Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Whose glass is this anyway? / Vayikra

Ah, the eternal conundrum: Is your glass half full or half empty?
Parshat Vayikra and indeed, all of the Book of Leviticus, reads like a priestly manual on making sacrifices. Here’s a typical passage:
And if his offering is a goat, he shall bring it before the Lord, and lay his hand upon its head. It shall be slaughtered before the Tent of Meeting, and Aaron’s sons shall dash its blood against all sides of the altar. He shall then present as his offering from it, as an offering by fire to the Lord, the fat that covers the entrails and all the fat that is about the entrails, the two kidneys and the fat that is on them, that is at the loins, and the protuberance on the liver, which he shall remove with the kidneys. The priest shall turn these into smoke on the altar as food, an offering by fire, of pleasing odor. (Leviticus 3:12-17)
People often ask: Why would people make sacrifices? Isn’t this terribly primitive? Why give up something valuable for no reason -- it’s just getting burned up, what a waste?

But perhaps the question to ask is: How can you not?

At the core of offering sacrifices are the notions of OWNERSHIP and ENTITLEMENT. We think we own all we possess, and we’re entitled to it, and to a good deal more: We’re entitled to a storybook childhood and wonderful parents. We’re entitled to partners who meet our every need, and model children who make us kvell 24/7. We’re entitled to the opportunities, education, jobs, bosses, coworkers, and neighbors of our dreams. We’re entitled to the talents, skills, personal and physical attributes we know we deserve. We’re even entitled to self-esteem -- not based on accomplishment, but just because it’s everyone’s due.

How do we know if we feel entitled? First, if we feel somehow “cheated” by the lack, and second, if we blame others for what we lack. When blame-your-parents books became all the rage, if our children objected to some rule, restriction, or requirement we set, we told them, “You can grow up and write a book about us.” On occasion, our daughter Naomi would express mock displeasure with her father by pointing a finger at him and saying, “That will go in chapter 12.”

Certainly we have a basic notion of human entitlement that is legitimate, and our understanding of fundamental human rights is based upon it. And that is a good thing because it compels us to act on behalf of those in need. The sense of ownership and entitlement I have in mind is far above the subsistence level. It’s something we all experience, quite understandably. I often feel both a sense of ownership and entitlement, but I also know they are a trap.

Torah tries to help us avoid the trap by positing the radical idea that we don’t own anything. The earth is the Lord’s and that it holds, the world and its inhabitants (Psalm 24:1). It’s all God’s, and though we do have temporary custody of property, goods, and money, we don’t own them. Hence a sense of entitlement flies out the window. Ownership is replaced by obligation: responsibility to others and to earth itself. Entitlement is replaced by a deep sense of gratitude. The spiritual soul knows responsibility and gratitude in full measure.

What happens when responsibility and gratitude supplant ownership and entitlement? You stop seeing what you don’t have, and can focus on what you do have - the glass half full.

The notion of korban (sacrifice) pulls us out of the abyss of ownership and entitlement (which sucks us into the vortex of dissatisfaction and unhappiness). At the beginning of our parashah we read:
The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Temple of Meeting saying: Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: When any of you present (yakriv) an offering (korban) to the Lord from the cattle, from the herd, or from the flock -- you shall offer (takrivu) your offering (korbanchem). (Leviticus 1:1-2)
In just one verse (verse 2) a word with the root kuf-resh-bet is used four times, twice as a noun meaning “sacrifice” and twice as a verb meaning “offer.” The root kuf-resh-bet means to “approach” or “draw near.” Why four times in these verses which introduce and frame all of the Book of Leviticus? Perhaps to alert us that an attitude of gratitude and responsibility draw us close to our true selves, to other people, to the world we inhabit, and to God. God has gifted us with life and this world to be our home. How much happier we can be when we see it from that perspective -- gratitude is a powerful purveyor of happiness. Would that we could arrive at the place where we can say: Look, someone made the glass twice as big as it needs to be!

(c) Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


  1. This is one of the best drashot I've read on these opening verses. Rather than dismiss them as being antiquated, you've moved beyond the surface and given us a universal lesson.

    On occasion, our daughter Naomi would express mock displeasure with her father by pointing a finger at him and saying, “That will go in chapter 12.”

    And this is just classic!!!

    1. Thanks for your comment - much appreciated. Naomi assures us she has "sufficient material" to write a very long book ;-)

  2. LOVE the Psalm reference. I am so often overwhelmed with worry, anxiety of what may/may not happen, and pleasing every person in my life that I forget my responsibility to others and to the earth. For me, to remind myself of these two key responsibilities is to "get out of my own way" and give myself an opportunity to experience the peace that can come with the stillness of a mind that is all too often filled with constant thought. Thank you for the reminder :)

  3. So glad you got this from the drash. So many of us are "programmed" to please others and while that's basically a very good thing, it can become an obsession that consumes valuable energy -- and it can come at the expense of peace of mind. So many of us have been there!