What does it mean to be a human being? Are we the “social animal” of Aristotle? The thinking being of Descartes (“cogito ergo sum” — I think therefore I am)? The Book of Leviticus presents us with a profound answer to this question that also enables us to better understand the deeply misunderstood sacrificial system outlined in this third book of the Bible.
Leviticus begins with God calling to Moses: “Speak to the children of Israel, when any human being (Heb: “adam”) of you shall bring from yourselves a sacrifice to God from the cattle, from the herd or from the flock…”
The use of the word “adam” is curious. Why does the Torah use the most universal term for a person, evoking the first human who ever lived and from whom every single person in existence is descended? Not only does “adam” seem out of place in this particular context, it is not even needed in order to understand the verse.
The Torah, in fact, long precedes Descartes’ observation with the piercing insight, “I sacrifice, therefore I am.” The Torah teaches that the essence of the human being, Jew and non-Jew alike, is his need – and his ability – to sacrifice.
Only the human being, among all of G-d’s creatures, is aware of his own limitations, reflecting on his own mortality. And since “adam” is aware of the painful reality that no matter how strong, powerful or brilliant he may be, he will ultimately be vanquished by death, his only hope is to link himself to a being and a cause greater than he, which was there before he was born and which will be there after he dies.
Most people amass wealth and material goods in order to utilize them for themselves, to enjoy them in the here-and-now. But mortality reminds us that our material possessions do not really belong to us; one day we will be forced to leave them and the entire world behind.
Hence the real paradox: only those objects that we commit to a higher cause, which we give to God: to His Temple; to His study halls, synagogues, and schools; to His homes for the sick; to His havens for the poor – only these are truly ours, because they enable us to live beyond our limited lifetime, perhaps to all eternity. Only that which we sacrifice is really ours!
Jewish history, and the City of Jerusalem, emanate from this fundamental truth present in God’s initial command to Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac on Mount Moriah, known as the Temple Mount in present-day Jerusalem. Isaac was the first olah – whole burnt offering. In effect, God was teaching Abraham that his new-found faith would only endure in history eternally if he, Abraham, were willing to commit to it his most beloved object, ironically, his very future.
In his willingness to make that sacrifice, Abraham secured his eternity. And by means of the seminal story of the Akeidah, the Bible teaches that the most significant sacrifices of all are not our material goods, but rather are our own selves, our time and our effort, our intellects and our unique abilities. A person must sacrifice “mikem,” from yourselves.
Giving a child the gift of a check is hardly as significant as giving a child the gift of our time, our thoughts and our interest. And this, too, God teaches Abraham. God ultimately instructs him not to slay Isaac, but to allow him to live, because the greatest sacrifice we can make is not in dying for God but is rather in living in accordance with His commands and desires. Isaac in life after he descends from the altar is called by our sages an “olah temimah,” a whole burnt offering.
Rashi (France, 11th century), suggests another reason for the seemingly superfluous “adam” in our text. The Biblical commentator par excellence teaches that just as Adam, the first human being, never sacrificed stolen goods, since everything in the world belonged to him, so are we prohibited from sacrificing anything which is stolen [Ibid., based on Vayikra Rabbah 2:7].
Perhaps Rashi is protecting us against an appealing danger inherent in the idealization of sacrifice. We can only sacrifice objects or characteristics that technically, if even in a limited sense, belong to us. We can only sacrifice in a manner, and for a cause, which He commands. Thus, in detailing the sacrifices in the Holy Temple, the Book of Leviticus helps us discover the deeper teaching of not only what it means to be a Jew, but also of what it means to be a human being.
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.