The End Never Justifies the Means

Vayikra By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Mar 27, 2004 / 5764 | Torah Commentary

Traditionally, young children were inducted into the text-based culture of Judaism through the study of Leviticus. The curriculum may be a vestige of the Temple-era when priests served as the official transmitters of Judaism. Long after the Temple was gone, homiletics reinforced ancient practice: “God said that since both sacrifices and children are in a state of purity (i.e., without blemish or sin,) let the pure occupy themselves with the pure” (Vayikra Rabbah 7:3) Perhaps it was also felt that the specificity of the laws of Leviticus posed less of a risk to faith than the theology-laden narratives of Genesis.

But it would be a mistake to think that the particularity of the Tabernacle’s sacrificial system was bereft of moral and universal principles. In the deep reading of the Rabbis, that system morphed into a wellspring of enduring ethical values. One resounding example from their treatment of the first of the sacrifices taken up by our parashah, the ‘olah, the burnt offering, which was entirely consumed by the altar’s fire, should suffice to show their exegetical ingenuity.

The ‘olah is a free-will offering. As Rashi, our compendium of rabbinic interpretation, makes clear, the Hebrew adam ki yakriv mikem “whenever anyone of you presents an offering to the Lord” (1:2) implies a non-obligatory act, a self-imposed move to draw nearer to God (the root meaning of korban is to come close.) Moreover, because the sacrifice is an extra, don’t lower the bar. On the contrary, as the word tamim “complete, perfect” in the next verse emphasizes, the sacrifice is to be without blemish (similarly Leviticus 22:19-24.) To find favor in the eyes of God, the sacrifice must be unmarred. We can only infer from a very elliptical text that God preferred the sacrifice of Abel over that of Abel’s brother Cain because the latter, though the first to approach God with a free-will offering, chose to stint on its quality (Genesis 4:3-5.)

In the same spirit of largesse, the Rabbis understood the text to demand that the sacrifice be wholly the property of the supplicant. That is the force of the Hebrew word mikem (1:2), literally “from you;” the offering must come from your possessions (TB Sukkah 30a.) Hence, the choice of adam “a man or person” for the subject of the sentence, a common noun that brings to mind the name of Adam. In his wonderfully concise manner, Rashi connects the dots: “Just as the primordial Adam never sacrificed anything stolen because everything belonged to him, so must you refrain from sacrificing stolen goods.”

With this prohibition, we are on the brink of a major rabbinic principle. But first, you must indulge me one final exegetical detour. In the world, of the Rabbis, big ideas spring from fine details. The Mishnah declares axiomatically that we cannot fulfill the commandment of shaking the Lulav on Sukkot with one that is stolen. The talmudic discussion that ensues in the Gemara (BT Sukkah 29b-30a) is troubled by the sweep of the declaration which makes no distinction between the first and the second day, nor indeed all the other days of Sukkot. The basis for proscribing a stolen Lulav on the first day is biblical. The Torah states unequivocally that “on the first day you shall take for yourselves, lakhem,” which the Rabbis interpret to mean mishelakhem, “from that which is yours (Leviticus 23:40.)” But what is the basis for the second day? To which, the Gemara answers more generally that shaking a Lulav which we have lifted from someone else would constitute fulfilling a divine commandment by means of a sinful act, a combination profoundly loathsome to God. Witness the excoriation of the Prophet Malachi 1:13: You defile my altar “by bringing that which is stolen, lame and sick.”

The same lofty principle that one cannot do God’s bidding by doing violence to God’s commandments, is then applied by the Gemara, to the realm of sacrifices. Despite the fact that we might think that a stolen animal passes into the possession of a thief after the original owner has given up all hope of ever recovering his property, God would find such a sacrifice abhorrent, for it would still be an instance of fulfilling a divine ordinance by means of a sinful act. This time the Gemara cites a denunciation by the Prophet Isaiah (61:8): “For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery with a burnt offering.”

In short, holiness can never emerge from sin. There is no redeeming quality to the performance of a mitzvah mired in transgression. The power of a ritual does not cleanse the impurity of its source. To give charity, for example, from wealth gained through tax evasion, cooked books or other crimes is an act stripped of all moral worth. According to Julie Salamon in her new book Rambam’s Ladder(p. 13,) “A wave of corporate scandals generated a renewed cynicism about philanthropy. How else to react to the stadium, the cultural institutions and the hospitals throughout Houston that bear the imprint of the Enron Corporation, when it was revealed that this corporate largesse was built on corruption – and at the expense of thousands of people who lost their livelihoods?” Surely, now that the truth about Enron’s criminal practices is beyond dispute, some portion of those charitable contributions should be repaid to a fund, to which the perpetrators must also be forced to remit, in order to compensate the victims of the fraud?

The Gemara closes its discussion of tainted mitzvot with a parable. We are to understand the verse from Isaiah in the following sense: “An earthly king was passing a toll station. He instructed his servants to pay the toll collectors. But they protested, ‘Are not all these tolls yours?’ To which he responded, ‘Let all who traverse these roads learn from me and not flee from paying the tolls!’ This is what Isaiah had in mind: ‘I the Lord hate robbery with burnt offerings! Let my children learn form me and flee from robbery.'” The ultimate restraint on human greed is the call to imitate God. What is repugnant to God ought to be repugnant to us. In the divine calculus, the end never justifies the means. Tainted mitzvot fail substantively to make us or the world even a whit better.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-yikra are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.