Chapter 1

1 He called to Moses: The alef of the word for “He called” (ויקרא), the first word in the Book of Leviticus, is written smaller than usual, alluding to Moses’ humility even in the face of his own greatness and his selection by God for his exalted role in human history.1 In contrast, the alef in Adam’s name (אדם) as the first word of the Book of Chronicles is written larger than usual, alluding to Adam’s self-esteem as the acme of God’s creation. Although it is both necessary and good to be aware of one’s positive qualities, Adam allowed his self-esteem to degenerate into conceit, and this caused his downfall.

Moses rectified Adam’s mistake. He recognized his greatness but nevertheless remained humble. His humility was not self-delusional but the result of simple reasoning. “I cannot take any credit for any of my gifts or accomplishments,” he thought, “since they are all God-given. Indeed, were another person to have been given my potentials, he would have accomplished more and climbed to greater heights than I have.” He understood that true humility does not mean denigrating oneself but seeing the virtue in others.

We are all spiritual heirs of Adam and Moses. When we feel inadequate we must remember that we are Adams, with big alef’s. When thoughts of “Who am I?” deter us from our task, we must recall that we are formed by God’s own hands and are fully capable of caring for His garden. At the same time, we must recall that we are Moseses and thereby ensure that our self-assurance does not develop into conceit.

Moreover, if we remember the small alef, we, too, will merit to be called by God, and this revelation will provide us with the strength to answer God’s call, drawing ourselves and the world at large closer to Him. This is the true essence of the sacrifices, whose laws are introduced by the lesson of the small alef.2

2 Sacrifices: The institution of sacrifice seems counterintuitive to the teachings of the Torah on several counts, not the least of which is that it involves the seemingly unnecessary taking of animal life. Even from a cold, technical point of view, why would the Torah ask us to take valuable property and burn it, or at least part of it, for no apparent benefit? With regard to the sacrifices that the ancients offered up before the Giving of the Torah, we can assume that this was their way of expressing their indebtedness or submission to God. But here, we find God not only accepting sacrifices but explicitly legislating a sophisticated complex of procedures around the ritual of sacrifice, giving every indication that He not only accepts it but wants it. How does this mesh with the obvious truths that God values life and property, and does not at all need to “consume” our sacrifices?

The answer to this is to be found in the fact that the Torah characterizes only the sacrifices—to the exclusion of any other type of commandment—as being “pleasing” to God, the literal idioms used being the daring anthropomorphisms of their being “a pleasing odor to God”3 or His “food” or “bread.”4 Why should this be? Certainly God is pleased when we perform any commandment, not only when we offer sacrifices.

Rashi5 describes the pleasure that God derives from the sacrifices as being the sheer pleasure that “I said [something] and My will was implemented.” In other words, it is precisely because apparently nothing is accomplished through the sacrifices (and even loss of life and/or property is incurred), other than the pure fulfillment of God’s will, that the sacrifices please God in the most unadulterated, unmediated way.

This is not to deny that there are many allegorical and even mystical explanations and expositions of the great, positive spiritual effects of the sacrificial rites; we will explore some of these explanations presently. But on the most basic, contextual level of understanding the Torah, the only explanation for the seemingly anomalous ritual of the sacrifices is that it is meant to express our unswerving devotion to God’s will.

Now, we have already seen6 that the commandments may be divided into three categories based on our ability to understand them, and one of these categories is that of the chukim, simple “rules” that defy rationalization. It would therefore seem that it is not just the sacrifices but all chukim that express our unswerving devotion to God’s will.

The difference, however, is that while we indeed fulfill chukim purely out of obedience to God’s will (inasmuch as they by definition have no apparent explanation), there is nothing in the chukim that contravenes logic; the reasons behind them may be inscrutable to us, but there is no reason not to assume that they do make sense on some plane of understanding beyond our ken. Thus, performing the chukim inculcates in us unquestioning devotion to God’s will, but this devotion does not preclude us from understanding that there is indeed some positive reason for these commandments, not the least of which is our very submission to His will and the self-discipline we gain thereby.

With regard to sacrifices, however, no such “ulterior” motivation is possible. As we pointed out, they not only defy any attempt at rationalization but openly violate it; they not only do not make sense but are blatantly counterintuitive. Therefore, no self-interest can be involved here; in fact, the offerer is not at all the focus. Rather, the focus is God—“I said [something] and My will was implemented,” virtually by itself, without any human involvement. The offerer is all but transparent.

