I. Prelude, regarding speech and sacrifice:

This week we will discuss sacrifice, failure and speech. We’ll precede the longer theme with a short teaching that seems to forwshadow the Freudian slip (parapraxes). We will then present an unusual approach to the central Jewish concept of Teshuva, of rapprochement, particularly surprising given the rather ritual text sounding from which it is derived.

Our starting text, Leviticus 7:12, (following the interpretation of Rashi), describes the ritual procedure for the shelamim sacrifice, a peace offering, brought in a spirit of thanksgiving, for an arduous journey or a difficult cure after illness.

The Midrash Rabba, 9:5, reads the verse a bit differently, leading off with an colorful reading of Mishle 14:9, which is traditionally translated as ‘Guilt will mock the foolish, but good will will be found among the upright’. The Midrash reads the first clause, “evilim yalitz asham” as ‘fools will prescribe for themselves an asham, a guilt sacrifice’- in other words, a person will self-justify his sin in advance by thinking, “No problem, I’ll commit this sin, and get away with it by paying off God with a sacrifice”. If I do a religious, ceremonial thing, it will allow me some leeway to do something immoral or illegal and be pardoned, a tit for tat, so to speak. Although in contemporary legal theory there is a view suggesting that infractions are ‘paid for’ by the fines, that is, one can speed if one is willing to pay for doing so, certainly advance justification of a crime by bringing a religious offering can’t be the right thing.

An interesting interpretation of this verse in Mishle, of guilt betraying the sinner, is attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hassidic movement. He reads the Midrash as teaching:

Every sin that a person commits at night, he will surely betray before others the next day in his speech, although they will not be aware of what he is revealing, as he himself is unaware of what he is testifying to…

In other words, a parapraxis, or what is popularly known as a Freudian slip, is an unavoidable manifestation of the individual’s hidden thoughts and fears into language.

II. An All-Consuming Critique of Leadership

In the past I have written about the linkage between failure, or sin, and speech. R. Zadok Hacohen further explicates this connection in his talks on this week’s perasha, so I would like to present two of his teachings in this regard, which I believe in tandem produce an interesting theology of teshuva (repentance), and its relation to the inherent inability to ultimately reconcile intent and action, speech and meaning, which we’ve discussed in the past weeks vis a vis art, technique, and art criticism.

R. Zadok wonders, why is this particular perasha, which deals with the burnt offering, the Olah sacrifice which is burnt until it is nothing but ashes, addressed to Aharon, rather than to Moshe (Moses) or the people of Israel as is the usual case? More to the central question of sacrifice, what exactly is this Olah offering supposed to accomplish? The Talmud refers to it as a doron, a gift (Zevachim 7: ) implying that it doesn’t have a specific purpose in the atonement process, that it is somehow extra, a bonus. After all, for specific sins there are specific sacrifices prescribed. Furthermore, as it says in several places in the Midrash, the twice daily Tamid offering brought atonement upon all in Jerusalem for the sins of that day. So what then does the Olah accomplish?

The answer provided by the Midrash and the Zohar is that the Olah comes to atone for intention rather than action. Hence the unusual address to Aaron, as a critique of an act of haughtiness, his over-presumptuous spirituality at a time of crisis, the crisis of the golden calf episode. What haughtiness? The Midrash relates that Moshe was upset with Aharon because he caused their erroneous action to be upgraded to a felony by shouting to them that their sacrifices to the golden calf had no value (there is a talmudic concept that in certain religious settings it is better that the sinner sin erroneously out of ignorance than be made aware and thus sin intentionally, if the act appears to be inevitable). Now, this seems a puzzling accusation against Aharon; our sense is that he was doing exactly what needed to be done at a critical moment!

R. Zadok explains this strange Midrash as follows- the Midrash states that Aharon hammered away at the idol of the calf proclaiming: See! It has no value! R. Zadok states that his hammering away was a sign that he was so certain of the frank idolatry of the people that no one could interpret their action in any other more sympathetic manner. This thought by Aaron, which we would think is warranted (how quickly we condemn people for much less obvious actions), R. Zadok reads as an aspect of ga’avah, of haughtiness in the mind of Aaron (for after all, many commentators do deny frank idolatryon the part of the people, and perhaps a leader with a less punitive nature may have noted the fear and lack of self sufficiency in a newly liberated slave people; according to the Midrash the Levites, of which Aaron was leader, were exempt from the harsher elements of slavery- as such they might have felt themselves more smugly superior, reading the worst into the people’s actions at all times).

