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Right to Life vs. Right Life

Vayikra (Leviticus 1-5 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

This week we begin reading the Book of Leviticus, the book of the Torah to which the modern person has the greatest difficulty relating. It is all about the rules of sacrifices, and the whole idea of offering physical sacrifices to an incorporeal God seems barbaric if not downright sacrilegious to the modern mind.

And yet, according to Torah, the practice of bringing sacrifices seems to be one of the most fundamental and elementary of all human ideas.

The Book of Genesis informs us that the very first significant activity in which human beings engaged following the expulsion from the Garden of Eden was the bringing of sacrifices.

In fact, the bringing of this first sacrifice provides the background to the first human tragedy to occur outside the Garden of Eden, in the present realm of human existence.

Let us try to discover how the idea of bringing sacrifices, the first idea that humans came up with, managed to become so remote that it even seems barbaric.

Abel became a shepherd, and Cain became a tiller of the ground. After a period of time, Cain brought an offering to God of the fruit of the ground; and as for Abel, he also brought the firstlings of his flock and from their choicest. God turned to Abel and to his offering, but to Cain and his offering He did not turn. This annoyed Cain exceedingly, and his countenance fell.

And God said to Cain, "Why are you annoyed and why has your countenance fallen? Surely, if you will improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door. Its desire is toward you, and yet you can conquer it."

Cain spoke with his brother Abel. And it happened when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. (Genesis 4:2-8)

The commentators explain that Cain brought the most inferior sort of offering (some say seeds of flax), while Abel brought the best of his sheep. Therefore, God rejected Cain's offering as inferior and accepted Abel's. Cain's jealousy of the recognition and warmth God demonstrated towards Abel was the motive behind his act of fratricide.

Yet, why couldn't Cain understand that Abel had brought an objectively superior offering? God was not demonstrating an unjust preference for Abel, which could understandably solicit Cain's jealous reaction. He was merely accepting the superior offering. After all, as the text points out, Abel had brought his best while Cain offered his worst.

Cain's Idea

The Maharal points to an even more perplexing problem. A close examination of the passage reveals that the idea of bringing the sacrifice to God originated with Cain, not Abel. We are informed that Cain brought an offering and Abel 'also' brought one.

The very name for Abel in Hebrew comes from the word Hevel, which literally means "air" or "nothing." In comparison with Cain, who was an original thinker, Abel was a lightweight. In fact while God accepted Abel's offering [a fire came down from heaven and consumed Abel's sheep on the altar] it was to Cain rather than Abel that God chose to speak. It was he who was the prophet (a person to whom God speaks).

How then can we understand Cain? Why bring a sacrifice in the first place unless you intend to offer your best? If you are not prepared to bring something of value, who asked you to bring one in the first place? Why go out of your way to insult God?

Although puzzling at first glance, a moment's reflection is adequate to cast Cain's actions in a perfectly reasonable light. After all, what is the purpose of offering God a sacrifice? He clearly doesn't need the gift. The sacrifice obviously expresses man's gratitude to God for all the bounty He has received, as well as providing symbolic acknowledgement of God as the creator and the source of all bounty. It isn't the gift that is significant, but the symbolic act of acknowledgement.

Indeed, one could even argue that to offer something really expensive smacks of presumption. God clearly doesn't need man's puny gift. Thinking all this out, Cain decided to bring an offering, but deliberately chose something insignificant so that no one could possibly think that he was so presumptuous as to think that God actually needed his present.

Abel, who was merely following Cain's lead, and didn't think the matter through as thoroughly, obviously reasoned that if offering sacrifices was a good thing, than the better the gift the more worthy the sacrifice. Surely, it was Abel who misunderstood. Why did God then reject Cain's sacrifice?

The answer to this question is fundamental to understanding Divine service. The discovery of Cain's mistake will also explain why we modern people can't relate to the Book of Leviticus.

Cain did the sensible thing if we assume that the object of bringing sacrifices to God is contained in the offering itself. In terms of giving God gifts, Cain was certainly correct. Surely the less the better is the correct maxim.