Clearly, this is a much more sublime state of self-nullification than that required to fulfill other commandments, even other chukim. It is in this otherwise unattainable absorption of the human self into the Divine self that constitutes the unique virtue of the sacrifices.7

The laws regarding voluntary offerings will be given first: One would think that the Torah would begin with the obligatory offerings, yet those are left for later. By beginning with voluntary offerings, the Torah implies that all offerings, even the obligatory ones, should be voluntary in essence. A voluntary offering is brought by a person cognizant of the spiritual significance of the offering. He knows that the offering must express an inner process occurring within the person, not the animal; what matters is not the size or impressiveness of the animal but the intention of the heart.8

The importance of the involvement of the offerer’s mind and heart is expressed by the Hebrew word for “sacrifice” (korban), which is derived from the verb “to bring close.” The experience of the offering consists of bringing and offering oneself, devoting one’s heart, talents, and capabilities to God.9

On a deeper level, a sacrifice is an experience of the mind and heart even when the offerer is not aware of it. This is because our inner essence—our Divine soul—is always intrinsically aware of the true meaning of the state of our relationship with God and in what ways it needs to be enhanced or improved (this being the purpose of the sacrifices). Therefore the Torah does not state explicitly that the physical offering up of the animal must be accompanied by the spiritual, inner offering up of the person, since this is always the case—at least at the soul-level. Instead, the Torah begins its discussion of offerings in general with the voluntary offerings, which manifestly involve the offerer’s mind and heart, to indicate that all offerings, even those offered out of obligation, are essentially voluntary offerings in that they stem from the soul’s innate desire to come close to God.10


[2] Communal sacrifices: Some communal sacrifices were indeed offered up on the 1st of Nisan: the two daily offerings and the additional offering for the first of the month (Rosh Chodesh). However, in all these cases, Moses performed the rites himself;11 there was therefore no need to teach the priests and the people at large the laws regarding these sacrifices until later.12

Ascent-offerings: An example of transgressing an active commandment that it is no longer possible to perform is neglecting to recite the Shema during its prescribed time. An example of a passive commandment reparable by an active commandment is stealing: If a person steals something, it is possible to atone for the theft by returning the stolen item. If the stolen item has been lost, or the person from whom it was stolen has died, then this option is no longer available and atonement can only be achieved via the ascent-offering.

In the case of these types of transgressions, God forgives us for our misdeeds as soon as we have repented properly, i.e., regretted having committed the misdeed, confessed our guilt, and resolved not to repeat our mistake. (If we have wronged another person, God’s forgiveness is contingent upon our first righting the wrong done to that person.) However, in order to not only be forgiven, i.e., absolved from God’s punishment, but also to be reinstated in His good graces, i.e., to be as beloved by Him as we were before the transgression, an ascent-offering is required. Spending money on an animal that we then watch be consumed in flames on the Altar helps us to both de-materialize and spiritualize our lives.

When the Temple is not standing and it is therefore not possible to offer up sacrifices, the reinstatement into God’s good graces that the sacrifices would have effected can be achieved through fasting, or if fasting is not possible or practical, through giving charity. (It is for this reason that in the past two centuries, charity has all but replaced fasting as a substitute for sacrifices. Recent generations are no longer strong enough to fast frequently while continuing to function at full mental, emotional, and physical capacity.) In each of these cases, we are giving to God some part of our physical selves—in the case of fasting, the body mass we lose,13 and in the case of charity, the money we could have used to buy food14—similar to how in offering up a sacrifice, we were destroying part of our physical property for the sake of spiritual restoration.

According to Rabbi Menachem HaMe’iri,15 an ascent-offering is required also to atone for having inadvertently neglected to perform an active commandment or for having neglected to perform the active commandment that compensates for transgressing a passive commandment, and in addition, for having inadvertently committed a sin for which the punishment is lashes or death by the court. According to Nachmanides,16 a person may also bring a voluntary ascent-offering simply as a means of spiritual growth, unoccasioned by a sin.

When a man from you brings a sacrifice to God: The fact that the nouns and verbs we herein translate as “sacrifice,” “offering,” “to sacrifice,” and “to offer up” are all derived from the same Hebrew root meaning “drawing close” indicates that the sacrifices are the ultimate experience of closeness to God that we can achieve.When we offer up a sacrifice, we do not merely connect a specific aspect of our personality with a specific aspect of Divinity, as we do when we fulfill any of God’s other commandments, but rather give ourselves away totally to God.

There are two ways in which we can experience a desire to become close to God: either as a result of God’s initiative—which we experience as an unanticipated, Divinely-inspired, sudden desire to cling to Him—or as a result of our own yearning for spirituality.

