By Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin, 3/27/2020
For some people, picking out the right gift is excruciating. This may be why my wife wisely chose her own engagement ring. We have never gone on a trip which did not require an obligatory visit on her part to the tchotchke store in pursuit of the perfect gift for family and friends. To save time, I sometimes suggest a gift card or Venmo. To no avail. In my worst moments, I protest that in essence this practice of exchanging gifts among a circle of friends is essentially shopping for oneself. As you can imagine, my heartfelt remonstrations always miss the mark.
As we begin the Book of Vayikra, I want to share wisdom from two of my favorite teachers–Moshe Halbertal and Martin Buber. In his slim, exquisite work On Sacrifice (2012), Moshe Halbertal focuses on the anxiety and danger of offering gifts. Halbertal notes how it would be unseemly for a guest to bring “a sum of money equivalent to the giver’s estimation of the cost of the meal.” (26) “In bringing an object rather than cash to a dinner party…the giver (read: my wife, not me) expresses her attentiveness to the recipients tastes, which is the ultimate mark of care.” (27)
Halbertal begins with the Torah’s first account of an offering or minchah in the story of Cain and Abel.
Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The LORD paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. (Gen. 4: 2-5)
He notes how “the story stresses the expectation of the giver that his sacrifice be accepted, and the utter devastation that results from its rejection.” (8) Surveying the commentaries, he notes that despite so many attempts, the question of “why Cain’s offering was refused is a mystery.” (9) He can see no “substantive reason” why Abel’s sacrifice is chosen over Cain’s. The term minchah, an offering from one who is less powerful to one who is more powerful is connected to the anxiety of offering a sacrifice. The possibility of rejection is deeply connected to both trauma and violence.
When one thinks of the extraordinary detail of the various sacrifices found in our Torah portion, one can understand Halbertal’s argument that “adherence to detailed routine makes the passage from laying down [offering] to acceptance less fraught. Ritual is thus a protocol that protects from the risk of rejection.” Like legal systems, ritual “imposes order while confronting the unreliability and capriciousness of emotional responses.” (15)
While ritual has the benefit of reducing anxiety and danger and enhancing safety, predictability, and control, other dangers emerge. Ritual can turn into magic or manipulation of God, i.e., if you perform the proper steps in the proper order at the proper time, all will be well. While sacrificial offerings are meant to bring the practitioner closer to God, the opposite may result. By closing “the gap between giving and receiving, thereby ensuring acceptance of the gift and leaving nothing voluntary to the recipient,” the result Halbertal notes “ is the exact opposite of intimacy.” (18)
Given my anxiety that this offering or drash will not be accepted when my virtual 10-12 minutes are up, let me close with a few applications of Halbertal’s understanding of the anxiety of offering to other realms.
God and Humans
We can apply Halbertal’s analysis of the danger of human offerings to God to the danger of God’s offerings to humans. Halbertal compares God’s dilemma to what he calls the “rich husband syndrome.” How does the most powerful actor in the world know that (S)he is loved? In Halbertal’s account, both the stories of Job and Abraham in the Akedah can be seen as tests of loyalty in which God needs proof that God is loved not instrumentally but for Godself. From another perspective, we could ask: when God offers God’s greatest gifts to humanity and the Jewish people–life, free will, covenant–we can only imagine God’s anxiety if these gifts are not received or used well. When the human partner rejects God’s gifts (through ingratitude or disloyalty), God responds with rage and violence–destroying humanity with the Flood or threatening to destroy the Jewish people after building the Golden Calf.
Buber’s account of Religion and Religiosity
Halbertal observes how the predictability of both ritual and law serve to make the world a more stable place. We can compare Halbertal’s account of ritual as a response to the anxiety of bringing offerings to Buber’s contrast between religion and religiosity. For Buber, religiosity is “man’s sense of wonder and adoration, an ever anew becoming, an ever anew articulation and formulation of his feeling that, transcending his conditioned being yet bursting from its very core, there is something that is unconditioned.” Religion, by contrast, constitutes laws and customs, rites and dogmas which become ossified and unalterably binding. Buber’s fear is that religion (like ritual) instead of coexisting in dynamic tension with religiosity, will mobilize its endless rules and procedures to enslave and destroy living religiosity.
Interpersonal Relationships: Buber’s I-It and I-You
In his work I and Thou, Buber echoes this idea of religion and religiosity and addresses the anxiety of risking I-You relationships. He describes how I-It relationships are orderly, instrumental, controlled. “The It-word hangs together in space and time. The You-word does not hang together in space and time.” I-It relationships, like Halbertal’s account of ritual, provide comfort, continuity, consistency and predictability. In contrast, I-You moments require presence, participation of one’s whole being, mutuality, and openness. They “appear as queer lyric-dramatic episodes. Their spell may be seductive, but they pull us dangerously to extremes, loosening the well-tried structure, leaving behind more doubt than satisfaction, shaking up our security – altogether uncanny, altogether indispensable.”
Buber concludes Part 1 of I and Thou: “And in all the seriousness of truth, listen: without It a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with that is not human.”
Without I-It, we lack structure and order, mastery, predictability and responsibility. We lack the means to overcome the fear and anxiety of our natural dependency. In Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s words: “Human existence is a dignified one because it is a glorious, majestic, powerful existence…Man of old who could not fight disease and succumbed in multitudes to yellow fever or any other plague with degrading helplessness could not lay claim to dignity. Only the man who builds hospitals, discovers therapeutic techniques and saves lives is blessed with dignity…” ( “The Lonely Man of Faith”)
And, at the same time, there is another equally urgent demand: the longing for I-You relationships.
In The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when control of space, the acquisition of things in space, becomes our sole concern.”
May we support one another in today’s demand for building reliability, mastery and responsibility. May we have the courage to respond to Heschel’s call to face sacred moments together.