Are You a Bull Or a Lamb? // Is Purim Akin to a Jewish Halloween?
Are You a Bull Or a Lamb?
A Life Lesson by Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Not only do animal-rights groups have difficulty with this week’s Parshah; but also many, if not most people in our modern era, have a problem with the whole concept of animal sacrifice, which is a major theme of the third book of the Torah, Leviticus.
The second verse in the book lends itself to some interesting homiletic interpretation, which makes it quite clear that the Torah’s focus on sacrifice is not so much on the animal on the altar as on the person who is offering it:
When a man (adam) will bring an offering from among you to G‑d, from the animals, from the cattle or from the flock shall you bring your offering. (Leviticus 1:2)
Now, clearly, the language here is rather strained. In fact, most translators have edited the text to read more smoothly: “When a man among you will bring an offering,” clearly an improvement in the flow of the verse.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, in his classic Likkutei Torah, insists however that the Torah’s syntax is deliberate. “When a man will bring an offering”—i.e., he will want to come closer to G‑d (the Hebrew word korban has in it the root karav, “to come close”), then he must know that the offering must come “from you,” from the animal within you.
Every one of us possesses animalistic tendencies, and these must be consumed on the altar of G‑d. We are obliged to slay our inner animal, and humanize ourselves by working on developing our character traits, until the beast within us has been neutralized—and better yet, sanctified.
What exactly does this mean? The verse continues, “from the cattle or from the flock, shall you bring your offering.” An individual may behave like “cattle,” a goring bull, trampling on everyone and everything in its way. He is the proverbial bull in a china closet, stomping, aggressive, bullying, domineering, and utterly insensitive to people’s feelings.
Others might be like “the flock”—the meek little lamb that timidly follows the crowd. He has no opinion of his own; whatever the last person he spoke to said becomes his opinion for the moment. He has no backbone, no sense of self or self-respect. He stays with the flock at all costs, lest he be labeled a “black sheep.”
Still others might be moody and temperamental, changing colors and character traits from day to day. One minute they might be like the raging bull, and the next, the docile lamb.
So the Torah teaches us to be adam, a human being of human—indeed, G‑dly—character. Be a man, not an ox; a lady, not a lamb. Be a mentsch; behave like a mature, refined person, not like a vilde chayah (wild animal). Examine your own behavioral tendencies; check out your inner feelings and dispositions. Are you satisfied with yourself as a human being? Are those around you happy, or do you intimidate them with your temper tantrums? Are you mature and mild-mannered, or do you suffer from road rage?
Searching our souls and our inner psyches for unacceptable behaviors, and then doing something about it, is what we mean when we say to bring the animal up on the altar of sacrifice. It is the animal within each of us. The true and ultimate sacrifice is the sacrificing of self.
Though both Purim and Halloween share the custom of dressing in costume, that is about all the two holidays have in common. Halloween is thought to have originated as a Celtic festival and later became a Christian holiday. Dressing in costume on Halloween probably dates back to the 16th century. The tradition of wearing costumes on Purim finds its origins in the Purim spiel, or play, which is a skit, often humorous, based on the Purim story. While at one time people dressed as the characters in the story, today people also select costumes based on characters from children’s stories and popular culture.
The story of Purim, from the Book of Esther, tells about how Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai save the Jews of Persia from Haman, the king’s evil prime minister. Rather than going door-to-door and asking for candy, Purim is celebrated by public readings of the Purim story, dressing in costume, giving gifts of food to friends and neighbors, and attending Purim carnivals with games.