Parshat Vayikra: The Olah

“Speak to Bnai Yisrael and say to them, “When a person from among you offers a sacrifice to Hashem, you should offer your sacrifice from cattle, sheep or goats”. (VaYikra 1:2)

This pasuk introduces the discussion of the Olah sacrifice. This sacrifice was completely consumed on the altar. Although many sacrifices are obligatory, the Olah could be brought as a freewill offering. In our pasuk Hashem addresses himself to Bnai Yisrael. This does not mean that non-Jews cannot offer sacrifices. The Talmud explains that non-Jews may offer sacrifices in the Bait HaMikdash. Maimonides explains that the non-Jew may offer a freewill Olah sacrifice. Maimonides adds that even a non-Jew who is an idolater can offer a sacrifice. Our Sages derive an important law from our passage. Only some Jews can offer a sacrifice. Any Jew who practices idolatry is excluded. This exclusion is extended to a Jew who profanes Shabbat publicly. This person’s sacrifice is not accepted for offering in the Bait HaMikdash.

This presents an interesting problem. Why is the sacrifice of a non-Jewish idolater accepted but the sacrifice of a Jewish idolater rejected? It seems that the affiliation of the individual with idolatrous practices does not disqualify the sacrifice. Instead, we apparently assume that the sacrifice is intended for the Almighty regardless of the general affiliation of the idolater. If so, why is the Jew’s offering unacceptable?

We can make one immediate deduction. We assume that any sacrifice brought to the Temple is sincerely intended for Hashem. For this reason we accept the non-Jewish idolaters offering. This suggests a second conclusion. In order for a sacrifice to be accepted two conditions must be met. First, the sacrifice must be suitable. Second, the sacrifice must be brought by an appropriate individual. A sacrifice brought by an idolater is apparently suitable for the altar. However, acceptance or rejection of the offering is also based on appropriateness of the person bringing the offering. The non-Jew’s idolatry does not disqualify the individual from bringing a sacrifice. These practices do disqualify the Jew. Why do the same practices disqualify the Jew but not the non-Jew? We must conclude that the Jew is not disqualified simply as a result of idolatrous practices. If this were the criterion, the non-Jewish idolater would also be disqualified. Instead, the rejection of Jew is a consequence of a defect in the individual’s Kedushat Yisrael ­ sanctity as a Jew. Idolatry is a contradiction to this sanctity and taints it. It is this defect in the Kedushat Yisrael of the individual that disqualifies the Jew from offering a sacrifice. The non-Jew is not endowed with Kedushat Yisrael. Therefore, idolatry ­ although sinful ­ cannot create a defect in the person’s Kedushat Yisrael.

This approach can provide an answer to another difficult problem. Maimonides explains that heresy results in a forfeiture of one’s portion in Olam HaBah. He defines heresy broadly. He basically includes rejection of any of the thirteen fundamental principles of the Torah. These principles include the concept of the Messianic era and the derivation of the Torah from Sinai. Maimonides maintains that a non-Jew can earn a portion in Olam HaBah. This is accomplished through observance of the seven laws given to the descendants of Noah. It is not necessary for the non-Jew to accept the thirteen fundamental principles of the Torah. How can we explain this double standard? The Jew who rejects any of the fundamental principles cannot participate in Olam HaBah. The non-Jew is not held to this standard. Our approach resolves this issue. The non-Jew is not required to accept the Torah. Therefore, rejection of one of the Torah’s fundamental principles does not disqualify the person from a portion in Olam HaBah. However, the Jew is required to accept these principles. They are the essence of Kedushat Yisrael. Rejection of any one of the fundamentals is a basic defect in the Jew’s sanctity. It is this defect in the individual’s sanctity that disqualifies the Jew from participating in Olam HaBah.

“If his sacrifice is an Olah offered from the cattle, it should be an unblemished male. One must bring it of his own free will to the entrance of the Ohel Moed, before Hashem.” (VaYikra 1:3)

An Olah can be brought as a freewill offering. This is accomplished by the person making a vow to bring an Olah sacrifice. The pasuk seems to express two contradictory requirements. It tells us that once a person vows to bring an Olah, it must be offered. The passage then states that the offering must express the freewill of the person. In order to appreciate the contradiction in these requirements, consider a simple example. A person vows to bring an Olah. This individual then experiences a change of heart and no longer wishes to offer the sacrifice. The first requirement in the pasuk dictates that the offering must be brought. However the second requirement demands the freewill of the person. The person no longer wishes to bring the offering. If we force the person to comply with the requirement to offer the sacrifice, freewill will be absent.

