Radical Ratzon, Part 1: An Ethics of Holiness

Rabbi Aviva Richman

Parashat Kedoshim

Parashat Kedoshim lies at the heart of Sefer Vayikra, and with it the concept of holiness. According to many interpreters, we achieve kedushah by curbing our desire. Holiness, in this view, inextricably entails suppression of our will. Taken to its extreme, this can lead to a notion that being in relationship with God requires blind obedience and negation of ourselves. In contrast, it is also possible to understand kedushah in a way that features—rather than suppresses—our will. Through an expansive reading of the concept of ratzon (will) in Parashat Kedoshim, we can strive for an ethics of kedushah that focuses on consent and mutuality as central to deep relationship, with God and others.

Prominent medieval interpreters understand kedushah through the lens of boundaries. For example, Rashi stresses boundaries in sexuality;1 Rambam devotes his “Sefer Kedushah - Book of Holiness” to prohibitions related to food and sex; and Ramban understands the imperative “You shall be Holy” as exercising discipline that goes above and beyond the specific requirements of mitzvot, fundamentally about drawing additional boundaries around personal desire and worldly appetites.2 This focus on discipline guides us to act responsibly and strengthen our character.

However, it would be an error to think that kedushah is only about suppressing our will. We can expand our understanding of kedushah when we pay attention to the word ratzon in this week’s parashah, which is linked to sacrifices:

ויקרא יט:ה

וְכִ֧י תִזְבְּח֛וּ זֶ֥בַח שְׁלָמִ֖ים לַה' לִֽרְצֹנְכֶ֖ם תִּזְבָּחֻֽהוּ׃

 

Leviticus 19:5.

When you sacrifice a shelamim (well-being) sacrifice to God, you will sacrifice it לרצנכם.

 

We see here that the concept of ratzon is fundamental to bringing an offering to God.3 The word ratzon in Tanakh almost always means to be pleasing to God, something that follows God’s will.4 The plain meaning here, therefore, is that sacrifices appease God and thereby bring us good favor.5 When offering gifts to God, in this view, we are in the position of subservients, diligently trying to bring animals that God will like, that will appease God’s will.

Even though the word ratzon in Tanakh almost always refers to God’s will and hardly ever to human will,6 an early midrash makes a radical move in interpreting the role of ratzon in sacrifices. On the word לרצונכם, Ibn Ezra (on Leviticus 19:5) refers to a passage from the Sifra that shifts us from a focus on God’s will to a focus on our own will:

ספרא אמור פרשה י

ולרצונכם - אין כופים את הצבור על כורחוְ

 

Sifra Emor, section 10

For your ratzon”—they do not force the congregation [to bring the offering] against their will.

 

Rather than ratzon meaning that the sacrifice should find favor in God’s will, the word shifts to mean “in accordance with your will.” A sacrifice must be brought willingly. The word ratzon indicates the importance of our own—human—consent.

One might imagine that our consent is only relevant for voluntary sacrifices, that do indeed depend on a person’s willingness to bring them,7 as opposed to obligatory sacrifices which God commands us. But actually, the midrash is more radical, reading the word לרצנכם in this way even regarding obligatory waving of the Omer offering (Leviticus 23:11). When we willingly bring a sacrifice that is obligatory, God considers it as though we have brought a voluntary sacrifice.8 Our will and consent is powerful even in the context of obligation.

This reading of the verse teaches that there is no such thing as a sacrifice without our consent; we cannot be forced into intimacy with God. The possibility of encountering holiness, and being in relationship with God, can only stem from our own will and desire, our ratzonKedushah is embedded in us expressing our will, rather than suppressing our will.

In another early midrash, our will is not only one necessary component of sacrifices but takes on a primary purpose. Sifrei BeMidbar (#143) depicts how, through sacrifices, God finds satisfaction in expressing God’s will and having it fulfilled, and that ultimately sacrifices are about fulfilling our own will; the animals themselves are merely a pretext.