This notion is reflected in the different ways this verse can be read. Let us first note that the literal order of the words is as follows: “A man, if he offers up from you a sacrifice to God: from the animal, from the cattle or from the flock, offer up your sacrifice.” Thus, if God takes the initiative, we read the verse like this:

If a man: if God, the “Supernal Man”17

Draws close: desires to bring us close to Him, then—

[There will be] from you a drawing close to God: this will create a reciprocal desire for closeness on our part, which we will experience as our Divine soul drawing us toward God. However, if the relationship does not move beyond God’s initial initiative, it will soon dissipate. The Torah therefore advises,

You must bring your sacrifice from animals. In order to ensure this arousal’s permanence and growth, we must also involve our animalsoul, for then, our connection with God will not be solely a result of an external influence but of our own efforts, as well.18

If we take the initiative, we read the verse as follows:

If a man or woman draws close: if we are aroused on our own to become close to God—

From you [yourself] a sacrifice to God: we must sacrifice something of our own self; merely slaughtering a physical animal will not in itself change us. We must bring our sacrifice—

From the animal: from our own animal self—our materialistic drives, which, like an animal, are interested only in self-gratification, and which slowly lead us astray from the path of spiritual growth. This animal must be slaughtered—the life-blood and excitement must be let out from these activities and sprayed upon the Altar, i.e., transferred to Divine service. Of course, we must to attend to our mundane needs as necessary, but our joy and excitement should be reserved for higher callings. It is only through such commitment and self-sacrifice that we can hope to become a sacrifice for God—a true expression of closeness to God.

From the cattle or from the flock, offer up your sacrifice: Our inner animal can wear several guises. At times, our animal soul is as aggressive as a rampaging ox, coarsely and forcefully overrunning anything in its way. At other times, or in other people, it may resemble a timid sheep, who submits to its cravings readily and willingly. Whatever type of animal our animal soul may resemble, it must be overcome and sacrificed, and in this way we can truly draw close to God.19

Yet again:

If a man draws close: If we experience a desire to become close to God, we may hesitate, thinking, “How can I possibly achieve such a goal? I know that I am on a very low spiritual level and have sullied my soul with improper behavior.” In such cases, we must recall that—

from you: it depends only on our desire and dedication. No matter where we stand on the ladder of holiness, no matter what spiritual baggage may seem to weigh us down, God gives us the strength and ability to fulfill all that He asks of us, and when we sincerely attempt to become closer to God, we are assured that our efforts will be successful.20

15 The priest must nip off its head: We thus see that permitted animals may be divided into three categories vis-à-vis their treatment as sacrifices (and also as food):21

· Livestock require ritual slaughter both in order to be offered up as sacrifices and in order to be eaten as food.

· Fowl are killed by “nipping” when they are offered up as sacrifices and by ritual slaughter when they are eaten as food.

· Fish are not brought as sacrifices altogether, and when they are eaten as food they require only to be “gathered” from the water, not ritual slaughter.

The purpose of ritual slaughter, when required, is to render the animal fit to ascend from the animal kingdom into either the human kingdom, by being eaten, or the Divine realm, by being offered up as a sacrifice.22 Ritual slaughter serves to disconnect the animal from its animality, enabling its physical constituents and life-force to become part of a higher order of being. Without ritual slaughter, the animal retains its animalistic orientation; if it is consumed by a human being it augments his animal nature, drawing him down into its animality rather than being elevated into his humanity. With this in mind, we can understand the different requirements of the above-mentioned three categories of animals with respect to ritual slaughter:

The dry land, whose inhabitants are not at all connected to it, can be seen as an allegory for our physical world, in which Divinity is so obscured that we appear to exist independently of any Divine life-force. The ocean, in contrast, is an allegory for the spiritual worlds, in which Divinity is revealed and whose denizens are therefore aware of the fact that they owe their existence to the Divine life-force within them, much as fish must remain in the water in order to live.

Livestock, who were created from earth, are thus archetypes of non-Divine, “earthly” consciousness. They can be lifted above the earth, but they cannot fly above it on their own. Similarly, our “animal” dimension—our physical body and its animal soul—is naturally drawn downward toward materiality, and therefore requires the complete rehabilitation effected by ritual slaughtering in order to be elevated above its natural condition.

Fowl, we are told,23 were created from mud—earth mixed with water—indicating that their “earthly” nature is more dilute than that of earthbound animals. Thus, they can fly, but they must rest upon the earth when tired. Similar, our “avian” dimension—our natural intellect—can soar beyond mundane reality and catch a glimpse of sublime levels of Divinity. Nonetheless, its conceptual abilities remain limited by its human nature. Therefore, the intellect generally also needs to be “slaughtered” in order to be uplifted beyond its natural condition.

