Sacrifice and Suffering in the Thought of R. Weinberg

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



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Lecture #33: Sacrifice and Suffering in the Thought of R. Weinberg


Many scholars have studied the halakhic responsa of R. Weinberg; few know about his contribution to the world of Jewish thought.  His Li-Frakim includes, among other things, insightful readings of aggadot and powerful sermons.  Our discussion now turns to an analysis of some of the central themes in this work. 


The theme of the need for sacrifice reverberates through several of the sermons.  For example, the midrash (Vayikra Rabba 9:8) states that the Jewish People became frightened upon hearing about the sacrificial order.  Moshe calmed them down by saying, “Study Torah and you need not fear any of this.”   What was the initial cause of fright and how did Moshe’s mention of the Torah alleviate the tension? According to some commentators, the people thought that achieving atonement depends on the Temple and the sacrificial order.  Foreseeing the temple’s eventual destruction, they became frightened that Judaism could not continue absent the Temple.  Moshe reassured them that Torah study would replace the merit of the sacrifices.  R. Weinberg rejects this interpretation, arguing that there is no reason to attribute to Am Yisrael a prophetic vision regarding the Temple’s destruction.  Instead, he explains that the people were afraid of the very idea of sacrifices; they were reluctant to relinquish items precious to them.  Moshe’s reference to Torah study refers not to the merit of Torah study but to Torah ideas and ideals that motivate sacrifice.  In other words, we do not sacrifice as a goal in and of itself but in order to actualize our most important principles.[1]


In several sermons, R. Weinberg utilizes the sacrificial order as a symbol of willingness to sacrifice rather than focusing on the narrower meaning of offerings brought on the altar.  In one sermon,[2] R. Weinberg cites a midrash (Vayikra Rabba 21:11) that says that the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur with the merit of Shabbat.  R. Weinberg explains that Shabbat provides something crucial beyond the sacrificial order.   In fact, he argues, the sanctity of Shabbat overrides the sanctity of the Temple; we therefore cease construction of the Mishkan on Shabbat.  While the destruction of the Temple represents a significant religious loss, Judaism survived in the Diaspora without it. But Judaism cannot survive without Shabbat.   The institution of Shabbat transforms every simple Jewish home into a Temple and every downtrodden Jew into a priest. 


Historical context helps provide fuller understanding of R. Weinberg’s goals in this sermon.  He explicitly criticizes those “Temple Jews” who restrict their religious obligations to the synagogue.  Modernity created a situation in which Jews attend shul on Shabbat morning and then proceeded to work in their businesses in the afternoon.  To counter such a practice, R. Weinberg speaks of Shabbat as more important than Temple service.  Nonetheless, we have no reason to doubt the sincerity of his remarks.


The emphasis on Shabbat includes a discussion of the sacrifices demanded by Shabbat observance.  It is not easy for a struggling store owner to close up his shop for two consecutive days.  R. Weinberg understands the difficulty, but he exhorts the audience to make this sacrifice.  Indeed, all the most valuable things in life make similar demands. 


It is difficult to bring sacrifices, claim the Shabbat desecrators, but is there an alternative?  Not only religion, and not only Judaism, but every ethic demands sacrifices.  There is no beauty or greatness in the world without sacrifices.  Without sacrifice, there is no love, friendship, family happiness, charity, or societal life.[3]  


R. Weinberg adds a clever new reading of the biblical juxtaposition between Shabbat and the commandment of honoring parents (Vayikra 19:3).  Whereas our Sages derived from this that adhering to a parental request does not override Shabbat observance, R. Weinberg finds another message.  Shabbat provides the opportunity for parents to positively influence their children.  Busy parents cannot serve as exciting religious models for emulation during the work week.  When Shabbat reveals the father in all his glory and the mother in all her splendor, their child sees the beauty of Jewish life.


Our ability to sacrifice also ultimately impacts on our youth.  The Torah describes the journey of Avraham and Yitzchak on the way to the akeda: “And the two of them walked together” (Bereishit 22:6, 8).  For R. Weinberg, this verse symbolizes the joint vision of parent and child.  The twentieth century has witnessed many parents frustrated by their failure to raise children who share their Jewish ideals.  What explains our inability to educate children with the success of Avraham?  We must demand sacrifices of our children and model such willingness to sacrifice in our own lives.  If they see our unwillingness to forego for the sake of Judaism, they naturally conclude that Judaism does not truly bear ultimate value.  If, like Avraham, we exhibit intense dedication to our values, then our children will learn to value them as well.


A delicate balance animates Avraham’s mood on the way to Mount Moriah.  On the one hand, Abraham embodies joyous fulfillment of the divine command, even when those commands are quite difficult.  Whether our children hear us happily performing mitzvot or groaning about religious demands surely affects them.  On the other hand, those who love their children are obviously pained when asking them to sacrifice.  Avraham cried at the time of the akeda, and those tears blinded Yitzchak (Bereishit Rabba 65:10).[4]  We convey to our children the joys of religious life even as we empathize with the difficulties of sacrifice.[5]


Another derasha delivered in Berlin during World War I echoes the call for sacrifice.[6]  R. Weinberg notes how Jewish tradition utilizes the shofar both at times of festive joy and at times of war.  The shofar sounds call both for introspection and for physical courage.  R. Weinberg explains that this dichotomy reveals something about Judaism’s approach to military combat.  Jews never idealized war for conquest and subjugating others as legitimate goals in their own right; rather, they went to war as a means of bringing an ethical and holy vision to people with a savage culture.   Peace agreements therefore demanded that the conquered people abandon their pagan lifestyle.  Viewed in this light, the shofar’s call to war also revolves around a spiritual and moral message.