One might imagine that our consent is only relevant for voluntary sacrifices, that do indeed depend on a person’s willingness to bring them,7 as opposed to obligatory sacrifices which God commands us. But actually, the midrash is more radical, reading the word לרצנכם in this way even regarding obligatory waving of the Omer offering (Leviticus 23:11). When we willingly bring a sacrifice that is obligatory, God considers it as though we have brought a voluntary sacrifice.9 Our will and consent is powerful even in the context of obligation.

The goal of sacrifices is for both us and God to express our desire to be in relationship—our mutual ratzon. A sacred encounter with God is not primarily about suppression of our will. Rather, it is meant to amplify our will, even as we cultivate our attunement to divine will. Hasidic teachings crystallize this picture, where our desire to be in relationship with God becomes the “real” offering:

שפת אמת, פרשת תרומה תרל"ג

וזה עצמו הנדבה הרצון להיות הרצון תמיד להשי"ת.

 

Sefat Emet, Parashat Terumah 1873

This in and of itself is the gift; the desire for one’s will to be constantly directed towards God.10

 

The significance of ratzon in sacrifices as both God’s will and our will lives on in later interpreters.11 When we take in these comments synthetically, we arrive at a picture that incorporates both. Offering a sacrifice represents active and mutual alignment of our own subjectivity and God’s. We enter into holy relationship when we willingly consent to being attentive to God’s will. Simultaneously, God longs for us to express our will.

The vision of a rich interplay between our will and God’s will opens up a new perspective on an ethical dictum in Pirkei Avot. Rabban Gamliel, son of R. Yehudah HaNasi, teaches that we should make our will like God’s will:

משנה אבות ב:ד

הוא היה אומר עשה רצונו כרצונך כדי שיעשה רצונך כרצונו בטל רצונך מפני רצונו כדי שיבטל רצון אחרים מפני רצונך.

 

Mishnah Avot 2:4

He used to say: Make God’s will (ratzon) like your will in order that your will will be like God’s will. Negate your will because of God’s will in order that God will negate the will of others because of your will.

 

This mishnah is often understood as a battle of the wills, where we capitulate our own will so as to “make God’s will like our will.” Yet, the language in the first clause is not about negating (בטל) our will; negation comes only in the second clause. The first clause is about doing (עשה) our will. When we read ratzon in light of the interpretations we have seen about the important role of consent in our relationship with God, we arrive at a picture that is not about subduing or negating our will in our religious lives. Instead, we strive for engagement between our ratzon and God’s, while the encounter between our respective wills fosters connection and mutual desire.

The arc that places our own consent, will, and desire at the center of bringing sacrifices expands our understanding of what it means to live lives of kedushah. Last week, we explored the centrality of consent in building sexual ethics. Here, we see that consent is not only a vital component of human relationships, but also—perhaps surprisingly—of our relationship with the Divine. In Parashat Kedoshim, we shift from subservience to God’s will (encoded in the biblical ratzon) toward an expression of mutual desire to be in relationship. Kedoshim offers a theology and practice of kedushah that is rooted in aligned consent, not a negation of ourselves in the face of an external Divine will. The centrality of ratzon in kedushah inspires a mode of deep mutuality in all of our actions and relationships, with God or others.


1 Rashi on Leviticus 19:2: “קדשים תהיו. הֱווּ פְרוּשִׁים מִן הָעֲרָיוֹת וּמִן הָעֲבֵרָה, שֶׁכָּל מָקוֹם שֶׁאַתָּה מוֹצֵא גֶדֶר עֶרְוָה אַתָּה מוֹצֵא קְדֻשָּׁה.”

2 Ramban on Leviticus 19:2: “לפיכך בא הכתוב אחרי שפרט האיסורים שאסר אותם לגמרי וצוה בדבר כללי שנהיה פרושים מן המותרות ימעט במשגל.”

