As we begin reading Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, we find ourselves waist-deep in sacrifices. The central focus of ancient Israel’s ritual, sacrifices are foreign to us today. But in truth, we make them all the time. They may not involve quite as much blood and smoke, but still we sacrifice.
Of course, the language of the term is metaphorical. To offer a sacrifice means to give of yourself instead of keeping for yourself. Such it was with the ancients, who brought to the sanctuary livestock or produce that otherwise would have been quite well put to use at home or in commerce. Any time we give up something to which we think we are entitled, we are making a sacrifice. The question is: what is the limit of sacrifice?
Rabbi Abahu, a sage of the land of Israel in the early part of the 4th century, once said something that seemed to push the limits of sacrifice. Using this week’s Torah portion as his basis, he said: “A person should always be among the pursued and not among the pursuers. For no birds are more pursued than turtledoves and pigeons, and Scripture (Leviticus 1:14) made them fit for the altar” (Bavli Bava Kama 93a). When I saw this statement, I did a double-take. Is Rabbi Abahu really saying that it is better to be on the defensive, on the run, than to be in a position of power? What Galut mentality! Such defeatism! This is certainly not an image to celebrate in our age, is it?
As always, no text can be seen out of its context. What do we know about Rabbi Abahu that might help us understand what motivated him to advocate for being pursed? We know that he lived in Caesarea, which was the Romans’ administrative capital of the Land of Israel, the seat of the Proconsul. We know, at least from rabbinic sources, that Rabbi Abahu had good relationships with the Roman authorities, and used his connections for the benefit of the Jewish community. Living as he did as a leader of a minority population in an empire that was soon to turn unequivocally to the Church, he must have decided it was prudent to make public statements about accepting certain political realities. Did he believe them whole-hearedly? We can’t know, but we do know from other sources that he debated regularly with Jews who left the fold for Christianity. Maybe calls for rebellion were coming from his circles. For a century and a half since the Bar-Kokhva Revolt failed, Jews had lived comfortably in Caesarea, free to study Torah. Was Rabbi Abahu making a personal sacrifice for a greater communal good? Maybe that’s why the text he chose to support his idea came from the Torah’s sacrificial material.
What sacrifices do you make for the greater communal good? And where do you draw the line?