Sunday, March 2, 2014

Vayikra: Man & the Tempter; or, The True Meaning of Sacrifice


“And God called to Moses…. ‘A man who shall bring near of you an offering to God from the beast….’”

—Lev. 1:2 (Adapted from Chasidic Teaching of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the First Lubavitcher Rebbe)

            Call me the Tempter. Most Jews know me as the Yetzer Ha-Ra, the Evil Inclination. I am, I can modestly say, the single cause of more evil in the world since Time began; I inspired the Serpent in the Garden, caused Cain to murder Abel; I am the hair in your soup, the driver who steals your parking spot, the jock who asks the Girl of Your Dreams to the Prom a second before you get up your nerve.
            Let me also say what I am not: I am not Satan; no, I am not the Devil; there is no supernatural or metaphysical Devil in the Jewish universe or theological worldview. Satan is not an independent spirit, operating independently of God, working for Evil as God works for Good. To say or believe so would be Dualism, such as the ancient Persians believed in their Zoroastrian religion—and don’t forget that the Jews lived and flourished in Persia from the Assyrian Conquest of the Ten Northernmost Tribes in 722 BCE to fewer than ten thousand pitiful stragglers in the Iranian slave state of the present day. No: Satan is the Prosecuting Attorney in the Heavenly Court, or, at best, the Cosmic Troublemaker in that Morality Play called the Book of Job, where he must beg God’s permission before tormenting the eponymous heroic victim.  
            On a national scale, I cause race hatred. I am Jealousy personified, Negative Stereotypes embodied. I shy away from taking people as individuals; why bother, when it’s so easy to shrill, “All the members of This Racial Group are Criminals; all who belong to That Ethnicity are Greedy; Your Next-Door Neighbor is a Drunkard and a Slob—only because his skin-color is different”? It’s always tempting for you Mortals to hide behind a Stereotype (“Why bother? She’s just a--“) rather than extend yourselves to Shake Hands with a Stranger; to group everyone under one heading, rather than take the time and trouble to meet, get acquainted with, and actually Befriend the Person behind the Mask.
            Internationally, every time, place, country, and century have been my playground. I thrust the Jews out of Spain before the Inquisition's wrath, the Irish out of Ireland for lack of either potatoes or English sympathy (in time to escape to America and see signs in shop-windows reading, "No Irish Need Apply"), the Armenians into the Turkish Killing-Grounds; I pulled the rifle triggers when American boys massacred Filipino women and children in 1902 in the name of colonial imperialism (water-boarding was an American invention); I rode with Richard Lionheart when he attacked Saladin in 1191, a fight in the Holy City between Christian and Muslim, in Jerusalem’s timeless streets. I am the One who blends faith, economics, greed, and power into a heady, bloody broth in which thousands of innocents drown. I am at your elbow even now; I am in the furrows of your brain as you read this. I am a hatred and suspicion as old as Time.
            Can you prevent my ravages, O Mortal, you who claim to be made in the Image of the God you adore so much? There is but one cure: to make an Offering—not of yourself; enough of your kind have died for my Cause and in my Name. No: there is but one cure—to make an Offering, a Sacrifice—of your Animal-Self, the part of you which demands, requires, insists upon More: more lives, more land, more power.
There is the Yetser Ha-Tov, the Good Inclination. It is content to Live with Less, to Divide and Share; to look into the eyes of a stranger and see, therein, the Image of God in whose spirit we are all awfully, wonderfully made. One warning, though: do so quickly. It is so much easier to hate, to fall back upon old beliefs and lies and stereotypes.
            Hold back your Evil, and embrace your Good. Kill off your Animal Self, your Greed and Selfishness, by sacrificing it as an Offering to your God, who forgives us our limitations; only God can see us in our weaknesses and backsliding, and love us still. Let us work for our souls’ sakes, so that all the clay in us, all the faults in us, may yield to our Inner Light—let the Fire on High-Priest Aaron’s Altar be nothing but Light! Nothing but Light!