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Kabbalah Of Self Sacrifice

By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, FL

A presumptuous group of people decided that there was no longer a need for G‑d’s involvement with planet earth. They proceeded to appoint a representative whose mission it was to ask G‑d to kindly turn over the reins and step aside.

After thanking G‑d for having created this marvelous world, the representative proceeded to petition the Almighty that He honor the will of the people and consider retirement.

G‑d was surprisingly amicable; but for one stipulation. G‑d would need to be assured of man’s ability to run things for himself. By way of assurance, the spokesman offered to match G‑d in whatever He should decide to do.

Upon accepting the proposition, G‑d said that he would begin by creating a human being. The man indicated that he was prepared do the same. G‑d took some dirt and started to form a man. Confidently, the man grabbed a handful of dirt and started to do the same. “One minute!” cried G‑d. “You can’t do that; you’re using my sand! How about you begin by making your own!

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On a freezing winter night as Napoleon lay under his warm covers, he was overcome by a sudden bout of thirst. Considering that he would have to leave his cozy conditions and walk across the field to fetch some water, he contemplated ignoring his nagging discomfort, but was quickly overcome by a powerful sense of shame.

“Napoleon! You have become all but lazy,” he said to himself. “There is evidently no difference between you and the common yokel.” With that, he tore himself out of bed and proceeded out the door to fetch some water.

By the time he reached the well, he got to thinking: “Bonaparte, you really ought to be embarrassed of yourself. You are so weak you’d do anything to avoid a little discomfort. Have you no willpower to prevail over a tad of thirst? There is obviously no difference between you and the ordinary Joe.” He immediately 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.”

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“He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire” (Winston Churchill)

As humans we are all aware of our inherent limitations and restrictions. Okay, maybe not all of us, but surely most of us. Whether one subscribes to the nature or the nurture ideology, or both, in whatever proportions, any psychologically sound person is cognizant of how limited and deficient we mortals truly are.  This is not only the case in comparison with the infinite Almighty creator, but with respect to fellow humans as well.

Hardly anyone would deny the expansive and diverse range of human character. 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 and limitless, we would all necessarily be the same.

No person, gifted as he or she may be, can claim every human quality and virtue. Despite our miraculous capacity for free choice, we are each born with our own very distinct set of characteristics and propensities; both of the good and not as good variety.

I, for one, am forever awed by the extent to which genetics appear to play in determining who and what we really are. The older I get the more surreal it becomes. It seems that when we are younger we tend to believe that we have more control over whom and what we are, or might choose to become. As we advance in years the reality of our inherent tenacious character traits, tends to be a bit more sobering.

This, incidentally, is why for me the prevailing mantras: “You can be what whatever you wish,” or “The world is your oyster,” is a gross overstatement. 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 far gone conclusion 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,” goes 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.  

With regards to our present discussion, our humble anatomy is a simple fact of life. It holds true not just in comparison with fellow humans but as regards the lower forms of creation as well. From a purely physical perspective, we humans don’t even measure-up in many ways 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 astonishingly outperforms us humans. In fact some ants, it appears, can carry items that weigh 10 to 50 times their own body weight. Even the most bragging and ostentatious of weightlifting macho males could not be found making such an outlandish claim.

And what about the length of time it takes for the human infant to develop? In this regard man is once again far more inferior to the other species. While the animal is for the most part independent from the moment of birth – needing little if any time and care before it starts to function as an independent organism – man has the longest period 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 strongest and most distinguishing quality. Yet there too, in comparison with the infinite magnitude and scope of the academic and intellectual genre, both in quantity and quality, his abilities are rather miniscule. Ironically, thanks to today’s technology, there are machines that can outpace and outsmart 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 the vast expanse of universal reality and cosmic perfection man is but a midget. Our sages have best summarized the human’s modest anatomy in the following passage:

“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).

With the above in mind, we are at last ready for the sixty four thousand dollar question, namely: Can man actually transcend his restrained 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 own 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 molecules.  If at the core of all our effort and service lies our own heart and mind, what have we 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 man can rather easily rise above himself; in fact we do it all the time by means of our imagination and ability for objective thinking. The answer to this philosophy is 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 “objective thinking” goes, there is simply no such thing. Man is a subjective creature and cannot possibly think in pure objective terms. This is especially the case with regards to matters that involve himself, since in this event he is by definition no longer objective.

This point has been driven home for me when I came across a small book, called “This I Believe,” which caught my attention. The book’s subtitle describes the volume as “The personal philosophies of remarkable men and women.”

The volume is based on an NPR series sharing the book’s name; it features eighty essayists, from the famous to the unknown. The list of better known contributors includes 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,” states the introduction, “Offers a simple, if difficult invitation: Write a few hundred words expressing the core principles that guide your life- your personal credo . . . there is risk in what they did. They wrote of their most closely held convictions.”

The book’s forward 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 personal unique, one time experience. Imagine that; the closely held personal credo and life guiding core principles of all these intellectual important people were based on a single experience, which in almost all cases involved their own personal or professional life. 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 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.

Herein lies the quintessential service of man and the answer to the sixty four thousand dollar 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. 

How is this accomplished? The Torah further asserts, through self sacrifice – by subordinating ourselves, against our own understanding and will, to a higher Divine reality. In other words, the only way for man to transcend his inherent anatomical limitations and restrictions, is by sacrificing his ego and “Selfhood;” – his own intellect and will.

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.

The latter is, perhaps, the greatest challenge of our current generation and culture – a culture that encourages us to view ourselves as the center of all existence.  We must overcome this secular notion, in order to realize deeper meaning and purpose in our existence.

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.