Photo Credit: Courtesy
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z"l

The laws of sacrifices that dominate the early chapters of the Book of Vayikra are among the hardest in the Torah to relate to in the present. It has been almost two thousand years since the Temple was destroyed and the sacrificial system came to an end. But Jewish thinkers, especially the more mystical among them, strove to understand the inner significance of the sacrifices and the statement they made about the relationship between humanity and G-d. They were thus able to rescue the spirit of the sacrifices even if their physical enactment was no longer possible.

Among the simplest yet most profound was the comment made by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of Lubavitch. He noticed a grammatical oddity about the second line of this parsha: “Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: “When one of you offers a sacrifice to the Lord, the sacrifice must be taken from the cattle, sheep, or goats” (Lev. 1:2).

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Or so the verse would read if it were constructed according to the usual rules of grammar. However, the word order of the sentence in Hebrew is strange and unexpected. We would expect to read: adam mikem ki yakriv, “when one of you offers a sacrifice.” Instead, what it says is adam ki yakriv mikem, “when one offers a sacrifice of you.”

The essence of sacrifice, said Rabbi Schneur Zalman, is that we offer ourselves. We bring to G-d our faculties, our energies, and our thoughts and emotions. The physical form of sacrifice – an animal offered on the altar – is only an external manifestation of an inner act. The real sacrifice is mikem, “of you.” We give G-d something of ourselves (Likkutei Torah, Vayikra 2aff).

What is it that we give G-d when we offer a sacrifice? The Jewish mystics, among them Rabbi Schneur Zalman, spoke about two souls that each of us has within us – the animal soul (nefesh habehamit) and the G-dly soul. On the one hand, we are physical beings. We are part of nature. We have physical needs: food, drink, shelter. We are born, we live, we die.

Yet we are not simply animals. We have within us immortal longings. We can think, speak, and communicate. We can, by acts of speaking and listening, reach out to others. We are the one life-form known to us in the universe that can ask the question “why?” We can formulate ideas and be moved by high ideals. We are not governed by biological drives alone. Psalm 8 (8:4-7) is a hymn of wonder on this theme:

When I consider Your heavens,
the work of Your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which You have set in place,
what is man that You are mindful of him,
the son of man that You care for him?
Yet You made him a little lower than the angels
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You made him ruler over the works of Your hands;
You put everything under his feet.

Physically, we are almost nothing; spiritually, we are brushed by the wings of eternity. We have a G-dly soul. The nature of sacrifice, understood psychologically, is thus clear. What we offer G-d is (not just an animal but) the nefesh habehamit, the animal soul within us.

How does this work out in detail? A hint is given by the three types of animal mentioned in the verse in the second line of the Torah portion of Vayikra: beheimah (animal), bakar (cattle), and tzon (flock). Each represents a separate animal-like feature of the human personality.

Beheimah represents the animal instinct itself and refers to domesticated animals, without the savage instincts of the predator. These are animals that spend their time searching for food, bounded by the struggle to survive. To sacrifice the animal within us is to be moved by something more than mere survival.

The philosopher Wittgenstein, when asked what was the task of philosophy, answered, “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” The fly, trapped in the bottle, bangs its head against the glass, trying to find a way out. The one thing it fails to do is to look up. The G-dly soul within us is the force that makes us look up, beyond the physical world, beyond mere survival, in search of meaning and purpose.

The Hebrew word bakar, cattle, reminds us of the word boker, dawn, literally to “break through,” as the first rays of sunlight break through the darkness of night. Cattle, stampeding, break through barriers. Unless constrained by fences, cattle are no respecters of boundaries. To sacrifice the bakar is to learn to recognize and respect boundaries – between holy and profane, pure and impure, permitted and forbidden. Barriers of the mind can sometimes be stronger than walls.

Finally, the word tzon, flocks, represents the herd instinct – the powerful drive to move in a given direction because others are doing likewise.

The great figures of Judaism – Abraham, Moses, the Prophets – were distinguished by their ability to stand apart from the herd – to be different, to challenge the idols of the age and refuse to capitulate to the intellectual fashions of the moment. That, ultimately, is the meaning of holiness in Judaism. Kadosh, the holy, is something set apart and distinctive. Jews were the only minority in history to consistently refuse to assimilate to the dominant culture or convert to the dominant faith.

The noun korban, “sacrifice,” and the verb lehakriv, “to offer something as a sacrifice,” actually mean “that which is brought close” and “the act of bringing close.” The key element is not so much giving something up (the usual meaning of sacrifice), but rather bringing something close to G-d. Lehakriv is to bring the animal element within us to be transformed through the Divine fire that once burned on the altar, and still burns at the heart of prayer if we truly seek closeness to G-d.

The Scientific (the idea that the material is all there is) has led to the widespread conclusion that we are all animals, nothing more, nothing less. According to this view, we are the result of a random series of genetic mutations and just happened to be more adapted to survival than other species. The nefesh habehamit, the animal soul, is all there is.

The refutation of this idea (surely among the most reductive ever to be held by intelligent minds) lies in the very act of sacrifice itself as the mystics understood it. We can redirect our animal instincts. We can rise above mere survival. We are capable of honoring boundaries. We can step outside our environment. As Harvard neuroscientist Steven Pinker put it: “Nature does not dictate what we should accept or how we should live,” adding, “and if my genes don’t like it, they can go jump in the lake.” Or, as Katharine Hepburn majestically said to Humphrey Bogart in he African Queen, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put on earth to rise above.”

We can transcend the beheimah, the bakar, and the tzon. No animal is capable of self-transformation, but we are. Poetry, music, love, wonder – the things that have no survival value but which speak to our deepest sense of being – all tell us that we are not mere animals, assemblages of selfish genes. By bringing that which is animal within us close to G-d, we allow the material to be suffused with the spiritual and we become something else: no longer slaves of nature but servants of the living G-d.

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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth and the author and editor of 40 books on Jewish thought. He died earlier this month.