The Shame of Embarrassment – Tzav 5780

D'var Torah | Leviticus

Reading the commentators on the sacrificial rites, one can get the impression that worst sin imaginable is the public humiliation of another human being. For instance, Don Isaac Abarbanel notes that the daily meal offering consisted of a tenth part of an ephah of fine flour (Leviticus 6:13). This meal offering is called the “poor man’s offering” and it is the very first of all the daily offerings. Abarbanel gives two reasons why this should be so. Since it is the most humble of all the possible offerings it signals that the priests should enter into their daily service of God with humility. Secondly, it will avoid causing embarrassment to the poor and the indigent.


What Abarbanel has in mind is that the obvious order of the sacrifices would be the most valuable first. Were this order followed, the offerings of the poor would necessarily comes last and this would call attention to their poverty. However, giving precedence to the poor man’s offering – while not alleviating the suffering of the poor – will, at least, obviate his embarrassment.


On a text that appears a few verses later (Leviticus 6:18), Rabbenu Bahya ibn Pakuda comments on the location of the sacrifices on the sacrificial altar. The Torah states that the sin offering be sacrificed at the north side of the altar: the same location for the burnt offering. This seemingly irrelevant fact is actually of great importance. Committing a sin is worse than merely considering committing a sin but both require a penitential sacrifice. And, in both cases, the animal to be slaughtered is slaughtered on the north side. To the observer, there is no way to tell whether the propitiant, that is, the person who brought the sacrifice, actually committed the sin or only thought about it, saving the propitiant from embarrassment. The observer would have no way of telling the nature of the sin.


Both Abarbanel and Rabbenu Bahya exemplify the rabbinic teaching that it is better to enter a fiery furnace than to publicly shame another human being (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b). The value of human dignity is not just a rabbinic affectation. It is a principle the rabbis believed was embedded in the Torah.




Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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