Thursday, March 30, 2006

Vayikra (Midrash)

The Atoning Power of Sacrifices

Although the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus), which we begin reading this week, focuses upon sacrifices, and various matters relating to purity, the Temple, the priests, etc., the classical aggadic midrash on this book does not focus overly much on these issues, but as often as not uses its verses as a pretext for discussing a whole range of issues concerning God, the Jewish people, general ethical questions, the nature of mankind, etc., etc. One midrash which does discuss atonement, and the role of the sacrifices in this process, is found in Leviticus Rabbah 3.3:

[“When a person offers a meal offering to the Lord” (Lev 2:1).] “Let the wicked man abandon his way, and the man of violence his thoughts; and let him return unto the Lord, that He may have mercy on him, and to our God, for He is abundant in forgiveness.” [Isa 55:7]

R. Baibay bar Avina said: How ought a person to confess his sins on the eve of Yom Kippur? He should say: I acknowledge all the evil that I have done before You; I have stood in a bad way; and whatever I have done, I shall not do its like again. May it be Your will, O Lord our God, that You forgive me for all my transgressions, and pardon me all my iniquities, and atone me all my sins. Of this it says: “Let the evil man abandon has path…”

In Rabbinic times, before the editing of the classical compendia of prayer about a millennium years ago, which were in turn the precursors of the Siddur as we know it, there were an abundance of different formulae for the various prayers, including the Confession that forms the heart of the Yom Kippur liturgy. Unlike the Vidduy familiar to most of us, with its elaborate double alphabetical enumeration of sins, this confession is brief and totally general, and does not involve specific enumeration of sins. Prof. Moshe Halbertal of the Shalom Hartman Institute once spoke of this and other texts of this ilk appearing in the Yerushalmi, in Siddur Rabbenu Saadyah Gaon, and elsewhere. He suggested that this may reflect a different psychological approach to Yom Kippur: one so aware of the human proclivity to sin, so overwhelmed by the impossibility of fully confessing all the failures and shortcomings committed during the course of a year, that it preferred a general confession of total inadequacy, what the Rav once described as a “declaration of bankruptcy.” Then, too, perhaps there was a sense that there would be something arrogant in too-detailed a confession of sin, as if one were saying to God: “These are the things I’ve done wrong; in everything else I’ve been OK.”

R. Yitzhak and R. Yossi son of Hanina spoke of this. R. Yitzhak says: It is like a person who joins together two planed boards and attaches them to one another. R. Yossi son of R. Hanina said: Like a person who joins together the two supports of a bed and attaches them to one another. “And He shall return to the Lord and He will have mercy on him.”

This passage is based on a rather obscure bit of word play, based upon the similarity of and possibility of substitution among the consonants “L,” “M,” “N,” and “R,” as in the proverbial Chinese waiter who offers his customers “flied lice.” R. Yitzhak replaces the “R” in the word veyerahamehu (“He shall have mercy on him”) by “L” to produce “vayelahamehu” (“He shall join him”); R. Yossi bar R. Hanina substitutes “N” to produce “vayenahamehu” (“He shall comfort him”). In the former case, it simply means that God will “join” or “attach” the former sinner to Himself, like two elements in a finely finished piece of carpentry. Whatever one makes of the rather farfetched pun, the idea itself is a profound one: namely, that there are no bars to the repentant sinner drawing close to God, to becoming as beloved and precious in His eyes as one who had never strayed from the high road, if not indeed more so (see Rambam, Hil. Teshuva 7.4, 6). The second passage, that of R. Yossi b. Hanina, is based on a long defunct bit of halakhic practice: that in olden times, one of the main signs of mourning during shivah was to dismantle the mourner’s bed, and for him to sleep on the ground, perhaps on a straw pallet. The end of the week of mourning was signaled by one of the comforters reassembling the bed frame, a function perhaps similar to that in contemporary practice of the one who at the end of shivah extends his hand to the mourner and tells him to “rise.” Here, too, the message is one, not only of Divine forgiveness, but of God comforting the former sinner of his own feelings of sadness and regret.