But if the point of presenting offerings to God is not in the gifts, but rather the offering of oneself to God through the medium of the gifts, you have to do what Abel did, and offer something that is meaningful to yourself. You cannot sacrifice the self without engaging in an act that requires self-sacrifice.

Thus the first conclusion – the idea of offerings to God is sacrificing yourself to God.


To understand it better, let us examine where the mention of sacrifices crops up in the text of the Shmonei Esrai prayer that we recite three times daily.

Maimonides separates the obligation to pray into three separate elements. (Yad Hachazaka, Laws of Prayer, Ch.1,2):

  1. First, the supplicant must utter God's praises, which we do in the first three blessings of the prayer.
  2. Then he should ask God to provide his daily needs, which we do in the middle blessings.
  3. Finally, he should express his thanks for the bounty that God has showered on him, which we do in the final three blessings.

Interestingly enough, we incorporate the mention of the Temple sacrifices in the third and final section of our prayers, the section that is devoted to expressing our gratitude to God.

The Talmud explains (Brochot 26b) that since the destruction of the Temple our prayers serve a dual purpose. The first function of our prayers is to carry out the commandment to pray, as described by Maimonides, and to follow a Jewish custom that originates with Abraham. But a second major function of our prayers is to serve as the replacement of the Tamid sacrifice, a twice daily offering that the Jewish people were obligated to bring when the Temple stood.

As the oral substitution for the physical sacrifices is one of the chief functions of our daily prayers, it seems reasonable to assume that the daily Tamid sacrifice also had something to do with thanksgiving. Otherwise there seems little rationale for inserting the prayer that substitutes for and commemorates the Tamid into the thanksgiving portion of our prayers.

Thus the second conclusion – the idea of offerings to God has something to do with expressing gratitude and thanksgiving.

Giving Thanks

Let us therefore focus on the association between thanksgiving and sacrifice. While we utter the words "thank you" many times a day, the Torah concept of gratitude, known as hakoras hatov, is not necessarily familiar to us.

In fact, there are two aspects to gratitude: emotional and rational. When someone is the recipient of some benefit voluntarily bestowed, he or she experiences a feeling we define as gratitude. But, while the feeling is clear, the rationale for it is not.

Because God is remote to us, let us explore the rational element of this emotion in the context of the gratitude we feel towards our parents. In pursuing this course we are following the path of Jewish tradition. The Talmud (Kidushin, 30b,31a) develops the idea that our relationship to our parents is the proper model to employ as the proper guide to our relationship to God.

In theory, gratitude to parents is an obvious moral imperative. Our parents gave us life, love, our values, a good part of our early education so we certainly owe them a great deal. And yet, did they do any of this for us?

Surely, people decide to conceive their children because they want to have children for their own personal fulfillment, not to confer any benefit on the children themselves, who are not even in existence at the time when the decision is made to have them. Having had their children for their own gratification, parents are then obliged to care for and educate them for their own sakes, once again. Aside from the fact that children represent their parents in the most fundamental way, no one thinks very highly of people who neglect their children and do not care for them properly. Parents take care of their children for their own prestige.

So why do we owe them gratitude when they clearly are engaged in family management for their own self interest? In fact do we rationally owe anyone gratitude for anything? How many times in our lives will we encounter someone who does something purely for us, without any interest in what this something will bring himself?

For example, the person who offers me a job is presumably acquiring an excellent employee in return. My teacher gets paid for sharing his store of information with me. My country expects me to be a good citizen and pay my taxes in return for the services it provides me, and besides, I increase the size of its population and therefore its prestige by my existence.

Whenever the emotional element of gratitude predominates – as it always does with parents, and most often in other situations in which we interact with other human beings – the lack of an intellectual rationale for the feeling of gratitude is not necessarily significant. Our actions tend to reflect our emotions and therefore as long as we feel gratitude we will behave accordingly whether there is a rational basis or not.

But when we interact with God, the intellectual aspects of the relationship generally predominate over the emotional ones.