Fish were created from the water and must remain there in order to stay alive. Similarly, our “piscine” dimension—our Divine soul—retains at all times its pure and unsullied connection with its source, the Source of all life. It does not need to be “slaughtered,” for it has not lost its Divine connection. However, because it has descended into the body and become vested in the animal soul, it can thereby become diverted from its Godly mission, so it must be “gathered,” i.e., refocused on its goal.

Alternatively, these three categories of creatures can be taken to allude to the three ways people may be categorized with respect to their progress in spiritual growth. Livestock correspond to the wicked, who have succumbed to the pull of their material drives; fish correspond to the righteous, who have so refined themselves that they are no longer challenged by evil; fowl are the intermediates, who constantly struggle with their earthly desires but successfully refrain from wrongdoing.

In these contexts, we can understand why fish are not brought as sacrifices. The purpose of the sacrifices is to refine and elevate the human/animal soul; the Divine soul, therefore—or someone who has completely identified with it—has no place on the Altar.

Fowl and livestock, in contrast, are brought as sacrifices, and both are sacrificed by cutting off the flow of blood and food between the head and the body. This indicates that the elevation of the animal out of its animality is accomplished by severing the intellect (the head) from the emotions (the body), so that our animalistic urges not befoul our intellect, which must be left free to focus on Divinity. With this in mind, we can understand the difference between how fowl and livestock are sacrificed.

Our intellect and emotions are reflected in the expressions on our faces. The front of the body therefore signifies spiritual life lived in the normal, rational manner—proper behavior inspired by emotions engendered by the intellect. The back of the head, on the other hand, is devoid of expression, and thus signifies a spiritual life imposed by coercion and discipline—proper behavior, but devoid of emotion or inspiration.

A livestock animal—a person who has succumbed to the forces of materialism—must always have recourse to his “neck”—supra-rational discipline—for he cannot rely upon his heart and mind having reached any degree of Divine consciousness. Therefore, he cannot be slaughtered from the back of the neck; this aspect of his psyche must remain intact.

A fowl—an intermediate—under normal circumstances is much the same: his animal drives are fully functional, albeit held in check. But upon being brought as a sacrifice to God in the Holy Temple, i.e. at times of great spiritual awakening, the intermediate person is transformed. He no longer needs the yoke on the nape of his neck, for his complete focus on God enables him to serve Him with his own intellect and emotions.

Besides the location of the scission, ritual slaughter and nipping differ with regard to who may perform them and how they are performed. Ritual slaughter, even of sacrifices, may be performed by a layperson, but must be performed with a properly prepared knife. Nipping may only be performed by a priest, and is performed with the priest’s thumbnail.

In the process of ritual slaughter, the slaughterer is considered the agent of God, who effects the elevation of the animal, similar to the way Divine discipline must be externally imposed on the spiritually-underdeveloped wicked person. It therefore makes no difference who slaughters the animal; both priest and layman act as God’s agent.

In nipping, however, the priest is acting as his own agent; he kills the fowl directly with his own hand. In this way, he expresses how the more spiritually-developed intermediate person involves his own intellect and emotions in his relationship with God. Therefore, only the priest—who performs the rest of the sacrificial ritual—may perform the nipping.

Similarly, when we are engaged in intense prayer and/or Torah study, we can reach the level signified in the Temple by fowl. (Thus, the synagogue and house of study are considered “a miniature Temple.”) At such times of heightened spiritual awareness, our relationship with God rises to a higher level for we are no longer threatened by external distractions; as a result, we can concentrate fully on connecting with our Creator.24

Livestock, Fowl, and Fish

Chapter 2

9 Considering it as if they had offered up their very selves: When we bring a beautiful animal as an offering to God, we are liable to take pride in our generosity and in the fact that we have fulfilled God’s will in the best and most beautiful manner. In contrast, when all we can afford to bring God is a meager grain-offering, such feelings of pride are most likely absent; the sole reason we are bringing our sacrifice is to subjugate ourselves to Him. It is therefore specifically the grain-offering of a poor person that most eloquently expresses the essence of the sacrifices, the offering up of ourselves to God.

When we truly negate our sense of self and undertake to serve God with simple and direct faith rather than for any ulterior motives or personal ambitions, we are assured of acceptance and atonement. This selflessness is embodied most in the approach of the poor man, which is why it is about him specifically that God says: “I consider it as if he offered up his very self.”25

11 For you must not incinerate any (literally, “all”) leavening agents or any (literally, “all”) sweet fruits as a fire-offering to God. Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch interpreted this verse homiletically: One who is always sour (like leavening) or always sweet without ever changing and showing signs of life cannot be a fire-offering to God.26

13 You must offer up salt on all your sacrifices: The process of offering up a sacrifice, i.e., coming close to God, must incorporate the various properties of salt:

§ Taste: Salt often brings out the taste in otherwise tasteless foods.27 Thus, salt is compared to the inner dimension of the Torah, which we must study in order to add vitality and “taste” to our observance of the Torah’s laws.

