אדם כי יקריב מכם קרבן
When a man will bring an offering from among you . . .
Not only animal-rights groups have difficulty with this week’s parashah. Many, if not most, people in our modern era have a problem with the whole concept of animal sacrifice, which is a major theme of the third book of the Torah, Leviticus.
But I have no wish to enter into a rationalization of biblical morality. The second verse in the book lends itself to some interesting homiletic interpretation, which makes it quite clear that the Torah’s focus on sacrifice is not so much on the animal on the altar as on the owner who is offering it. “Adam ki yakriv mikem korban — When a man will bring an offering from among you to G‑d, from the animals, from the cattle or from the flock shall you bring your offering.”
Now, clearly, the language here is rather strained. Most translators have edited the text to read more smoothly — “When a man among you will bring an offering,” an improvement in the flow of the verse. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, in his classic Likutei Torah, insists, however, that the Torah’s syntax is deliberate. “When a man will bring an offering” — that is, he will want to come closer to G‑d; the Hebrew word korban has in it the root of karov, to come close — then he must know that “mikem korban,” the offering must come from you, from the animal within you.
Every one of us possesses animalistic tendencies, and these must be consumed on the altar of G‑d. We are obliged to slay our inner animal and humanize ourselves by working on developing our character traits until the beast within us has been neutralized and — better yet — sanctified. What exactly does this mean? The verse continues, “From the cattle or from the flock shall you bring your offering.”
Cattle — some individuals may behave like a raging bull, goring and trampling on everyone and everything in its way. He is the proverbial bull in a china closet, stomping, aggressive, bullying, domineering, and utterly insensitive to people’s feelings. Others might be like the flock — the meek, little lamb that timidly follows the crowd. She has no opinion of her own; whatever the last person she spoke to said becomes her opinion for the moment. She has no backbone, no sense of self or self-respect. She stays with the flock at all costs lest she be labeled a “black sheep.” Still others might be moody and temperamental, changing colors and character traits from day to day. One minute they might be like the raging bull and the next the docile lamb.
So the Torah teaches us to be Adam, a human being of human — indeed G‑dly — character. Be a man, not an ox; a lady, not a lamb. Be a mensch, behave like a mature, refined person, not like a vilde chaya. Examine your own behavioral tendencies; check out your inner feelings and dispositions. Are you satisfied with yourself as a human being? Are those around you happy, or do you intimidate them with your temper tantrums? Are you mature and mild-mannered, or do you suffer from road rage even when you’re not in traffic?
Searching our souls and our inner psyches for unacceptable behavior — and then doing something about it — is what we mean when we say to bring the animal up on the altar of sacrifice. It is the animal within each of us. The true and ultimate sacrifice is the sacrificing of self.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.