We’re reading Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus. Leviticus reads like a pocket guide for priests. Not much plot, no character development, lots of rules. There are eight animal sacrifices and they fall into three categories, based upon who is permitted to eat them: First are those that are eaten by the person who brings it: the Shelamin, Ma’aser, Todah, and Pesach (peace, or well-being offering, tithe, thanksgiving, and paschal offering). Second are those that are eaten by the priests: The Chatat and Asham and B’chor (the guilt offering, sin offering, and firstborn). Finally, there is the Olah (burnt offering), which is, as its name suggests, entirely burned on the altar. Its smoke rises to heaven. This one is for God, and God alone.
To many people, the details of the sacrifices are tediously boring. If you’re still with me at this point, I hope you’re wondering what Charles Darwin’s observations of human expressions of emotion have to do with the sacrifices mandated in Leviticus. It’s coming.
Our parashah describes several of these sacrifices, introducing each section with the words, “This is the Torah (law) of the…” and then details where the sacrifice is to be slaughtered, what should be done with the blood, how various internal organs are to be disbursed, and so on. In the case of the olah, however, Torah says only this:
God spoke to Moses saying, “Command Aaron and his sons saying: ‘This is the Torah (law) of the olah (burnt offering); it is the olah which shall burn upon the altar all night until the morning, and the fire of the altar shall burn in it. (Leviticus 6:2)
Now, I’m not a huge fan of animal sacrifice. (We have a dairy kosher kitchen in our home.) I take comfort in knowing that no less than Rambam (Moses Maimonides) believed that the purpose of animal sacrifices was to wean the Israelites off idolatry; having served its purpose, animal sacrifice is no longer necessary. Isaac Abarbanel said that God prescribed animal sacrifices for Israel specifically to wean them off the idolatrous sacrificial practices of Egypt. Rashi goes further. He says God didn’t particularly desire animal sacrifice at all; it was Israel that wanted it. How does Rashi know this? From a verse in the Haftarah for Shabbat Vayikra: I have not burdened you with a meal-offering, nor wearied you with frankincense (Isaiah 43:23).
If Rambam, Abarbanel, and Rashi — who are certainly no lightweights — are correct, why would the olah be burned entirely? God doesn’t need it. It’s a waste of meat that could nourish priests or Israelites, and more, it’s a waste of a life.
Perhaps the meaning and value of the olah is not in the details of where and how it is sacrificed, but that it is a total sacrifice. Giving up something entirely, without any reward or recompense, is difficult. Many of us would consider it a loss. The olah trains the Israelites in altruism, the disinterested and selfless concern for the wellbeing of others: people learn to surrender to God something of great monetary value and practical significance.
Philosophers are divided concerning whether we humans can ever truly exhibit altruism. After all, could we not say that the gratification that comes of knowing I have done a good thing is in itself an intrinsic reward? That’s not an argument I wish to enter. I’m content with a definition of altruism that includes doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.
Finally, we return to Charles Darwin. He observed that mammals naturally empathize with the suffering of others and respond accordingly, and that this quality is crucial to the successful rearing of offspring to the age of reproduction. In other words, we are evolved to exhibit altruism.
Neurologists concur. In 2006 using magnetic resonance imagining, Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman, showed that acts of altruism light up the subgenual cortex and septal region of our brain, both of which are connected with social attachment. Subsequent studies have confirmed these findings and expanded on them. It turns out that we are hard-wired for altruism. Neurologists have identified in us what they term “mirror neurons” which are the biological source of human empathy. (Robert Krulwich explains mirror neurons nicely for NOVA here.) It is our capacity for empathy that makes altruism possible and indeed a basic human behavior. Darwin’s thinking has yet again been confirmed.
The Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) recounts two stories of altruism, both in tractate Ta’anit 1:4. The context is a discussion of whether and when prayer brings rain in a time of drought; these stories illustrate the Rabbis’ contention that the prayer of a simple person brings rain. In the first story, R. Abbahu learns through a dream that although his prayers do not bring rain, when a certain donkey driver prays for rain, the rains fall. Upon questioning him, R. Abbahu learns that on one occasion, the donkey driver’s client was a woman weeping for her imprisoned husband. The donkey driver sold his donkey — sacrificing his livelihood — and gave her the money to use to free her husband. In the second story, the protagonist is Pentakaka, so named because every day he committed five sins connected with the brothel he ran. Pentakaka was unquestionably a reprobate. When he encountered a woman weeping for her imprisoned husband, he sold his “bed and cover” and gave her the proceeds to use to redeem her husband (and not without irony) so she could avoid becoming a prostitute to raise the funds needed. Like the donkey driver, Pentakaka sacrificed his livelihood, an act of altruism. The Rabbis are not telling us that we, too, should sacrifice our very livelihoods when a stranger in need enters our lives, but these stories convey deep admiration for genuine altruism and the power of such righteousness to repair lives.
The term olah means “ascend” and connotes the smoke of the sacrifice that ascends to heaven. An altruistic act ascends straight to heaven, which is to say that it is sacred and repairs the world. The olah offered daily in the Mishkan (Wilderness Tabernacle) and later in the Mikdash (Temple in Jerusalem) trained people to act according to the better side of their nature: with compassion and generosity. Rather than worrying with psychologists and philosophers whether we are truly capable of altruism, or whether deriving satisfaction from doing the right thing obviates the altruistic quality of the good we do, perhaps we should take comfort from biologists and neurologists in knowing we are evolved and wired for it. And then take that knowledge and run with it.