§ Permanence: Salt is a preservative;28 it itself never decays. Similarly, our attempts to come close to God must be serious and earnest; they should not be transient affairs. This is possible only when we stir the essence of our soul and reveal our super-rational love for God.

§ Cleansing: Salt is a cleanser and disinfectant. Similarly, our sacrifices and attempts to come close to God must be accompanied by our attempt to purge our lives of all negative forces.

§ Healing: The prophet Elisha healed the waters of Jericho with salt.29 Similarly, our sacrifices and attempts to come close to God must serve to “heal” our animal drives by eliminating their materialistic orientation and directing them toward Divinity.30

You must offer up salt on all your sacrifices: With salt, the offering incorporates all four kingdoms of creation: mineral, plant, animal, and human. Salt is the mineral element; the oil, wine, and flour are the vegetative element; the animal itself is the animal element; the person offering the sacrifice and the priest officiating at the sacrifice are the human element. Together with these representatives, the sacrifice elevates all four kingdoms of creation into holiness.

Our tables are compared to the Altar, since the food we eat becomes the fuel that enables us to fulfill God’s commandments and is thereby elevated from mundaneness to holiness. Traditionally, at the beginning of a meal the bread is eaten with salt.31 In this way, all four elements of creation are present at the table, just as they are at a sacrifice.32


Salt: Salt embodies the concept of “sweetening”—i.e., ameliorating or neutralizing—the forces of judgment and severity (המתקת הדינים).

Salt stems from the Divine attribute of judgment (gevurah); hence, when applied correctly, it destroys the evil and destructive elements of any entity with which it comes in contact. For example, salting meat removes the non-kosher blood, neutralizing its potentially spiritually debilitating effect on the people who will eat the meat. At the same time, the fact that salt heals and enhances taste indicates that the severity of its source has been attenuated and made subordinate to sweetness.

Similarly, Nachmanides explains that since salt is formed by the heat of the sun’s fire beating down on the water, salt is a combination of water and fire, the symbols of kindness (chesed) and judgment (gevurah).33

Chapter 3

11Food [literally, ‘bread’] for the fire: Sacrifices are often called the “bread” of God, an obvious metaphor. Just as consuming bread—and food in general—serves to keeps body and soul together, the bread of God—the sacrificial service—keeps God, the soul and life-force of the world, bound together with the world. Through the sacrificial service, Divine energy is drawn into the world.34

Chapter 4

2 If a person unintentionally transgresses: Our deepest interests and aspirations as well as our most intimate cares and concerns are betrayed by our spontaneous actions, through which our “subconscious” self involuntarily surfaces. This is why we must atone for inadvertent transgressions. The need for atonement stems not from the transgression per se—since it was done inadvertently—but from all the previous conduct and laxity that molded an identity whose interests run contrary to God’s will and that spontaneously rejects it. In fact, the inadvertent transgression warrants greater atonement, in this sense, than the intentional transgression, for the former declares, “This is who I am.” It indicates a deep and intimate subconscious attachment to this type of behavior, which the intentional transgression does not.35

If a person [literally, “a soul” (nefesh)] unintentionally transgresses: As has already been pointed out,36 the soul comprises five parts, or levels:37 the nefesh (“creature”), the ruach (“spirit”), the neshamah (“breath [of life]”), the chayah (“living being”), andthe yechidah (“unique one”). The nefesh is the lowest of the five. It is this level that is referred to in connection to sin, for it is only this level that can possibly stoop so low as to transgress God’s will.

In fact, even the nefesh is incapable of sinning, intentionally or unintentionally. In the words of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, “A Jew is by nature neither capable of sinning, nor does he desire to do so.”38 The soul is intrinsically connected with God, and any deviation from this connection, on any level, is unnatural. Therefore, even when this lowliest level of the soul is unfaithful, God is “shocked.”39

How, then, do we sin? The Talmud states: “A person does not commit a sin unless he has been overcome by a spirit of folly,”40 meaning that the evil inclination has convinced the person that even upon sinning he will not be disconnected from God. This misconception allows the individual to stray.41


[2] A partial act that is a complete act in its own right: For example, writing words is prohibited on the Sabbath. If a person forgot that it was the Sabbath, or forgot that writing is prohibited on the Sabbath and intended to write the name “Daniel” but instead only wrote the name “Dan,” he or she is liable to bring a sin-offering since “Dan” is also a word. If, however, the person intended to write “Reuben” and only wrote “Re,” he or she is exempt from having to bring a sin-offering, since “Re” is not a word. (By rabbinic prohibition, even writing a non-word is forbidden, but transgressing a rabbinic prohibition does not obligate the transgressor to bring a sin-offering.)