The point is: even when the ‘right thing’ is being done, if deep within the leader’s heart, the motivation may be suspect, then damage is done somewhere, at some point, and as such that kind of problematic thinking must be detected, isolated, and “burned away”, so to speak, so that the outcome for the whole of society is enhanced. Thus the utterly burnt and consumed offering, is the appropriate one to be transmitted through Aharon, who even when cast in the role of the tragic hero, needed to be more critical of his own deep motivations, particularly at such a delicate moment of crisis.

III. The All-Consuming Yearning for Transcendence

But this note, resounding of the tragedy of the human condition, is struck more fully when R. Zadok speculates more generally about the meaning of the Olah. As we noted earlier, he wonders just what role the Olah actually serves, as the atonement function seems somewhat redundant. Thus we come to one of the more remarkable theologies of Teshuva, of repentance, to be found in Jewish writing.

As we noted earlier, the Olah is read to be an atonement for unsuitable thoughts, an atonement for bad intentions, even if not translated into action. Now what does kind of thoughts, then, require an Olah? R. Zadok answers with a quote from the Talmud in Baba Bathra 164:, which states that there are three unavoidable traps into which every person stumbles into every day: Lack of concentration during prayer, speech just on the brink of being gossip, and sinful thoughts. To understand the unique perspective on the human condition that R. Zadok will derive from this teaching, we need to briefly review the classical medieval “gold standard” definition of Teshuva, that presented by Maimonides, or as he is known by his Hebrew acronym, Rambam.

Rambam states in his Laws of Repentance that true Teshuva is attained when God, who knows all hidden things (that is, all our thoughts), can be certain that we would not sin in that way again. Repentance consists of so thorough a cleansing our being from sin that we would not even desire or fantasize about that act again. This is consistent with a medieval Aristotelian conception that with persisten intellectual effort, human thought can be stabilized, controlled, and transformed.

R. Zadok disagrees. To illustrate his reading, R. Zadok returns to the story of Adam, the archetypical Human, whose development may be read as paradigmatic of the rocky road of the developing psyche in all people. R. Zadok points out that for 310 years after disobeying Gd’s command and eating from the Tree, Adam didn’t even attempt teshuva, because he believed that repentance was impossible. Why? Because Adam was a medieval theologian, following the conception codified by Rambam, that one must reach a level of contrition where God could peer into the supplicant’s sould and declare the condition will not recur, that this person’s evil thoughts are in complete remission. So why was this so troubling to Adam? Why did he not even attempt to even contemplate the path of Teshuva?

R. Tzadok answers with a stunning insight: For Adam (and every new infant developing soul which is perhaps what ‘Adam’ signifies) had a level of self-awareness. He knew something about his own motivations, and he knew that something in himself had just changed with this sin- He sensed what it means that for the first time, he had disobeyed, and was now a different man than he was prior to this disobeying. He knew, now in retrospect, that prior to sinning, he was at the most pristine level of innocence possible- one whose psyche was not yet contaminated by disobeying, what is called ‘sin’. Yet, even at this perfect innocent, unsullied stage, when presented with an opportunity to sin, without even knowing what sin meant, he knew he wanted it, and was ready to acquiesce…

That is to say, Humanity, even when at its most perfected state, is never beyond the capacity for error, a willingness to experiment with error seems to be innate, a component of being human. Even pristine, perfected, pre-fall Adam is capable of critically bad judgment. So now, after the sin, after already achieving this fallen state, after already being tainted by the forbidden fruit of sin, how could he possibly ever say of himself that he would be beyond temptation in the future? He wasn’t perfect when he was as perfect as he could be!

Remaining sunk in the depression of immutable sinfulness for over 300 years, according to the Midrah, his fatalistic mode of thinking was transformed after seeing what appeared to be God’s surprising response to Cain’s much more heinous sin. The Midrash says that Cain, after being convicted of murdering his brother, was punished to be a ‘na v’nad’, a phrase consisting of two synonyms for wandering, that is, a ‘wandering wanderer’, one who would find no respite in any place, which seems a minimal but at least from a literary perspective, an apt punishment for the horror of taking a human life.

