Why We Study Sacrifices: A Happy Case of Collusion

“Collusion” is usually a dirty word denoting police brutality, government corruption, corporate price-fixing, and everyone on the take. But collusion can equally describe the unsung cooperative venture that is life itself: how plants absorb carbon dioxide and exchange it for oxygen, allowing humans to breathe oxygen and give carbon dioxide back, for instance. All of life is about giving and getting in happy collusion.

The Torah calls it sacrifice, and devotes a whole book of Torah to it. We miss the point if we think this week’s Torah reading (the beginning of Leviticus) introduces just a picayune and lengthy treatment of how to offer animals on an altar that has not existed since the Romans destroyed it almost two thousand years ago.

Moses’ opening instruction provides a broader picture: “When you offer a sacrifice from yourselves to God….” The peculiar placement of mikem (“from yourselves”) implies more than the rote offering of animals. Sacrifice can be anything, as long as you really own it, says Ibn Ezra; better still, it must be something “from within yourself.”

The point is this: we study the sacrifices not because we expect to offer up animals again, but because sacrifice is only tangentially about animals in the first place. On a deeper level, it is about the human passion to give up even what we hold dearest, if our doing so will further life’s larger purposes. It is about self-sacrifice or it is about nothing.

Other animal species sacrifice themselves also, but only through instinct. We humans operate with similar instincts, but having stretched the instinct into conscious choice, we need guidance on how to make our choices. How do we know when self‑sacrifice is in order?

If you think that is an easy question, think through all the bad “Jewish mother” jokes that revolve around Mother’s stereotypical desire to sacrifice herself unduly. (“How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb? None; “I’ll just sit in the dark.”) Studies of Jewish culture do demonstrate that Jews have been taught to give, not to receive, and to that extent, there is some truth to the humor. Though a caricature, it reflects the possibility that not all self-sacrifice is desirable.

The thing is, sacrifice is a fancy word for “gift.” It requires a giver and a receiver. What happens if you spend the day cooking a beautiful dinner for the family, but the family runs off for evening activities without bothering to eat it? How do you feel if you choose a birthday present for the one you love, only to find it lying around unused and unappreciated for months afterward. So this opening reading of Leviticus cautions further, “The person bringing the sacrifice should offer it up according to his will before God.” But whose will are we describing here, the giver’s or God’s?

The likely answer is, “Both!” Sacrifice works only when giver and receiver are in collusion.

The key may be the rabbinic concept of et ratson. Et means time; but what is et ratson – literally, “a time of will,” a time that is propitious, presumably? But what is that, if not a time when two wills intersect? It takes a relationship to establish et ratson, a moment when two wills intersect so that gifts become gifts to both giver and receiver.

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