The Talmud discusses this issue in Tractate Erichin. The Sages explain that the person is indeed forced to bring the offering. However, the courts exert pressure on the individual to proclaim that he or she wishes to bring the sacrifice. In this manner both requirements of the passage are fulfilled. The sacrifice is brought. It also represents the freewill of the person. This concept seems bazaar. The person is forced to proclaim that the sacrifice represents an expression of freewill. How can any action resulting from force be construed as an expression of freewill?

Maimonides discusses this issue in his Mishne Torah. He explains that a person wishes to fulfill the commandments of the Torah. However, at times one may be overcome by powerful, evil impulses. These impulses interfere with the person’s better judgment. The courts can pressure the person to fulfill the Torah’s commandments. In such cases, the courts are merely weakening the influence of the evil impulse. Once this impulse is overcome, the individual can act according to his or her authentic will. The resulting performance of the Torah’s mitzvah is an expression of the person’s true desires.

These comments are difficult to understand. Maimonides argues that the person truly wishes to observe the commandments. Any refusal to fulfill the obligations of the Torah is an expression of an evil impulse. This impulse has overcome the person’s true desires. Therefore, through applying force, the courts are merely allowing the underlying desires of the individual to gain expression. A skeptic could easily argue that the opposite is true. The skeptic would posit that the evil impulses represent the real desires of the person. The court, through its influence, has suppressed these true desires. The court has superimposed its own wishes upon the individual! Why does Maimonides feel that his view is more valid than the skeptic’s perspective?

The first step in resolving this issue is to recognize that Maimonides is not offering a psychological analysis of human motivation. From a psychological perspective, the views of the skeptic are as plausible as Maimonides assertion. It is likely that both are right. Some people are accurately described by Maimonides. Others fit the description provided by the skeptic. If Maimonides is not providing a psychological description of human nature, what is he describing?

It seems that Maimonides is positing that halacha provides a basic set of assumptions regarding human nature. Every human being has various motivations. Some are more basic to human nature. Other motivations are the result of passing desires. Halacha must determine which represent the basic nature of the individual. It is not possible for halacha to examine the inner life of each and every person. Instead, halacha establishes a legal definition of human nature. In this legal description the desire to perform commandments is regarded as more basic than the evil impulses. A simple example will help illustrate this concept. Assume an animal gores. The owner of the animal must pay for the damage. The first time the animal gores, the owner pays for half of the resultant damage. However, once the animal has established a pattern of destructive behavior, the owner becomes fully liable for the full damage caused. Now assume that an animal with an established pattern of destructive behavior gores. Do we know that this incident was a result of the animal’s nature? Perhaps the animal was incited! Why do we assume that the animal was responding to a destructive impulse in its nature? The answer is that we do not make any assumption regarding the true psychological motivations of the beast. The psychology is irrelevant. The animal’s nature has been determined in the reality of halacha. Halacha relies on this determination in interpreting the future behavior of the animal.

In short, halacha deals with its own legal construction of the animal’s behavior. It is not concerned with the actual psychology of the beast. Similarly, halacha makes assumptions about human motivation. These are legal assumptions. They are not assertions regarding psychology.

“And he shall press his hands on the head of the Chatat. And He shall slaughter the Chatat in the place of the Orah.” (VaYikra 4:29)

This pasuk discusses the Chatat sacrifice. The Chatat is brought to atone for the violation of a negative command. The pasuk explains that the person bringing the sacrifice must press upon the head of the animal. This process is accompanied with a confession of the sin for which the sacrifice is to atone. What is the purpose of confessing over the sacrifice and pressing upon the animal’s head? The commentaries offer a number of explanations. One of the most insightful is provided by Gershonides. He explains that every sin requires repentance. One of the objectives of repentance is to encourage the person to change and not repeat the wrongdoing. In order for this objective to be met, the sinner must know that atonement has occurred. Without atonement, the motivation for change is undermined. If the sinner feels that atonement and forgiveness are not achievable, this individual will conclude that nothing is gained from repentance. The confession and pressing upon the head of the animal communicate the concept of atonement. The sin is symbolically transferred to the sacrifice. The person bringing the offering is cleansed of the sin. Atonement has occurred. The person knows that now a new start, free from the taint of the sin is possible.

 

Mesechet Menachot 73b. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Ma’aseh HaKarbanot 3:2. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Ma’aseh HaKarbanot 3:4. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 8:11. Mesechet Erichin 21a. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Gerushin 2:20. Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1997), pp. 2-3.