The book of Vayikra/Leviticus that we commence reading this week, focuses primarily on the ritual sacrifices the Jews brought in the Sanctuary. To introduce the laws governing sacrifices, the Torah states: “A person who shall make an offering..” In the Hebrew language there are many ways of saying person. The most common is ish. In our text, however, the Torah uses the title adam, a name that applies to every person because they descend from the first person—Adam.
Biblical commentators have searched for the deeper meaning in employing the title adam rather than the more conventional ish in the context of sacrifices and have come up with a multitude of answers.
Midrash Tanchuma provides the following explanation: “Just as Adam sinned and brought a sacrifice, so shall you do the same.”
This explanation itself begs for further clarification. Why does the Torah have to draw an analogy from Adam to teach us the value of a sacrifice?
There are several approaches that can be taken to answer this question.
One might have thought that Adam’s sacrifice would not have been accepted by G-d, because his sin was so severe. After all, Adam was G-d’s own handiwork and he heard the commandment not to partake of the Tree of Knowledge directly from G-d. How could he have violated this commandment and still atone for it? If G-d could accept Adam’s gesture of atonement—–by offering a sacrifice—certainly G-d could forgive us for our mistakes that are far less serious than Adam’s.
On a somewhat deeper level, Ketav Sofer explains that one could have imagined that Adam did not need to atone because Adam could have used the argument that he was seduced into eating the forbidden fruit by his wife Eve. This is precisely what Adam said when G-d confronted him: “The woman that you gave me, she is the one who enticed me and I ate.” Adam could have then argued that he did not need to atone for something that was someone else’s doing. This argument is one that we frequently hear in defense of certain criminals—that it is not their fault but society’s for creating the environment and the inducements for the crime.
To reject this defense, the Midrash emphasizes that even Adam needed atonement for his sin despite the fact that he was induced and seduced into transgression. Similarly, we too cannot escape the need for atonement by placing the blame on others.
A third approach as to why it is important to know that Adam sinned and procured atonement is because it provides us with the comfort of knowing that even if one starts on the wrong foot and messes us up their life when they are young, there is always hope that they can change.
Notwithstanding the conventional wisdom that what one is taught when they are young stays with them, one is not a prisoner of their youth’s indiscretion. To be sure, Judaism believes strongly in the principle that proper moral indoctrination in one’s formative years is the most crucial ingredient in cultivating good behavior for the rest of one’s life. However, by telling us how Adam atoned for his sin, the Torah teaches, inspires and empowers us to change even when we “blew it,” at the very outset. While it is never too early to begin inculcating the core values of Judaism—the earlier and the more the better—it is also never too late to turn one’s life around.
The span of a person’s life is a metaphor for the span of human history. Indeed, the Kabbalists likened all of history to a human body and that we—the last generations of exile—are compared to the heels of Adam, the first generation of history.
The message conveyed to us by the abovementioned Midrash—that compares our ability to be atoned for to Adam’s—can be applied to our generation in particular.
When one reflects on all the negative influences that we have experienced from our very youth—war, crime, bigotry, licentiousness and other vices—we might think that it is impossible for us—who have seen more evil than any other generation—to break out of this negative cycle.
When one further considers the unprecedented degree to which we can easily access all of the negative influences that exist in every part of the world—one can become disheartened. How can I raise my children and myself to be righteous and resist the negative influences with which we are bombarded? And if we do succumb to these influences, how can we get out of this rut? It is easy to see how a pessimistic outlook can prevail.
Our teachings of Torah, teach us otherwise. In the teachings of Kabbalah we are informed that we are all part of Adam’s soul. When the Torah tells us how Adam was able to rehabilitate himself, the Torah speaks not only of the individual person called Adam, but it refers also to all of humanity, from head to toe, including our generation.
Moreover, the Kabbalists inform us that when it seems that we’ve reached the rock bottom, it is precisely then that the sacrifices we make to maintain the standards of goodness and righteousness, will usher in an age that will even transcend the level of Adam—this is the level of Moshiach.
As bleak as it may seem to many, the way our generation is successfully meeting the challenge and struggling against the evil in so many forms—our response to the events of 9/11 is one dramatic example of that—will redeem humanity and usher in an age of perpetual peace and goodness. It is crucial for us to remember that this grandiose vision for the future begins with but one small act of sacrifice, one small gesture of going against the tide of negativity in whichever form it may take. Let’s roll!