Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23
We have just marked 70 years since the miracle of Israel was established. The product of manifold forces, of course, the major contributing factor from the human side (- leaving aside the miraculous factor) was the revolution of will undergone by the Jewish people. Long before Israel was proclaimed a state, the political visionary, Theodore Herzl, called out to the Jews: “Im tirtzu – eyn zu aggadah! – If you will it, it is not a legend.” Everything depended on our will – ratzon.
The word, ratzon, has a different meaning and usage in the Torah and in most religious texts of our tradition. It does not mean “will” so much as “acceptance, feeling pleased with [something].” Thus we pray, “Yih’yu l’ratzon imrei fi – may the words of my mouth be acceptable [to God].” On Shabbat we pray, “r’tzeh vim’nuhatenu – [God] be pleased with our [Sabbath] rest.”
This word appears in our Torah portion as part of a somewhat fragmented set of verses. These verses tell us that it is imperative that a sacrifice, if it is to be acceptable, must be offered whole and unblemished. But the way the verses are written seems awkward:
“Any person of the House of Israel, or any who live within Israel, who shall offer his sacrifice, on behalf of all their vows and gifts which they may offer to the Eternal to be consumed” [on the altar’s fire]
“For your acceptance – lirtzonkhem – a whole male of the cattle, of the sheep and of the goats.
“Anything with a blemish in it you shall not offer, for it will not be for acceptance for you.” (Lev. 22:18 – 20)
The word “for your acceptance” sticks out as it introduces an independent verse that could easily have been included in the previous verse, without the interruption of the word, such as: “all their vows and gifts which they may offer to the Eternal to be consumed [on the altar’s fire] – must be a whole male of the cattle, of the sheep and of the goats.”
It seems that this word is injected here to play multiple roles. It emphasizes what is at stake. As with giving a gift to anyone, we can either go through the motions, simply to fulfill a sense of obligation, or we can try to actually please the recipient of the gift. The case before us concerns voluntary gifts to God. In that sense each gift is given of our own free will, our ratzon. But, although we are the initiators of the act, through our own will, we cannot perform the act any way we wish. For, we feel it is important that God like our gift. And, in addition, while we offer these gifts in the hopes that God will be pleased with them – l’ratzon, we also hope to feel pleased, ourselves, in succeeding in giving God a gift that God will find pleasing. So the word “lirtzonkhem” plays with both sides of the meaning of the word. “If this is really what you want,” says the Torah, “then do it right, for your own acceptance.”
(In light of this discussion, how might we understand the use of the word ratzon in our prayer of Ashrei? It appears there twice (Ps. 145:16, 19). Does it mean the same thing in both places, or are there differences between the two verses?)
Rabbi David Greenstein
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image: “Theodor Herzl” in the public domain.