Cain cries out to Gd that this punishment was too much to bear, this cry being interpreted by the authors of the Midrash as a brute form of very primitive teshuva, leading to to the Divine response of partial clemency- Cain’s sentence was reduced to exile to the Land of Nad (the ‘na’ term was dropped, so fifty percent of his punishment was commuted). So the simple act of engaging God in a moment of despair, even if the despair was primitive and not complete, was enough to commute the sentence in a significant way.

Let us now return to the Talmudic teaching from Bava Bathra regarding the three unavoidable near sins. The Talmud recognizes that everyone is ‘guilty’ of these sins on a daily basis to at least some degree. That is, the Talmud is telling us that there are unavoidable sins which are transgressed by the very nature of being human- the language in Hebrew is ‘Three sins from which no Adam (no human) can be saved’. Absolute perfection, though a worthy pursuit, is in fact, an unattainable goal. The Talmud tells us that there is no escape from error at all times, not in the theological realm and not in the social realm. It is a part of the human condition to be flawed, or to rephrase this thought in contemporary parlance, as Julia Kristeva writes:

‘The existence of psychoanalysis thus reveals the permanency, the inescapable nature of crisis.’

In other words, the ideal form of teshuva as advocated by the Rambam is unattainable by anyone who is human; from a psychological perspective it fixates upon a punitive aspect of the relationship with God and is thus prevents any form of intermediate rapprochement. In reality, however, God, who never expected us to be entirely perfect, is waiting for us to attempt even the most primitive form of teshuva, to draw close in every possible way, even if it is a mere crying out that the punishment is too severe!

R. Tzadok Hacohen of Lublin suggests that the burnt offering functions by summoning up an image of self annihilation, of self transcendence, even though it is a given that it is an unattainable goal. Though we are flawed, or perhaps as a result of it; (I would argue that total obedience as envisioned by the medieval thinkers is incompatible with the freedom involved in imagination and dreaming, which might also explain why Rambam was so disparaging to the concept of imagination) for the purpose of teshuva, it is enough to experience, even for a brief moment, even in a primitive way, such as by contemplation of a totally burnt animal sacrifice, the sense of total submission to Gd. Even as we are aware that our own humanity will preclude this state from actually happening, in our all too human existence. Yes, we know we will fail, but what a great gift it is to know that we are also given the opportunity to rebuild, to reconstruct despite our flaws. No one sincere individual with regrets over injustice committed need think of themselves as being damned for eternity. Even one instant in this mode of thinking, in this insight into being, has to be transformative.

R. Zadok presents evidence of the centrality of willingness to improve (as opposed to a model requiring complete transformation first), from an interesting reading of the Akeda (the binding of Isaac by Abraham). According to R. Zadok, Abraham alone received the command to raise up Yitzchak (Isaac) as a sacrifice, but Yitzchak did not have such a command, and would have been justified had he overcome his father physically and escaped! Yet Yitzchak did not run away, because he was willing to accept total annihilation in order to not prevent his father from actualizing what he perceived to be a command from God. This willingness to sacrifice for what is perceived to be the right intention, even if that moment of spirit will be momentary and fleeting, is what is accomplished by the Olah, an evocation of that burning desire within our souls for the Good even if unattainable.

We saw earlier how a hint of hubris on the part of Aaron, even in a moment of chaos, even when what he was doing can be read as brave heroism, can require atonement. The Hassidic masters demanded impossible levels of spiritual perfection from anyone who would call themselves a ‘leader’ of the people. (Today, one can be a leader of the people even when willing to bomb entire cities with civilian populations). When considering the plight of the true suffering soul, on the other hand, torn by essential humanity and its striving for a greater and holier existence, they recognized the great chasm between inside and outside, intent and action, thought and speech, conditioned by the many unavoidable apects of being human, from the preverbal primary desires through to the challenges of interpersonal adulthood.

In meditating upon the Olah, the burnt offering, R. Zadok reminds us how the greatest strides towards personal transformation are accomplished by even the momentary and imperfect yearning for positive change.

 


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