3 See also the very first passage in Parashat Vayikra about the burnt offering, and extensive reference to ratzon in Parashat Emor (see Leviticus 22:18-21).

4 On its own (רצון) it refers to pleasing God’s will; when it has a possessive pronoun (e.g. רצונו) it generally refers to God’s will (e.g. Isaiah 60:10, Psalms 30:6,8, 40:9, 51:20, 103:21, 143:10, Proverbs 11:1,20, 12:22, 15:8, Ezra 10:11

5 Rashbam highlights this meaning of the word, noting that in order for the sacrifice to bring us favor, we must carefully adhere to all of the details God dictates. His reading is influenced by a fuller discussion of standards required so that a sacrifice will be pleasing, found later in Leviticus (22:18-21).

6 Of people we find relatively few examples, including: Psalms 145:19 (of Godfearers), Proverbs 14:35, 16:15, 19:12 (all of kings). It is only used of “regular” people in late books, e.g. Esther: 1:8, 9:12; Nehemiah 9:24,37, and 2 Chronicles 15:15. This last example I find particularly beautiful, speaking of the people seeking out God with their will.

7 The Torah mostly uses the word לרצונכם/לרצונו for voluntary sacrifices: e.g. olah (Leviticus 1:3), shelamim (19:5), nedavah (22:19), todah (22:29).

8 Sifra Nedavah, section 13 (on Leviticus 2:14): “רבי שמעון אומר ואם תקריב מנחת בכורים לה' ...למה נאמר ואם לומר אם אתם מביאים אותה לרצון מעלה אני עליכם כאילו נדבה הבאתם אותה, ואם אין אתם מביאין אותה לרצון מעלה אני עליכם כאילו לא הבאתם אותה אלא לצורך עצמכם. / “And if you bring a grain offering of first fruits to God…” ... why does it say “And if” [which implies a choice, rather than an obligation]? To teach that if you bring it willingly I will consider it as though you brought it voluntarily, and if you do not bring it willingly I will consider it as though you are only bringing it out of self-interest.”

9 Sifrei Bemidbar #143: “אשה ריח ניחוח לה', נחת רוח לפני שאמרתי ונעשה רצוני. שמעון בן עזאי אומר בוא וראה בכל הקרבנות שבתורה לא נאמר בהם לא אלקים ולא אלקיך ולא שדי ולא צבאות אלא יו"ד ה"י שם המיוחד שלא ליתן פתחון פה למינים לרדות ללמדך שאחד מרבה ואחד ממעיט לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא [שכשם] שנא' ריח ניחוח בשור כך נאמר בבן הצאן וכך נאמר בבן העוף ללמדך שאין לפניו אכילה ושתיה אלא שאמר ונעשה רצונו. וכה"א אם ארעב לא אומר לך כי לי תבל ומלאה (תהלים נ יב) ידעתי כל עוף הרים וזיז שדי עמדי (שם /תהלים נ'/ יא) שומע אני [שיש] לפניו אכילה ושתיה ת"ל האוכל בשר אבירים ודם עתודים אשתה (שם /תהלים נ'/ יג) אלא מפני מה אמרתי לך זבח לי בשביל לעשות רצונך וכן הוא אומר וכי תזבחו זבח תודה לה' לרצונכם תזבחו (ויקרא כב כט).”

10 Sefat Emet’s comment more fully: “ברש"י ויקחו לי תרומה יפרישו לי מממונם נדבה כו'. פי' שצריך האדם לתת מכל דבר חלק להשי"ת. ואף שדברי עוה"ז הם רחוקים מאוד. אבל הרצון צריך להיות להשי"ת. כמו שכ' רש"י נדבה רצון טוב. וזה עצמו הנדבה הרצון להיות הרצון תמיד להשי"ת.”

11 Rashbam on our parashah retains a focus on pleasing God’s will, while Ibn Ezra focuses on the importance of consent rather than coercion.