We continue to strive to be more than we are


There is a darkness sometimes that rages within which can overpower our very being.

I had a Battalion commander, who took the first watch on the tank after a brutal day in the Lebanon war. It was the third night of fighting, and the men by now were near exhaustion.

In the middle of the night, alone with his thoughts, doing everything he could to stay awake after three days of warfare and no sleep, Shimon Ben Maimon came face to face with death in the form of a Syrian commando crawling up on to his tank. They were in such close quarters, there was neither the room nor the time to cock and aim his machine gun. So they struggled in the night, hand to hand. The loader, sleeping on the turret next to Ben Maimon, thought his Commander was messing around with one of the guys, as he was wont to do, and went back to sleep. Eventually, Ben Maimon was able to overpower the Syrian Commando, at which point he had to decide what to do with him. 

There were standing orders that no-one should take prisoners, but letting him go might have put other Israeli soldiers at risk later on, and tying him up and leaving him in the battle-field under the circumstances, was tantamount to having him killed. 

So they kept him on the tank for three days before being able to pass him on to the proper authorities.

When asked later why he didn’t just shoot him, (after all, here was an enemy soldier who had just tried to kill his entire crew) Ben Maimon’s response was, “because then he would have won.”

This week’s portion, Vayikra, in addition to serving as the beginning of the third book of the Torah, also introduces a new topic, one of the most mentioned topics in the Torah: the sacrifices. Yet one wonders, given that the Torah is meant to be ‘a living Torah,’ applicable in its entirety even now, what relevance do the sacrifices retain in today’s modern world?

The Ramban, in his commentary here, points out that the root of the Hebrew word for sacrifice, Korban, is the same root as the word Karov, meaning close. The underlying purpose of the sacrifices, suggests the Ramban, was to serve as a vehicle for bringing man closer to G-d.

How on earth did the experience of killing an animal and subsequently burning its flesh, serve as a catalyst for deepening our relationship with G-d? 

Rabbeinu Bachya Ib’n Pekudei, in his Chovot HaLevavot, points out that G-d gives us many gifts, and we are expected to use these gifts for good purposes in this world. The only reason G-d gives me a mouth is to use it to spread kindness, and the same is true for all the other parts of our body. Our minds and hearts therefore are also meant to be involved in the mitzvoth that we do. The purpose of any given action is not merely the performance of the action, rather the action was meant to cause us to think, and ultimately to grow, from the experience. 

What is sacrificing an animal meant to convey? And what does it mean that G-d wants our sacrifices? Does Hashem somehow need these hapless goats and sheep? 

Instinctively, we know and certainly would like to believe, that we are more than just animals that can walk on two legs, yet the question remains as to how we define that difference.

By all appearance we are no different from animals. We have the same needs to eat and sleep, as well as fulfill our desires for physical sustenance and pleasure. 

And yet, in some ways we defy the normal pattern of animal behavior. Our intelligence can do far more than sustain us, and our desires far exceed our needs, often even undermining that very animal-like goal. How to explain, for example, man’s desire to experience and explore beauty, or to contemplate the mysteries of his existence?

Indeed, it is often precisely those pursuits that seem least appropriate to man’s survival that seem to grant him the greatest satisfaction!

• • •

This then, is the message of the sacrifices, the Korbanot. It is precisely when we allow our animal selves to be in control of who we are, that we need to remember that we can be so much more. When we allow our actions to be dictated by our animal desires, we are essentially living physical lives akin to the animal world. Any experience that emanates from the physical, animal world is by definition limited. (It is precisely for this reason that Maimonides points out in his Thirteen Principles of Faith that Hashem cannot be physical, as that would mean Hashem was limited.)

Sometimes, we get so stuck in our world, and our perspectives, that we limit ourselves, and confine our experiences to the world of the animal. The gift of the sacrifices is to remind us that we can be so much more. 

So we come to the Temple, the Beit HaMikdash, to an environment that resonates with Kedushah, or Holiness, which essentially is the opportunity to come closer to G-d, and experience unlimited-ness. And in this environment we take that same animal that we have become, and offer it up as a sacrifice, as if to say, I want to remember that I can be so much more than the animal within me. 

In a world which is becoming all too physical, and in a time when the Jewish people are being called upon to make some very difficult sacrifices, may Hashem bless us that these challenges serve as a merit to us all, so that soon, the only fires in Israel are the burning of the sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. 

Originally published in 2012.