In the opening verses of the Torah portion of Vayikra, we find this line (verse 3), translated in the 1917 Jewish Publication Society edition as:

If his offering be a burnt-offering of the herd, he shall offer it a male without blemish; he shall bring it to the door of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD.
The JPS here translates the phrase lirtzono, which literally means “according to his will,” to refer to the will of God: In presenting this offering, it is important to follow the instructions so that God will accept it.

This one word, lirtzono, has been the subject of debate among the commentators, and others offer a strikingly different interpretation. Rashi, following the Sifra, tells us that the verse comes to teach as follows:

“He shall bring it” teaches that we force him [to bring an offering]. You might have thought that this means even when it’s against his will. Therefore the Torah states: “Lirtzono,” “According to his will.” How so? We force him until he says, ‘I will it.’
Here the subject of lirtzono is the bringer of the sacrifice, not God. Fair enough. But what Rashi points us to is a more profound issue involved in the act of divine service: If we are to serve God with our own wills, what do we do when our will is not aligned with God’s?

For Rashi, the options–or perhaps the solution–includes forcing ourselves, or others, to want to serve God. This may sound extreme, and no doubt it can be taken in that direction. But it can also be taken in directions that more palatable to our sensibilities, such as in the case of a recalcitrant husband who refuses to give his wife a get, or religious bill of divorce. According to Jewish law, a get must also be given freely. So Maimonides states that a Jewish court can force a man who refuses to give his wife a get, and he quotes precisely this teaching: “We force him until he says, ‘I will it.'”

How does Maimonides justify this? “We do not say someone’s will is violated unless it is for something which one is not obligated to do by the Torah… But one whose evil inclination has overtaken him so that he has transgressed a commandment, and who is compelled by others to do that the Torah obligates him to do… this is not the violation of his will. Rather, he violated himself with evil thoughts.” (Laws of Divorce 2:20)

In the world and society in which we live, nothing is more sacrosanct than the notion of individual will. That is one of the fundamental contributions of modernity, particularly as it has been elaborated in the American context. The result is what the Jewish scholars Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen described as “the sovereign self,” in their 2000 book The Jew Within. We do what we do because we want to do it, because “it works for us,” in the words of Rabbi Brad Hisrchfield of CLAL. We are the arbiters of our own truths, religious and otherwise.

The problem comes, however, in the fact that we cannot always trust ourselves to know or do what is right–whether the yardstick we use is our own health and satisfaction, or whether it is the service of God. In fact, as Rashi and Maimonides remind us, sometimes we need others–our friends, our community, the law–to force us to do what is right. More frequently, it is not a question of force. It is more subtle, a question of influence and education, both conscious and unconscious. The Torah, as Rashi and Rambam both remind us, is built on a vision of individuals living in community, and living with a greater sense of context, purpose, and service than their own fulfillment. That is the basic idea of korban, sacrifice, that forms the substance of Parshat Vayikra.

Shabbat Shalom.

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