By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, FL
Man’s puny existence
Certain that G-d’s involvement with planet earth was no longer necessary; a presumptuous group of people sent word, requesting that the Master honor the will of His supreme creatures and consider a leave of absence.
Surprisingly amicable; G-d had but one stipulation: He needed assurance of man’s ability to run things on his own. The representative of the people boldly offered to match G-d’s ability in whatever He should decide.
“How about we create a human being,” said G-d. The advocate indicated that he was up to the challenge. G-d proceeded to take some clay and form a man. Confidently, the man did the same. “Hold on a minute!” cried G-d. “You can’t do that; you’re using my clay! You’ll need to begin by making your own!
“Reflect upon three things and you will not come within the hands of sin; know from where you came, whither you are going and before whom you are destined to give a future account and reckoning. ‘From where you came’ – from a fetid drop; ‘Wither you are going’ – to a place of dust, worms and maggots; ‘And before whom you are destined to give an account and reckoning’ – before the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed is He, (Avos 3:1).
We are all aware of our human restrictions and deficiencies. Okay, maybe not all of us, but for sure some. Whether one subscribes to the nature or the nurture philosophy, or both, in whatever proportions, any sound person is cognizant of mankind’s inherent limitations. Not only with regards to the infinite Creator, but even with respect to each other.
No person, gifted as he or she may be, can claim every human quality and virtue. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that the mere existence of human individuality and distinction attests to our limitations and boundaries. If we were all perfect, we would all necessarily be the same.
Despite our miraculous capacity for free choice, we are each born with our own distinct set of characteristics and propensities; both of the good and not as good variety.
The role that genetics play in determining who and what we really are is truly humbling. Despite the exaggerated views that may come with youth, as to our control over the matter, the reality of our inherent tenacious character traits tends to be a bit more sobering as we advance in years.
Mantras such as: “You can be what whatever you choose,” or “The world is your oyster,” are gross overstatements. This distorted notion – which is commonly planted into the minds of the young by well meaning mentors – is patently wrong and misleading.
It is a simple fact of life that if you are five feet tall, your chances of making the NBA are next to zero. If your IQ is below 70, or 80 it’s pretty much a given that you are not destined to be a physicist or Nobel Prize winner. “Wanting,” no matter how badly, even when coupled with the heartiest of efforts, won’t change that reality. “Facts are stubborn things,” is the familiar adage.
It seems rather obvious that teaching children the truth about the disparity of human nature and potential, and how to make the best of the cards we are dealt, would be a far healthier approach than to train them to deny reality.
Our humble anatomy is a simple fact of life. From a purely physical perspective, we humans don’t even measure-up with some of the species of the animal kingdom. No man, for instance, can compete with the swiftness of the deer, the strength of the lion and the vision of the eagle.
Even the puny little ant outperforms us humans. Some ants, purportedly, carry items that weigh 10 to 50 times their own body weight. Even the most bragging weightlifter would not be found making such an outlandish claim.
And what about the human development process? In this regard man is once again inferior to most all species. While most animals are independent from the moment of birth – needing little if any care before functioning as independent organisms – man flounders in a protracted state of infancy and helplessness. Years of nurturing are required before he begins to be self sufficient.
Ah you say, but what about man’s intelligence, this we know is his strongpoint; his most distinguishing quality. Here too, when compared with the vast expanse of intellectual reality, both in quantity and quality, man’s abilities seem once again rather miniscule. Ironically, thanks to today’s technology, there are machines that can outpace the human brain. So much for man’s claim to fame.
The upshot of all the above is that, great as man is, and he is indeed the crown jewel of G-d’s creation, he is nonetheless far from perfect and complete. In contrast with cosmic reality; its scope and perfection, man is but a midget.
Is man bound by his limitations?
On a freezing winter night, Napoleon lay under his warm covers overcome by a powerful bout of thirst, yet the thought of leaving his cozy bed to fetch water from across the field, had him dismiss the nagging discomfort; but only momentarily.
“Napoleon!” he shamefully mused: “You have become all but lazy. There is evidently no difference between you and the common yokel.” With that, he tore himself out of bed and proceeded out the door.
By the time he reached the well, he got to thinking: “Bonaparte, you really ought to be embarrassed. Have you no willpower? You are so weak you’d do anything to avoid a little discomfort. There is obviously no difference between you and the ordinary Joe.” With that he returned to bed without touching a drop of water.
Upon relating this story, the Chasidic master of Lublin (The Chozeh) concluded: “This is what I call strength of character.”
The preceding discussion gives rise to the sixty four thousand dollar question, namely: Can man transcend his puny and limited self? Can he ever reach beyond his individual and physical anatomy – the scope of his own humble, perhaps even flawed, mortal intellect – or is he forever doomed to his mortal genetic fingerprint?
It would be rather disheartening to think that, despite his best efforts, man can never rise above his personal chemical composition or DNA. If at the core of all his effort and service lies his own self; his own heart and mind, what has he gained by it all? If at the peak of the mountain awaits our good old self, of what value is the climb.
