Shortly after my daughter was born, I faced a challenge that is quite common for first-time parents: a lack of energy. Between working full-time, commuting to-and-from New York City, and experiencing all the normal sleep-deprived nights with a baby in need of loving attention, I was pretty exhausted (to be clear, it was even more grueling for my wife). One sleepless night, I came across a book on Amazon.com entitled The Power of Full Engagement, a book that transforms the way we think about work-life balance by arguing that the key to balancing one’s life is to learn how to maintain consistent focus throughout the day. The authors write:
“To be fully engaged, we must be physically energized, emotionally connected, mentally focused and spiritually aligned with a purpose beyond our immediate self-interest. Full engagement begins with feeling eager to get to work in the morning, equally happy to return home in the evening and capable of setting clear boundaries between the two. It means being able to immerse yourself in the mission you are on, whether that is grappling with a creative challenge at work, managing a group of people on a project, spending time with loved ones or simply having fun. Full engagement implies a fundamental shift in the way we live our lives” (Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, The Power of Full Engagement).
As a new father, the paradigm shift described in this passage changed my life, forcing me to think about how I use and conserve energy, and what I would need to do to ensure that all the important people in my life receive my complete attention. We will see that a similar idea is expressed in our rabbis’ understanding of this week’s parasha, where offering sacrifices is seen as an opportunity to share our full engagement with God.
Parashat Vayikra opens the third book of the Torah with a simple verse, “Any man, if he bring an offering of you to the Lord” (Vayikra 1:2). Taking a practical approach, Rabbi Meir Lebush ben Yehiel Michel Misser, also known as the Malbim, ask why this verse opens with the words “Any man, if,” as opposed to “If any man,” as the latter option is far more common in the biblical text. In response, the Malbim argues that verses in the Torah focusing on personal obligation choose to place the subject of the sentence prior to an introductory word such as “If”:
“It is significant that throughout Vayikra and Bamidbar, in all the ritual commandments the subjects always precedes the conjunction “if,” whereas in Parashat Mishpatim and Sefer Devarim, where the social laws are laid down, “if” precedes the subject. Thus, “If an ox gore a man or a woman” (Shemot 21:28)...Indeed, a more emphatic tone seems appropriate where a personal obligation is concerned, dealing with the fulfillment or the contravention of a Divine Commandment. Hence, the sentence opens with a subject” (Malbim on Vayikra 1:2).
According to the Malbim, because every individual is obligated to bring a sacrifice to atone for their sins before God, the Torah wants to make clear that this mitzvah is a personal command directed to the individual, as opposed to a broad principle directed towards the community. While the Malbim’s approach provides an interesting insight into how the Torah uses different grammatical structures for different kinds of mitzvot, his commentary does not offer us an explanation as to what we might learn about sacrifices themselves from the verse’s grammatical structure. Below are two commentaries that offer potential answers to this question, each of which argues that the above verse is structured in way to promote our full engagement with God.
First, in a commentary focusing on the context of this mitzvah, Rabbi Obadiah Seforno of Italy argues that proper intent is the essential quality of any ritual sacrifice. He writes:
“If he bring an offering to you,” i.e. from your very selves, with a confession and with due submission, in the spirit of the Psalmist’s “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit” (51:19), for the foolish who offer sacrifices without proper humility will find no acceptance (Seforno on Vayikra 1:2).
In this commentary, we learn that offering a sacrifice is meaningless unless it is accompanied with a particular mindset, and a sacrifice with personal disengagement is tantamount to giving no sacrifice at all. Taking Seforno’s idea one step further, Isaac Abravanel argues that the sacrifice must be accompanied by a holistic desire for change on the part of the one bringing the sacrifice:
“If any man of you bring any offering to the Lord,” i.e. of themselves, and if it “be accepted before the Lord”--if he submits all his being and will before the Lord. The Torah thus alludes to the obligations to present oneself with all one’s power and mental force, intellect and desire to serve God and cleave to Him (Isaac Abravanel on Vayikra 1:2).
Rather than assuming that sacrifice is simply a mimetic ritual where performance is all that matters, Abravanel argues that a sin offering is only complete when a person’s whole being is bound up in the performance of the sacrifice. If a person understands what piece of themselves they are giving by making the sacrifice, only then will their offering be accepted by God. In each case, these commentaries argue that full engagement with God is the most important requirement of a sacrifice, because a person who gives their entire self to the sacrifice demonstrates what the ritual act means to them.
In all likelihood, none of our children will ever offer the kind of sacrifices described in Parashat Vayikra. However, our rabbis saw the opening of our parasha as an opportunity to remind all generations of the Jewish people that full engagement is the only true pathway to divine connection. Whether in the classroom, the workplace, or at home with our family, people respond when we give our full selves to what we are doing. When we succeed in doing this, we are no longer giving a “sacrifice”; we are sharing a piece of ourselves to strengthen the most important connections in our lives.