This weeks reading we start a new book of the Torah, VaYikra, and it talks a lot about the details of the animal sacrifices. There is a slightly puzzling phrase at the beginning of the chapter which says “korban yakriv mi’kem” literally a “sacrifice bring from you”. The Hassidic masters jump on this verse and explain that it’s not enough to serve God with your possessions, but you have to sacrifice your self.
The Rabbi’s I met in my own spiritual journey, would direct their interpretation of sacrifice towards me and strongly encourage me to give up my individuality and become “Normal” and the same as everyone else, or simply follow their all embracing interpretation of Judaism.
When first coming into contact with a monastic lifestyle, I was interested in why my Rabbi’s started laughing when I used the words, “I”, “me” or “my”. Of course they were not only being a little condescending but they were also trying to teach me something, something that they felt was central to my own spiritual development, namely self nullification (Bittul) or loosing the ego.
The problem is that this idea isn’t at all widely understood by the way that I hope it was originally meant.
‘Bittul’ or self nullification, as it was and might still be taught in the different monastic communities I have lived in, was in effect and actual practice, a spiritually motivated form of masochism. And it was used primarily as a tool to impose conformity within the monastery/ Yeshiavah.
I remember that even the notion that ‘There is nothing but Him’ I.e. God, was used to remind the initiates that we were nothing.
Now of course all of this information can be taken in any number of ways, but the way I took it was not a positive letting go of my limited self obsessed universe, in exchange for comfortable trust and awareness of the unity of all things.
But rather as a complete and utter destruction of my self and everything I was, or had been, was falling away into the great and infinite abyss of the unknown.
I of course tried to hold on to some sort of identity, some notion of self, all the while, everything that I didn’t hold on to was been stripped away, sucked falling into the great Nothing – the Kabbalistic Ayin.
These where tumultuous and scary times, conform or risk alienation, would I be giving up enough of myself so that the rabbi smile at me today? Or would I be invisible?
Was this also part of my letting go of self identity? Was this part of the program? To leave everything behind and become someone else? To wash away the memories of a life previous from entering the monastery?
“Do, do it, don’t ask questions!”, “First do and then ask!”, “Overcome your limitations every day”, “Overcome the limitations of your previous day”, “learn more”, “do more”, “forget the past”, “embrace the future”, “read more”, “internalise it more”, “become it more”, “stop resisting it”, “it is holy and good for your soul even if you or your lowly body doesn’t like it”, “the body must be smashed like a piece of wood on a fire for it to catch light”, “you must crush your body and your physical desires, your evil inclination, your animal soul, so you can set your holy soul free”. “You must be a sacrifice” – I was told.
Paradoxically, in amongst this orgy of self depreciation, whispers of a different voice can be heard in the rush of air between the pages of these masters. Ideas and realities discovered in the plane of non-being that disclose a glimmer of true Being.
The well meaning rabbis who inherited these teachings often merely translated them into their own private language of “sacrifice”, meaning to painfully give up, to sacrifice part or all of your self in the process of self destruction and annihilation of the body and ego in masochistic service to some abstract, uncaring and sadistic notion of the Almighty.
But this was never wholly the original intention or understanding. The Torah is describing the spiritual process of sacrifice.
Let’s just remind ourselves (and any masochistic rabbis reading this) that God is ONE, wholly and absolutely. To become a sacrifice to God means to surrender your whole life, your fear, pain, anxiety and sense of separation from the All, from the One.
The process of sacrificing an animal on the alter of God, is describing an internal process of dissolving fear, pain in the light of God’s absolute Oneness and perfection.
But the sacrifice has to be complete, this means doing Teshuva on your whole life, reflecting on everything that has every happened and resolving to accept and truly realize that it was all God, all good and perfect, especially those things that were horrible and painful. Doing Teshuva on your Teshuva.
Also looking at your current life, examining your own thoughts, feelings and actions to see if they are in line with the Oneness of the Universe, are they expressing the light and love of your divine soul?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (the Moshiach one) explains in line with this idea that Shechita the actual slaughter of the animal, means giving up any association or gain of physical pleasure for the gain our independent selves.
But this does not mean leading a life without pleasure, but rather a life without a sense of separation, without the usually lustings and desires caused by seeing and feeling yourself like an individual self pleasing, pleasure seeking animal.
We take the elements of our animal spirit, who maybe like a sheep, cow or bull and let it go, allow it to dissolve in the oneness and bliss light of God.
So our very being set ablaze in divine light, there is no element of our being, which hasn’t surrendered to the total perfection and acceptance of this universe being completely God. Letting go of our identity with fear, pain or separateness, we become a vessel for the light of our soul to shine and we become consumed in love, in the Temple of God, on the Alter of our lives.