14 The community must bring: If it is the Sanhedrin who erred, why must the community pay for the sacrificed animal and seek atonement?42 Normally, as we have seen,43 an inadvertent sin must be atoned for because it bespeaks some hidden flaw that has suddenly surfaced. But in this case, the people acted exactly as the Torah instructs them to;44 how, then, can they be expected to feel remorse or regret?

Indeed, if it was merely a question of fault, the people would have no reason to regret their actions. But since, regardless of who was at fault, the will of God was transgressed—His plan for the world was in whatever way not carried out—the people are expected to be sensitive enough to Divine concerns to regret having contravened them, even inadvertently, even through no fault of their own.

The easiest way the people can acquire such keen sensibility to the significance of even the most forgivable sin is through the example of their leader. The true leader, rather than pretending to be infallible, should serve as an example of honest self-appraisal to his people, and not hesitate to seek atonement for even his inadvertent sins. In this way, he will inspire the people to seek atonement for their sins as well, even one so pardonable as the one described here. It is for this reason that the sin-offering of the leader is treated directly after the sin-offering of the Sanhedrin, to indicate that the people will seek atonement for themselves on account of the Sanhedrin’s error only if the leader inculcates them, by his own behavior, with proper sensitivity to the gravity of sin.45

17 When the entire community sins, the holiness of the Tabernacle departs, so to speak: This loss of holiness is manifest specifically with regard to the Curtain, rather than any other component of the Tabernacle, because the Curtain divides the main Sanctuary from the Holy of Holies.46 The Holy of Holies, figuratively speaking, is the “abode” of God’s presence on earth, being the locale where the Divine Presence is manifest openly and communicates with humanity.47 In this context, the Curtain is the door to the private chamber of the Divine Presence, so to speak, the interface between this world and the Divine dimension, and therefore it is aptly the first place where any departure of holiness would be manifest.48

20 So as not to dwell on the wrongdoings of His people: How can it be that even after the majority of the Jewish people have sinned, God’s love for them remains so strong that He avoids discussing their shortcomings? The Torah just noted49 that such widespread sin causes God’s “holiness to depart” from the Tabernacle!

The answer is that God considers the Jewish people not only His chosen people, but, as He Himself states: “Israel is My firstborn”;50 “Israel is a child, and I love him.”51 The love that a parent has for his children is unconditional, for the child is a part of the parent’s essence, regardless of his behavior. Similarly, God’s love for the Jewish people is so intense that He does not differentiate between Himself and them. Regardless of how low the Jewish people may sink or what sins they may commit, God’s essential connection with them remains unsullied and it pains Him even to discuss their shame.

God expects us to learn from His example. Our love for our fellow Jew52 should permeate us so thoroughly that when we do him a favor, we feel that we are doing it for ourselves rather than for someone else. Similarly, anything that happens to another Jew, good or bad, should affect us personally. And of course, we should recoil at the very prospect of saying something depreciative about another Jew.

Inasmuch as unjustified hatred brought about our present exile,53 such “unjustified,” unconditional love between us will, by nullifying the cause of the exile, nullify the effect, and usher in the final Redemption.54

26 In contrast to the special sin-offering of the high priest: In terms of their respective roles in the spiritual life of the people, the function of the high priest is to imbue the people with the love of God, whereas the function of the king is to imbue them with the fear of heaven—the sense of awe before God’s presence.

Since love is an expansive, inclusive emotion, the love of God does not necessarily shrink our ego; it can even enhance our ego by focusing us on how much we love God. Therefore, loving God, no matter how intensely, cannot guarantee that we will not inadvertently sin. It can only guarantee that if we do sin, we will regret it so deeply that we will not hesitate to seek atonement.

The nature of fear, in contrast, is opposite to that of love. Fear is a constrictive emotion; it focuses us on the immensity of the thing before us, shriveling our sense of self into a sliver of what is was previously. Therefore, the experience of fear or awe of God can indeed assure us of not sinning even inadvertently.55

27-28 A female goat: There are two basic explanations of how sacrificing an animal atones for sin:

  1. Sacrificing the animal is an enactment of what ought to be done to the sinner. The sinner should imagine all that is being done to the animal being done to him. The sacrifice thus jolts the sinner out of his negative ways.56
  2. The animal personifies the animal instincts of the sinner, which led to the sin, whereas the sinner’s true essence, his Divine soul, did not participate in the sin. This realization stirs the sinner’s Divine soul, inspiring him to renew his devotion God and to serve Him better than previously.