To support his idea that Judaism lacks enthusiasm for war per se, R. Weinberg cites the famous verses in which Kind David relates that he cannot build the Temple because he spilled much blood (Divrei Ha-yamim I 22:8).  Another example is found in our practice of blowing one hundred shofar blasts on Rosh Hashana.  Tosafot (Rosh Hashana 33b) say that these one hundred sounds commemorate the cries of Sisera’s mother when she heard of her son’s demise.  In R. Weinberg’s words, “Many hundreds of years have passed since then, and the Jewish conscience still cannot forget the sighs of a suffering and innocent mother.”[7]  No bloodthirsty people could think in such terms.


At the same time, the Rosh Hashana shofar does reflect a war cry - the combat refers not to battle with other people, however, but to humanity’s struggle with itself and its animalistic aspects.  R. Weinberg mentions the gentile criticism that Jews separate from the community when the times demand sacrifice.   Presumably, the criticism refers to Jewish attempts to avoid the draft of various gentile armies over the centuries.  R. Weinberg defends our practice: “It is not possible to conquer our hearts for ideals that bring destruction to humanity.  However, we were the first to offer sacrifices for an ethical vision.”  In other words, we avoided sacrifice for the sake of Tsarist Russia’s territorial expansion; we willingly sacrificed for authentic religious ideals.


We can appreciate the emphases in the sermons above when they are viewed in the light of early twentieth century Judaism.  Emancipation, Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the collapse of the ghetto walls created novel opportunities for Western Jews.  Many were tempted to abandon the ways of their forefathers in the hopes of achieving a more secure and affluent life for their families.  Facing this population, R. Weinberg stresses the need for sacrifice and idealism.


R. Weinberg’s aggadic interpretations reveal a focus on the impact of suffering.  The first chapter of Berakhot contains an extensive analysis of suffering, and R. Weinberg contributes three interpretations analyzing sections of that gemara.  The gemara mentions a model of “afflictions of love,” a suffering not rooted in sin but rather in an expression of divine favor (Berakhot 5a), and develops an a fortiori argument from the case of a slave. If a gentile slave receives his freedom after his master knocks out the slave’s eye or tooth, then surely suffering which afflicts the entirety of person’s body enhances the sufferer.  But how does suffering benefit a person?


To answer this question, R. Weinberg notes that slavery consists of both physical servitude and a subjugation of the spirit.  The latter actually reflects the more terrible aspect of slavery. It is most tragic when a slave, beaten down from years of back- breaking work, lacks even the aspiration for freedom.  R. Weinberg argues that occasions in which the master mistreats his slave to the extent of permanent limb damage remind the slave that life was never meant to include such afflictions.  At that point, the slave realizes his terrible situation and yearns for freedom. 


This idea answers a question posed by the Hafla’ah, R. Pinchas Horowitz.  The Tannaim debate whether it is a zekhut (privilege) or a chova (obligation) for a slave to achieve freedom (Gittin 12b).  The position contending that it is a privilege requires little explanation.  R. Meir views the slave’s freedom as a disadvantage for the slave because he loses certain rights.  For example, the slave of a priest loses the ability to eat teruma upon achieving freedom.  R. Horowitz wonders how R. Meir’s position coheres with the idea that we free a slave when his master knocks out a tooth.  Do we punish a slave for the violent crimes of his master?  R. Weinberg explains that R. Meir stated his position only regarding slaves immersed in the identity of servitude.  Once a slave awakens to the human tragedy of slavery, he immediately values his freedom much more than any rights he holds as a slave.  Thus, the violence itself impacts on the slave’s attitude and converts freedom into a zekhut.


In the same way, every person has certain abilities and strengths lurking within him that are currently bound and await release.  Suffering releases those forces and the human being grows into a different person.  This explanation provides a new perspective on “afflictions of love.”  God obviously does not enjoy afflicting suffering. He created a world with difficulties as a way of promoting character development and growth.[8]


The same Talmudic page compares suffering to salt: “Just as salt sweetens meat, so too suffering cleanses a person’s sins.”  R. Weinberg contends that the parallel to salt also refers to the need for suffering to be distributed in the proper measure.  Eating plain salt provides no pleasure; a life dominated by suffering does not enable constructive purpose.  This limitation enables R. Weinberg to write about the positive impact of suffering without masochistically embracing suffering as the desired goal of life.  Overcoming difficulties facilitates human growth, but we do not aspire to a life of misery.[9]


Reflecting on the above, we cannot help but be reminded of the many difficulties R. Weinberg faced in his own life.  This connection between biography and ideology in no way undermines the cogency of R. Weinberg’s thought.  Quite the contrary!  R. Weinberg did not sit back in a comfortable chair sipping a drink while writing about the importance of sacrifice and suffering.  Rather, he experienced these things upon his own flesh, and this gives him the credibility to write about it.  Despite a difficult life, he continued to develop and contribute great works to the canon of Torah literature.

[1] Li-Frakim (Jerusalem, 2002), pp. 502-505.

[2] Ibid., pp. 518-522.

[3] Ibid., p. 521.

[4] This midrash actually attributes the tears to the angels, but R. Weinberg interprets the angelic tears as symbolizing the emotional turmoil of our first patriarch. 

[5] The thoughts in this and the preceding paragraph appear in Li-Frakim, pp. 514-517.

[6] Ibid., pp. 510-513. 

[7] Ibid., p. 512.

[8] Ibid., pp. 387-388.  For a more developed treatment of this and other approaches to “afflictions of love,” see my Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada (Jersey City: Ktav, 2009), pp. 151-155.

[9] Li-Frakim, p. 389.