Leviticus: Perashat Tzav — Burning Desires

I. Prelude, regarding speech and sacrifice:

This week we will discuss sacrifice and speech. Those of you who are fans of psychoanalysis and are looking for confirmation within Jewish sources, pay careful attention to the opening teaching, with its foreshadowing of parapraxes. After noting that briefly, we will present a surprising approach to the concept of Teshuva, of rapprochement.

Turning in our hymnals to Leviticus 7:12, and in Rashi, we see described the procedure for the shelamim, a peace offering brought in a spirit of thanksgiving for an arduous journey or a difficult cure. The Midrash Rabba, 9:5, reads the verse a bit differently, starting with an alternate possible reading of Mishle 14:9, traditionally read as ‘Guilt will mock the foolish, but good will will be found among the upright’. The Midrash reads the first clause as ‘fools will prescribe for themselves a guilt offering’- the foolish person will self-justify his sin by saying, I’ll commit this sin, and get away with it by bringing the requisite sacrifice. If I do the religious thing, I’ll get away with it, 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 seems an absurdity (the Midrash continues by spelling out an offense which certainly fueled much nineteenth century literature, look it up’). An alternate reading of this verse in Mishle, that ‘fools will interpret for themselves a sin offering’, attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hassidic movement, is cited in the collection entitled Baal Shem Tov al HaTorah. He reads the Midrash as saying, and here I will quote:

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 translation of the individual’s concerns 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. First, R. Zadok asks, why is this particular perasha, which deals with the burnt offering, the Olah and its ashes, addressed to Aharon, rather than to Moshe or the people of Israel as is the usual case? Secondly, what exactly is this Olah offering supposed to accomplish? The Talmud refers to it as a doron, a gift (Zevachim 7: ). After all, for specific sins there are specific sacrifices prescribed. And in a general way, as it says in several places in the Midrash, the Tamid brought twice daily brought atonement upon all in Jerusalem for the sins of the day. So what then does the Olah accomplish?

The answer for both of these questions relates to the reading of the Midrash and the Zohar, that the Olah comes to atone for intention rather than action. For Aharon, the wayward thought was of haughtiness, manifested as over-presumptuous spirituality at a time of crisis. The Midrash links the Olah to Aharon because of the golden calf episode. It states 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. Now, this seems a puzzling accusation against Aharon, considering the harsher type of language used by later religious leaders for substantially lesser offenses than the golden calf; our sense is that he was doing exactly what needed to be done at a critical moment! R. Zadok explains the Midrash as follows- the Midrash states that Aharon hammered away at the idol 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 R. Zadok reads as an aspect of ga’avah, of haughtiness in his action (for after all, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, many commentators do deny frank idolatry in this episode, and perhaps a leader less punitive in immediate response might have noted the fear and lack of self sufficiency in a newly liberated slave people- according to the Midrash the Levites were exempt from the harsher elements of slavery- perhaps as such they might have felt themselves somewhat more smugly superior, reading the worst into the people’s actions at all times). Even when the ‘right thing’ is being done, if deep within the leader the motivation is suspect, then damage is done somewhere, at some point, and as such it must be detected, isolated, and burnt out. Thus this particular sacrifice, the utterly 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 with his own deep motivations, particularly at a 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 talks generally 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. 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 traps into which every person stumbles into every day: Lack of concentration during prayer, speech just approaching gossip, and sinful thoughts. To understand the great leap forward in understanding the human condition that R. Zadok will derive from this teaching, it is worthwhile reviewing the classical medieval statement on Teshuva, that of Maimonides, or as he is known by his Hebrew acronym, Rambam. Rambam states in his Laws of Repentance that true Teshuva is where Gd, who knows all hidden things (that is, all our thoughts), knows that we would not sin in that way again. Repentance consists of so cleansing our being from sin that we do not even desire or fantasize. This is consistent with a medieval Aristotelian conception that ultimately, thought can be stabilized, controlled, and elevated.

R. Zadok disagrees. To illustrate his reading, R. Zadok returns to the story of Adam, the archetypical man, whose development may be read as paradigmatic of the rocky road of the developing psyche in everyone. 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 it was impossible. Why? Because he was a medieval thinker, because of the conception codified by Rambam, that one must reach a level of contrition where Gd could peer into him and declare the condition will not recur, that the 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? For Adam (and every new infant developing soul which is what ‘Adam’ perhaps signifies) has a level of self-awareness. He knew something about himself, and he knew that something has just changed. He knew that at this moment, he had disobeyed, for the first time in history, and prior to this disobeying he had never disobeyed before. 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 unsallied stage, when presented with an opportunity to sin, without even knowing what it is, he knew he wanted it, and was ready to acquiesce. That is to say, Humanity, even when at its most perfected, is never beyond the capacity for error, it seems to be innate, built in to the essence of being human. Even pristine perfected pre-fall Adam is capable of critically bad judgement. So now, after the fact, recognizing this unfortunate glitch in the human psyche, after already achieving this fallen state, after already being tainted by the forbidden fruit (as it were) of sin, how could he possibly ever say of himself that he could be beyond temptation in the future? (This is akin to the line about the adolescent and the light bulb: How many teenagers does it take to change a light bulb? ‘Why bother, it will just burn out again!’) Remaining sunk in the depression of immutable sinfulness, his fatalistic mode of thinking was transformed after the lesson in Gd’s surprise response to Cain’s sin. The Midrash says that Cain after conviction 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 cried out to Gd that this punishment was too much to bear, this cry being read by the authors of the Midrash as a brute form of very primitive teshuva, which led to to the Divine response of partial clemency- his sentence was reduced to exile to the Land of Nad (the ‘na’ term was dropped, so to speak). So the simple act of engaging Gd, by even protesting deserved suffering, was enough to commute the sentence in a significant way.

Let us now return to the Talmudic teaching from Bava Bathra quoted above. 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 worthy for the individual to strive for, 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 Gd and is thus prevents any form of rapprochement. In reality, however, Gd, 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 crying out that the punishment is too severe! Thus, R. Tzadok Hacohen of Lublin suggests, the burnt offering functions by summoning up an image of self annihilation, even though it is clear to us that we will not be capable of such great sacrifice. Though we are flawed, or perhaps as a result of it; (I suspect that total obedience is incompatible with the freedom involved in imagination and dreaming, which might also explain why Rambam was so disparaging to imagination) for the purpose of teshuva, it is enough to experience, even for a brief moment, even in a primitive model such as by contemplation of an animal sacrifice totally consumed, the sense of total submission to Gd. Even though 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. No one need be damned for eternity, as some would have it. Even one instant in this mode of thinking, in this insight into being, has to be transformative. R. Zadok presents as evidence an interesting reading of the Akeda, in which although Abraham has the command to attempt to raise up Yitzchak as an Olah, Yitzchak did not have such a command and would have been justified had he overcome his father physically and run away! Yet he did not do so, because he was willing to accept total annihilation in order to not prevent his father from understanding this message from Gd, as he perceived it at the time. This willingnes to utter submission, even with the recognition that as human beings it must be momentary and fleeting, is what is accomplished by the Olah.

We saw earlier how a small bit of hubris on the part of Aharon, 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 willing to carpet bomb entire cities worth of 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, R. Zadok reminds us how the greatest strides towards personal transformation are accomplished by even the momentary and imperfect yearning for positive change.

Mark H. Kirschbaum, MD, is a hematology and cancer specialist based in Duarte, CA.
tags: Torah Commentary   
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