Rational Basis For Gratitude

God to us is abstract and incorporeal, and our major connection with Him in the post Temple period is through our minds. Unless we can provide a rational basis for gratitude, we will have considerable difficulty in either feeling or expressing such an emotion toward God.

And yet, the identical arguments that militate against feeling any obligation towards parents can be applied against the sense of obligation imposed by the gratitude to God. He also created us for His own good reasons. And even if tradition teaches us that His primary motive was to bestow benefits on us, nevertheless it was His own need to provide us with this bounty that motivated Him.

The key to the rational appreciation of gratitude lies in understanding the difference between rights and obligations.

Suppose that I have a right to life and to equality as many of us believe. Then someone who supplies me with life or offers me equality of opportunity is merely supplying me with what is my due. This obviously imposes no obligation on me whatever. On the contrary the person who denies me my rights presents me with grounds for resentment and possible retaliation. The person who treats me as I have a right to be treated is merely executing his own obligations.

Almost everyone remembers having an argument with his parents where he ended up saying, "You can't tell me what to do! It's my life, not yours!" Existentially, at the root of any relationship where the provision of life itself is involved, the question of ownership is bound to crop up. The parent who has sacrificed a good part of his life and resources to raise his child feels a certain degree of proprietorship over his offspring's life and future. The child has a feeling that his life is his own and belongs only to himself. The parent approaches the relationship from the standpoint of obligations, while the child regards the relationship from behind the shielding barrier of his rights. Who is correct?

If we apply the same model to our interaction with God, we come up with the following picture. Tradition teaches that God not only created us, but also sustains us through every moment of our lives. Do we have any right to demand this of Him? Certainly not! But if we have no right, than our lives do not belong to us obligation free. God gave us our lives and keeps on giving them to us without our having any claim against Him. If we are then asked to pay for what we receive, can we raise any rational objection?

Of course, theoretically, we could argue that we don't want the gift of life at all, and never asked for it, but in fact, most of us are quite attached to ourselves and to our lives and would be dishonest in presenting this argument as a defense. Does it make any difference what God's motives were in giving us our lives? Not one iota. As long as we are living the life supplied by Him we are obligated to pay for it if we want it. Obviously, if His conditions are not met, He is at perfect liberty morally to withdraw what we have no right to demand. As we do not want Him to do this, we are under obligation to do His will.

Recognition Of Obligation

The offering of sacrifices to God is the recognition of the existence of this obligation. That is why it is called avoda, or "service." However, the precise translation of the Hebrew word avoda is "slavery." We translate it as service because slavery is no longer a phenomenon that is part of our world.

But precisely for the reasons that we abolished slavery is slavery the proper way to describe our inter-relationship to God. We rejected the idea of human beings owning each other because of our basic belief in the right to equality, which implies that every human being's life belongs to himself.

But in fact our lives are supplied to us by God and are His, not ours. The moral obligation imposed on us by the willing acceptance of the Divine gift of life is equal in measure to life itself and can only be properly characterized as slavery.

If we now return to the sacrifices of Cain and Abel, we can understand much better the issues involved.

The bringing of a sacrifice must express the idea that the person making the offering acknowledges that he belongs entirely to God. The return of the life force of the sacrificed item to its origin in God symbolizes the donor's declaration that his own life also belongs to God as its originator and constant supplier.

Cain was not willing to recognize this. He wasn't offering himself back to God, he was offering God a gift in recognition of all that God had given him. Cain was assuming a "right" to exist. They way he saw it: there was he, Cain, and there was God, two beings both existing as of right. God was no doubt more powerful and Cain was His dependant, but as he also had a right to exist, in supporting Cain's existence God was only doing what was right. No doubt Cain felt he had to say thank you and acknowledge the benefits that God showered on him. And he thought that his sacrifice was the right way to express his thanks.

And God said to Cain, "Why are you annoyed and why has your countenance fallen? Surely, if you will improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door. Its desire is toward you, and yet you can conquer it."

God was trying to teach Cain that his attitude was the gateway to sin. The root of sin is the same cry we utter to our parents, "It's my life, so don't tell me what to do!" The Book of Leviticus teaches us the proper way to surrender this feeling.

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