The Rabbis and R. Shimon b. Yohai. The Rabbis said: The Holy One blessed be He showed Father Abraham all of the atonements [i.e., various types of sacrifice used for atonement] apart from the tenth of an ephah. R. Shimon bar Yohai said: The Holy One blessed be He even showed Abraham the tenth of an ephah. It says here: “[that is made of] these [things]” (Lev 2:8] and it says there “[and he took all] these” [Gen 15:10]. Just as the word “these” here refers to the tenth of an ephah, so does the “these” there refer to the tenth of an ephah. R. Judah b. Simon in the name of R. Zeira said: the Holy One blessed be He added for him an instrument of forgiveness of his own. And what was that? The tenth of an ephah.

This section requires a bit of explanation. The term “tenth of an ephah” is used here as a generic term for the grain offerings, which forms the subject of Leviticus Chapter 2, the starting point for this midrash—probably because that is the smallest measure of flour used in grain offerings. The allusion to Abraham refers to the “Covenant of the Pieces” (Genesis 15), the night vision in which God appears to Abraham to reveal to him the destiny of his offspring—specifically, the enslavement in Egypt and the eventual redemption and Exodus. In that same encounter, Abraham was commanded to take a group of animals and fowl, which he was to slaughter, cut in half, and place in a row on the ground. God, in the form of a flaming torch and smoke pot, then passed between these pieces. The midrashic tradition (cf. Gen. Rab. 44.13) sees this as a foreshadowing of the future sacrificial use of these animals—which included all the basic species used in offerings: bulls, lambs, goats, doves and pigeons—by Abraham’s children, the people of Israel. There may also be a sense in which Abraham’s act was a kind of initiation of these species as suitable for Jewish sacrifice, so that every sacrifice in turn hearkens back to this mystical moment.

The question asked by our midrash is: Where do the grain offerings fit into the scheme of things? The Rabbis take a commonsense approach: if they are not mentioned in the text of Genesis 15, then they weren’t there; perhaps, as R. Judah b. Simon suggests, God gave them to Israel later, as a special gift. R. Shimon b. Yohai, by contrast, insists that, in order for grain offerings to form part of the repertoire of sacrifices, they must have already been present at the Covenant of the Pieces and, if not mentioned specifically, are surely alluded to obliquely by the use of the word “these” (aileh) in both cases.

What is the dispute about? Perhaps, beyond the idea of the pre-visioning of sacrifices, this midrash picks up on the discussion conducted elsewhere about the role of the grain offerings, the only offerings brought from vegetable matter, in the overall scheme of sacrificial worship. Despite their simplicity, despite their being so much less expensive than even the cheapest animal or bird, they are in no way inferior. Whether they were shown to Abraham, or whether they were added later as a special addition, they are precious in God’s eyes and efficacious in achieving atonement. Of such things it is said, “It matter not whether it be much or little, provided that one turn his heart to Heaven” (m. Menahot 13.10).

Wisdom given to Animals

Last week, in my discussion of Exodus Rabbah 48.3, I puzzled over the passage which, on the basis of the play of ba-hemah / behemah, stated that God placed wisdom in both man and beast. Mark Kirschbaum, in a response sent all the way “from out here in New Orleans,” suggested that this alludes to:

The total elevation of universal consciousness. It’s a theme that appears many times among the mystics, most recently and well known [in] Rav Kook’s argument for vegetarianism, in which there will be animal korbanot, but only when the animals themselves, in a state of higher consciousness, offer themselves up. This concept, whereby the total world karma is jacked up a notch, is found all over the place. I mention it in Mishpatim [i.e., in his Parshah sheet, “Radical Readings”], where the Izhbitzer says that if you maintain civil law, it will transform even your animals.


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