Jewish Journal

Accidental Talmudist: Day 2544 - The Substitution Principle

by Salvador Litvak

April 6, 2012 | 12:41 pm

The author and his mom, Katalina Litvak

My mom loves that I’ve been reading the Talmud for seven years, and that I am now the Accidental Talmudist. In all this time, however, she never asked what I am actually learning…until today.

It would’ve been nice if this morning’s page contained one of those profound sound bites that instantly spark conversation. For example:

Hillel would say… One who increases flesh, increases worms; one who increases possessions, increases worry. (Pirkei Avot 2:7)

In truth, however, I had been reading a difficult passage about the laws of sacrifices in the ancient Temple - a passage so difficult even the Sages had trouble with it:

This itself is difficult! First you said, “All can make temurah…” Then the Mishnah taught, “Not that a person is permitted to make temurah.” (Temurah 2a)

A temurah is a substitute for an animal previously designated as a sacrificial offering. Remember that in the ancient world, religion without sacrificial offerings did not exist . When the Almighty revealed the Torah at Sinai, however, the nature and manner of the sacrifice was radically redefined.

First, no more human sacrifice - a bizarre and horrific idea to us, but altogether common among agrarian pagans who feared they’d starve if they did not propitiate their weather and fertility gods.

Rambam says the human race needed the age of Temple sacrifices to help it transition out of its barbaric infancy, and that is what happened. Recall that the Temple was not just a place where Jews offered their gifts - many others came as well. And the world evolved.

Inherent to that evolution were the very specific laws of the sacrifices. One such rule is that once an unblemished animal is designated for offering upon the Altar, it belongs to Almighty, even before it is slaughtered. If the giver then tries to substitute a new animal for the first, he commits a transgression, with the result that both animals become consecrated.

“All can make temurah” refers to the fact that different classes of individuals can commit this transgression, even though one might have thought certain classes were exempt if one were expert in the applicable laws. Subtle distinctions abound, and generations of Sages debated every case and nuance of the temurah principle.

My mom nodded, and then asked what any reasonable person who has not studied Talmud might ask. “But why spend so much energy understanding these laws now, when the Temple has been gone for 2000 years?”

Many answers have been given. The Sages themselves taught that one who recites the Torah’s description of sacrificial rites is considered as if he actually performs them. (Taanit 27b)

That’s quite a claim: study the rules governing an action, and you are credited with performing the action itself - I wish that were the case with taxes!

But in this situation, the equivalency works because the purpose of sacrifices was never to “feed” the Holy One. G-D doesn’t need our sacrifices. The sacrificial system was given to us for our benefit, not His. And we can receive that benefit without spilling blood if we dig into the system’s rules in search of inherent principles by which that system elevates our souls.

In the case of temurah, Rambam says our innermost intentions are known to the Torah, and this law serves to forestall us from thinking, “Boy, I know I have a lot to atone for, but I just dedicated my choicest ram for the Altar, and I’m sure G-D will be just as thankful for that ram over there,  which might be smaller, but has such nice wool…”

In other words, we use our big brains to fabricate excuses, and we dilute the holy urge for atonement and personal growth.

Now let’s apply the substitution principle to a modern situation. Last week, I wrote about the approaching Passover Seder as an opportunity to free yourself, with G-D’s help, from Pharaoh, i.e. a bad habit which enslaves you (to read last week’s post, “Be Da Mensch,” click here). Examples of Pharaohs might be smoking, shouting, passivity, lack of exercise, etc.

If you bring a conscious desire for your own personal redemption to the Seder, (and our Christian friends might recall that the Last Supper was a Seder) you can make 2012 the year that you cross the Red Sea, and leave that Pharaoh behind.

Invariably, however, you will slip backwards in your newfound freedom, as the bad habit lulls you back toward your old patterns. And the mechanism by which we slip is substitution.

For example, I want to start exercising more, and I have an treadmill in my basement. The first day I use it. The second day, I think it’s so cold down there, but if a go to the driving range, it will be sunny, and hitting balls is also a kind of exercise. The third day I think, I was frustrated at the range yesterday, but If I watch the pros play golf on TV, I’ll learn something that will motivate me to go back tomorrow. And by the fourth day, the couch has enslaved me again.

So the temurah principle is a pattern interrupt for those wishing to grow in mind, body and spirit. When you catch yourself slipping back toward Egypt, by rationalizing a substitute for the action required by your new plan, you DO BOTH! Hit the treadmill AND the range.

That will cost you a lot of time today, but it will help you remember not to engage in substitution tomorrow, and then you will not slip back toward Egypt.

And my mom liked that.

May we all merit to learn wisdom from our ancients, and may we all grow in spirit, heart, and mind this Passover. Chag Pesach Sameach!

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Salvador Litvak wrote and directed the Passover comedy and cult hit “When Do We Eat?” His current film, “Saving Lincoln”, explores Abraham Lincoln’s conflicted tenure as commander-in-chief through the eyes of his dear friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon.

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Salvador Litvak is a Chilean Jewtino who’s lived in the U.S. since he was five. He graduated from Harvard, NYU Law and UCLA Film. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and...

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