Some would argue that it is no big deal for man to rise above himself; in fact we do it all the time by means of our imagination and ability for objective thinking, but that it is plain wrong. While our imagination is certainly far more ethereal and expansive than our tangible, corporeal existence, it is still the product of our own mind and anatomical self.
As far as our ability for “Objective thinking,” there is simply no such thing. Man is a subjective creature and cannot possibly think in pure objective terms. This is especially true regarding matters that involve our own self, since in this event we are, by definition, no longer objective.
This point hit home when I came across a book, called “This I Believe,” described in its subtitle as: “The personal philosophies of remarkable men and women.”
The volume, which is based on an NPR series sharing the book’s name, features eighty essayists, including famous names like Isabel Allende, Colin Powell, Gloria Stinem, William F. Buckley Jr., Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, Newt Gingrich, John McCain and many more.
“This I Believe,” professes to have presented, “A simple, if difficult invitation: Write a few hundred words expressing the core principles that guide your life- your personal credo. It proceeds to argue that “There is risk in what they [the essayists] did. ‘They wrote of their most closely held convictions.’” The book farther asserts that the common tenor of the voices heard in the book was nothing less than “The pursuit of truth.”
Who can resist a book that promises to share, in the name of truth, the “Personal credo and close held conviction” of important movers-and-shaker of the world? So, I launched right in.
To make it short, it did not take long before a conspicuous pattern emerged. Every single essay, bar none, was based on the author’s own, personal, experience. Imagine that! The closely held personal credo and life guiding core principles of all these intellectual important people, are all based on a “Personal experience,” and in most cases a “Single” personal event. What does this say about objective thinking and man’s ability to transcend himself?
So, we are left with the original question: Can man, in the end, reach beyond his individual anatomy and experience? For the true answer we must turn to the book of Vayikra and our Parsha in particular – whose name is also Vayikra – which center themselves around the curious theme of animal sacrifice.
The obvious question is what is the meaning and importance of animal sacrifice that earns it such a central spot in the Torah and in the service of the holy Temple? Does the whole notion not appear backwards and dark-aged?
The answer, according to Chassidus, lies in the very beginning of our Parsha, where the idea of the sacrifice is first introduced: “Speak to the children of Israel,” G-d tells Moshe, “And tell them: ‘A man who will sacrifice from among you a sacrifice to G-d; from a cow, from a bull, and from sheep shall you offer your offering’” (Leviticus 1:2).
The construction of the sentence seems improper. It should have said, “A man from among you who will sacrifice to G-d,” as opposed to “A man who will sacrifice from among you. . .”
The first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, offers the following interpretation. Through this grammatically “flawed” sentence the Torah teaches that the primary sacrifice G-d cherished was not the one that came of animals but rather the one offered from the person himself: “From among you.” We must sacrifice something of ourselves.
The Hebrew word for sacrifice is Korban from the word Karov, which means to get close. The verse is than to be understood as follows: “A man who will sacrifice,” when an individual seeks to make a sacrifice – to get closer to his spiritual G-dly-self, “from among ‘you’ a sacrifice to G-d,” he must remember that the primary sacrifice must be brought from his very own self.
I was once asked to give an informal talk to a group of religiously uncommitted Jews. I elected to focus on “self-sacrifice” as the topic of discussion. Noticeably perplexed, the facilitator asked why I chose this subject. “These are not religious people,” he argued, “are you trying to blow them away?” My answer was rather simple: “I chose this topic because it captures the essence of Judaism.”
The Temple was not only a physical structure that existed in a given time and place, it is rather an ongoing phenomenon that occurs within each one of us. The sacrifices discussed in this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, and throughout much of the book of Leviticus, are about the sacrifices that each of us must perform within our very own sanctuary – with our very own animal instincts and desires – in order to reach a higher level of consciousness.
Self-sacrifice is the quintessential service of man and the answer to our original question: Can man transcend his limited self? Can he reach beyond his personal anatomy – his own humble and flawed mortal intellect and reach higher levels of truth and holiness? The answer, says the Torah, is yes, yes, yes. It is accomplished by subordinating ourselves, against our own understanding and will, to a higher Divine reality.
The latter is, perhaps, the greatest challenge of our current generation. There is no mistaking that self-sacrifice is not a very popular creed in Western culture. It is arguably the very antitheses of everything secular society admires and encourages: A culture that encourages us, from the moment of birth, to view ourselves as the center of all existence – that inculcates the human psyche to seek out and indulge in as many gratifications as possible.
The monumental lesson of our Parsha and the animal sacrifice phenomenon is hence of particular importance. We must, now more than ever, learn to overcome this secular notion, in order to realize deeper meaning and purpose in our existence. We must discover the Divine way; the only way, for man to transcend his inherent anatomical limitations and restrictions. We must learn how to buck the common trends; how to sacrifice our ego and “Selfhood;” – our own intellect and will to the higher Divine will.
Through our sacrifices and self abnegation to the Divine higher will, we will indeed transcend ourselves and elevate thereby the entire world, making it ready for the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.