The Evil Inclination, Redeemed
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s parsha, Vayikra, initiates the third Book of the Torah. Its major theme, sacrifices, is the logical continuation of the closing section of Shemot, which described the erection of the Mishkan. The entire purpose of this edifice was to be the place where the Divine Presence made a “home” for itself in the midst of the Jewish people. Of course, the Jews had to be worthy of this great benefit by raising themselves to the level of holiness that the Creator expects of them. In His mercy, He recognizes that we are weak, prone to sin, and in need of atonement.
To facilitate this, G-d ordained the institution of sacrifices. The various types of offerings are intended to elevate both the individual and the community. While the different types of sacrifices have unique characteristics, the theme they all share is that of forgiveness.
It is interesting that the history of sacrifice goes back to the beginning of time. According to Rabbinical tradition, Adam brought a sacrifice right after he was created. At first glance, the notion of korban (sacrifice) as atonement can be challenged by Adam’s offering, because he brought it prior to the sin that caused his expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Cain and Abel both brought sacrifices, although neither had, as yet, sinned. Noah brought a sacrifice upon disembarking from the Ark. G-d found favor with it and swore never again to bring a Flood of destruction on mankind.
In my opinion, Adam’s sacrifice is the most intriguing of all. He brought it simply by virtue of the fact that he existed. It was as if he understood his nature, that while he possessed a divine soul, he was also a creature of “flesh and blood.” He was cognizant of the great dilemma of human existence: the unending conflict between the soul and the body. He was affirming the doctrine that, while man has the potential for good, he is limited by his instinctual makeup and is thus a “sinner by nature.”
Notice carefully that we do not say that man is “evil by nature.” That noxious doctrine, propagated by a different religion, constitutes a blasphemy of the Creator, who “observed His entire creation and proclaimed it to be “exceedingly good.” To label man as evil justifies the most hideous deeds he commits and absolves him of all responsibility.
Our religion affirms that man has free will, with the capacity to choose good or evil. His instinctual makeup renders him prone to sin, but the divine soul, by virtue of the wisdom it enables him to obtain, gives him the ability to recognize the difference between good and evil and to choose the good. All the evil in this world is the result of faulty choices made by morally ignorant people.
Adam in his pristine state was fully aware of his weakness and vulnerability. He recognized that his mission was to lead a life based on reason and understanding, and to master his “evil inclination.” He also knew that he had not created himself; he looked around and saw that he was living in a universe that reflected the glory and infinite wisdom of the Creator. He comprehended that everything owed its existence to the Creator, who embodied all perfection. Adam’s task was to acknowledge and be subservient to the will of his Creator. The sacrifice he offered expressed gratitude for his having been created and endowed with a “divine” soul.
The common theme uniting the sacrifices of Adam, Cain, and Noah was the recognition that G-d is the Source of all existence and the Sustainer of all life. In bringing a korban, man is offering the instinctual part of his makeup to the service of the Creator. The animal he brings to the altar represents the physical, or animalistic, aspect of his own makeup. He is saying to Hashem, “I will not allow my life to be dominated by my natural inclinations. Rather, I will conquer them and use them for the purpose that You prescribe.” This reflects the idea of serving G-d not only with the “good” inclination, but with the “evil” one as well.
When the women donated their copper mirrors to construct the washing basin in the Mishkan, Moses at first rejected them. The women had used them in Egypt to entice their husbands, who were beaten and downtrodden. They wanted to continue having relations to produce Jewish children, so the nation could keep growing, even in the most dire circumstances. Moses thought that items reflecting the “evil inclination” should not be used in the Mishkan. Hashem overruled him, saying, “These mirrors are more precious to me than anything else.”
We may ask, which is greater, the good or the evil inclination? This Midrash indicates that man can conquer his evil inclination and transform it into a vehicle that fulfills the service of G-d. In sacrifice, man offers his evil inclination to the service of his Creator, and that is why it atones for our sins.