The first explanation is harsher than the second and is therefore appropriate for more severe sins. Therefore, the guilt-offering,57 which can atone for deliberate sins, is brought from male animals, suggesting the “male” type of meditation necessary to shake a person free from deliberate sins. The second, softer, more “female” type of meditation is more appropriate for unintentional sins; therefore, the sin-offering, which atones for such sins, is brought from female animals.58

Similarly, nowadays, when an individual feels estranged from God, he must evaluate what is causing this feeling. Then he can meditate on his relationship with God in the way appropriate to his situation and awaken himself to Divine reality.

Chapter 5

A Closer Look

[1] An oath containing an explicit or implicit curse: If a potential witness refuses a litigant’s request to testify on his behalf, the litigant is allowed to administer an oath to the recalcitrant witness, saying, “I hereby make you, so-and-so the son of so-and-so, swear in the name of God that you do not have any testimony to offer in my case (and you are hereby cursed if you do have testimony to offer and you do not present it),” the words in parentheses being implied even if they are not explicitly said.59


[2] Of any spiritually defiled animal: A carcass of a permitted animal that died other than via proper ritual slaughter also imparts ritual defilement,60 and someone who touches it and then intentionally enters the Tabernacle precincts is liable to excision, just as is the case with the types of defilement mentioned explicitly in this verse.61


[4] To harm himself or to do good to himself or others: Examples of this are if a person says, “I will fast,” or “I will eat,” or “I will feed someone.” Even though one is not allowed to swear that he will harm himself, such an oath is nonetheless binding;62 in contrast, an oath to cause another person harm is not binding.63


[17] But he does not know for sure: For example: it is forbidden to eat the various animal fats that are removed and offered up on the Altar in sacrificial rites (even from animals that are not sacrificed);64 the punishment for doing so is excision. It is permitted to eat other types of fat from kosher animals, provided that the animal was properly slaughtered, etc. If a person ate some fat and is not sure whether it was the forbidden or permitted type, he must bring a suspensive guilt-offering.

21 If a person sins, acting unfaithfully to God: When no one is called to witness a deposit and no contract is signed, the two parties rely only on each other’s honesty and their mutual awareness that God is their witness.Denying having given someone a deposit in such a case is thus a direct, arrant act of unfaithfulness to God.

Moreover, ownership in general is only possible because God, the true owner of all creation,65 allows human beings to assume ownership of part of creation through means that He established. Thus, denying rightful ownership is tantamount to denying God’s ownership and mastery over the world.

Nonetheless, committing any sin can be considered “acting unfaithfully to God.” When we sin, we are acting in opposition to God’s will; as such, any sin is no less a denial of God’s omnipresence than brazen idolatry.

Significantly, the Torah makes this point in the case of someone who contradicts his fellow. In areas pertaining to our relationship with God, it is easily understood that even a minor detail is a direct trespass against God. In areas pertaining to interpersonal relationships, however, it is common to erroneously believe that since these laws are ultimately intended to protect our fellow human beings, if we don’t follow them, it is only a matter between us and them and does not reflect upon our relationship with God (even if we acknowledge that it was God who gave them).

The Torah therefore specifies clearly and unequivocally that although it may seem that we are merely contradicting our fellow, doing so is also a direct affront and act of unfaithfulness to God. Even if a specific commandment serves a “social” purpose—such as the protection afforded the lender or owner in this case—its import is not limited to this purpose; it remains a command issued by God Himself, with all of the spiritual ramifications this entails.

Based on this idea, we may understand the law that when a person is given an object to guard by someone who owes him money, he may not withhold the deposit against payment of the debt.66 This law is suggested by God’s own example:67 Every night upon going to sleep, we “deposit” our soul with its Guardian, trusting that He will return it to us the following day. Over the course of the day, we may have incurred many debts towards God, yet He does not withhold our soul in the morning, but returns it to us, thereby giving us the opportunity to provide restitution.

Logically, it would seem that since the depositor has just as much an obligation toward the creditor as the creditor has toward the depositor, why should the creditor have to return the depositor’s object to him and then fight to collect his debt? However, as explained, the creditor’s duty to return the object is not only a duty towards the depositor; it is God’s command, and must be accepted as such—as a law that is spiritual in nature. The depositor’s dereliction in his debt and duty towards the creditor may lessen the obligation that the creditor feels towards him, but it must not affect the creditor’s duty towards God.

Nevertheless, this section concludes: “The priest will make atonement for him before God and he will be forgiven.”68 Despite the fact that our actions constituted an open trespass against God, God nonetheless holds open the door for repentance, allowing all our sins to be completely forgiven.69

If a person sins, acting unfaithfully to God: The word for “sin” in Hebrew can also be understood to mean “a failing.” Even if one merely fails to offer assistance to a friend, this too is an act of unfaithfulness to God.70

23 He must return the article that he had robbed: Allegorically, “robbed articles” refers to any element of creation that humanity, by sinning, has “robbed” from God and given over to the forces of evil. These elements of creation could be a physical object, a moment in time, or human potential.

