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Finding Our True Essence

Vayikra (Leviticus 1-5 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Vayikra, 1:3: “…he will offer it according to his will, before God.”

Rashi, 1:3, Dh: Yakriv oto: “This teaches us that they force him; you might think that it is again his will, so it comes to teach us, ‘according to his will’, how can that be? They force him until he says, ‘I want to’.

Right at the beginning of the mitzvah of Korbanot (sacrifices), a contradiction arises: Based on the Torah verses, the Talmud1, cited by Rashi, states that in order for a sacrifice to be valid, it must be offered by the person willingly. Yet, the same Talmud also derives from the verses, that if a person does not want to bring an offering which he is obligated to bring, then the Court (Beit Din) can and should force him to give it. The obvious problem is how the Torah can describe that the person gave the sacrifice willingly, when he was forced to do so?

The Gemara explains that Beit Din forces him until he says that he wants to, but this does not seem to fully address the problem, as it certainly seems like he is still being coerced to say this.

The answer is found in the words of the Rambam in his discussion of the laws of divorce. There are certain situations where a man marries a woman to whom he is forbidden – the marriage is valid, but it involves transgression of a prohibition2. In such cases, Beit Din forces the man to give the Get; the same issue arises, that a get is only valid if given with the full consent of the husband, and again, the answer is given that Beit Din force him to give the get until he reaches the point where he says, ‘I consent’. The same question arises, how can this declaration be considered a full consent, given the coercion that brought it about? The Rambam3 explains:

We do not say something is duress, except for one who is pressured and coerced into doing something that he is not obligated to do by the Torah, such as one who is struck until he sells or gives [something]. However, one whose yetser hara (negative inclination) overcomes him to not do a mitzvah or to commit a sin, and he is struck until he does something that he is obligated to do or until he [is forced] to distance himself from a forbidden matter, rather he put himself under duress with his own bad [call of] conscience.

The Rambam is teaching us a very important principle. Each Jew deep down wants to do the right thing. Accordingly, when he is forced to perform a mitzvah or avoid a sin, we say that his true essence wants to do the right thing, and it is just his yetser hara that is misleading him to think he wants to do the wrong thing. Consequently, when he is forced to do the right thing, it is not viewed as if he did it out of coercion, rather that he did it willingly, just that he needs to be coerced in order to tap into his inner desire.

In this vein, Rav Shlomo Wolbe4 explains with regard to the Torah’s exhortation not to follow the desires of our heart and eyes. He points out that the ‘you’ of a person is not the same as the person’s desires – the yetser hara tricks us into thinking that those desires are our essence, but in truth, our soul is our true essence, and the soul wants to do God’s will.

These ideas help address the common feeling of failure and guilt that a person may feel when he errs. It is easy to fall into the trap with identifying one’s essence with these failings and view oneself as ‘bad’. In truth, our inherent nature is good, and deep down we know the true path. Rabbi Noach Weinberg used to often make this point, based on the teaching of the Sages that each person is taught all of the Torah while in the womb, and when he is born, an Angel comes and taps him above his lip and he forgets the Torah. However, the Torah does not go away from him, rather it goes deep inside him, and it this deep awareness of Torah that enables countless Jews to return to Torah, because deep down the inherent truth of Torah is a part of them.

It can be easy to forget these ideas, when a person looks at his failings and flaws, but the correct attitude is to realize that all this is just dirt surrounding the true essence of a person. In this vein, the great sculptor, Michelangelo, was once asked how he was able to sculpt the image of King David from a piece of rock. He answered that King David was already there, he just had to remove the material surrounding him5. So too, each person’s soul is inherently good and pure, it is just that ‘dirt’ has amassed around it. By removing the dirt, each of us can find our inherent greatness, and do what we really want to do, which is to connect to God.


1. Rosh HaShana, 6a.
2. For example, a Kohen who marries a divorced woman. There are other cases, where even if a man and woman try to get married, the marriage is totally invalid, such as a brother and sister, or a man and an already married woman.
3. Hilchot Geirushin, 2:20.
4. Cited by Rabbi Daniel Fine, ‘Still Thinking – Still Aloud’, p.198.
5. Heard from Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser.

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