letters are also the root of the Hebrew word for war: milchama (mem, lamed,
ches, mem, heh), hinting at the fact that the main "war" against the yetzer
hara is in the arena of survival (i.e., "earning a living"), as represented
by bread (the main staple of life), and salt, which our bodies depend upon
heavily. (In "Redemption to Redemption," we saw the connection between the
"munn," the miraculous bread from heaven and the war with Amalek.)
In fact, the word "milchama" (war) can be divided into two words, "melach"
(mem, lamed, ches) and "mah" (mem, heh), where the last two letters are
numerically equal to the word "Adam" (the name of man in his perfected
state) and which (Kabballistically) represent a name of G-d and the special
light that G-d used to make creation during the first six days.
If so, then we can understand somewhat why Lot's wife turned into a pillar
of salt while fleeing the destruction of S'dom, since she glanced back to a
city that totally defied the purpose of creation by being anti-derech eretz
(Bereishis 19:26). And, we can appreciate how, if a seemingly innocuous
part of the Temple service could allude to so much, the more complex
details of the service can teach so much more.
P.S. In case you're wondering what the title "Call to the Wild" was based
upon, it is a play on the title of a well-known (to Canadians at least)
Canadian novel called, "Call of the Wild" about the Great Canadian
Outdoors. The idea is that, G-d "called" (VaYikrah) to the "wild," that is,
to man who is in need of spiritual perfection, in order to instruct us in
the sacrifices to help us achieve it. Just in case you were wondering.
Copyright © 1998 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author teaches at both Neve
Yerushalyim (Jerusalem) and Neveh
Rabbi Winston has authored fourteen books on Jewish philosophy
(hashkofa). If you enjoy Rabbi Winston's Perceptions on the
Parsha, you may enjoy many of his books. Visit the Project Genesis
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