Our task in life is to return the world’s robbed entities to their rightful owner, i.e., to reorient everything that has been marshaled to the cause of evil toward Divinity, beginning with whatever we ourselves have “robbed” from God through sinning. This is the essence of repentance: restoring the world to its natural, Divine state. Through repentance, it is further possible for us to reach even greater heights than we had attained before sinning.

Of course, this does not mean that we should sin in order to reach the sublime spirituality accessible through repentance. Even if someone steals with the intention of later returning the very same object, he has still transgressed.71 In the event that we transgress, however, God always provides us with the opportunity to fulfill the commandment of repentance.72

24 He must pay its principal, adding its fifth to it. He must give the money to its rightful owner: On the face of it, the fine of an extra fifth is punitive rather than compensatory, as is underscored by the fact that the denier need only pay it if he had a change of heart and admitted that he had lied. If it were intended to compensate the victim, the fine would be applicable even if he were proven to be a liar through witnesses who contradict his story. Thus, it is clear that the fine is intended to be part of the atonement process, which can occur only if he repented, not if he was forced to admit his guilt.

It would therefore be logical to assume that the fine should be paid to charity or some other beneficiary, since the victim has no claim to this fine.

Nonetheless, the Torah stipulates that the fine be paid to the victim. The reason, as explained in the commentary Keli Yakar, is that the extra fifth is indeed compensatory, to make up for the loss of income that could have been earned with the stolen money during the interim. If the thief does not make restitution for this lost income, he explains, we cannot consider him to have “returned that which he had stolen,” since there is still something missing.

But if this is so, then, contrariwise, why does the Torah need to emphasize such an obvious fact?

To understand this, let us first examine the spiritual implications of a theft. We are told not to harbor a grudge against someone who has wronged us,73 for the fact that the wrong occurred proves that God willed it to be so.74 This is no excuse for the criminal, since he need not have been the agent of misfortune, and he is therefore indeed culpable for choosing to carry out this specific “mission.” But as far as the victim is concerned, his misfortune was preordained; had this criminal not chosen to be the agent, God would have found some other way of making it happen.

If so, one could ask, why should the thief make compensation to the victim altogether? The victim was preordained to lose this sum of money. Maybe we should just take from the thief the value of that which he stole, plus any applicable fines, and use them for some good cause?

The answer, obviously, is that the fact that the money was stolen only proves that the victim was supposed to lose it temporarily, not permanently. It is still his money, and it must be returned to him as soon as possible, for its return, too, is part of the Divine plan. The same reasoning applies even to the extra fifth being given as compensation for lost income: since it is possible to reimburse the victim completely so that he not incur any loss whatsoever, it is possible that even his feeling of loss was only supposed to be a temporary one, but at this point he is preordained to escape unscathed.

The Torah’s insistence that the fine be given to the victim is thus intended not merely as an instruction, but also as an explanation: the money must be given to the victim because it belongs to him. Any Divine plan that was involved in the money being taken away from him is not our concern; as far as we are concerned, it is his money and it must be returned to him in as complete a form as possible.

This serves as a lesson for all interpersonal dealings. When we have wronged a friend, our evil inclination immediately goes to work. “Why should you ask him for forgiveness? He obviously would have undergone the same pain in any case, so his trouble is not your concern. True, by being the agent you have committed a sin. But that is between you and God. Go ahead and repent, but there’s no reason for you to apologize to the other person!”

In light of the above, this argument is now easy to counter. Just as an extra fifth is paid in an effort to make the restitution complete (i.e., to make up for lost income), an apology helps to lessen the pain of the injury. One is obligated to attempt to right the wrong as much as possible, and an apology is a step in the right direction.

But our evil inclination does not stop here. “You are supposed to concentrate only on God,” he cries. “Even those commandments that are logical and understandable are to be fulfilled simply as Divine commandments. So, if the Torah demands that you beg your victim’s forgiveness, you must do so. But why should it actually bother you? You should only be bothered by your problems in your relationship with God. As a matter of fact, if you truly consider your victim important, you are denying that ‘there is no true existence other than God.’ ”

The truth is that this, too, is no more than the evil inclination’s trickery. Logical commandments must be treated as God’s decrees in the sense that their fulfillment may not be subject to our understanding, but that is not intended in any way to limit their logical and practical application, i.e., the necessity to behave in a moral and ethical manner born of true and sincere concern for others.75