Be-Hukkotai: There's No Substitute for Rationalization

"If [a vow concerns] any animal that may be brought as an offering to the lord, any such that may be given to the lord shall be holy. one may not exchange or substitute another for it, either good for bad, or bad for good; if one does substitute one animal for another, the thing vowed and its substitute shall both be holy.” leviticus 27:9-10

Animal sacrifices in Judaism have not been possible since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.  Moreover, the whole idea of animal sacrifice is anathematic to modern sensibilities.  So why should anyone other than a historian of Temple times continue to study these Torah verses? 

One answer is that Torah wisdom remains relevant, even if the particular context in which that wisdom was expressed do longer applies.  In the cited verses, an individual who has designated an object for a gift, or in satisfaction of an obligation, may not thereafter substitute another.  If this is attempted, both the original and the intended substituted item are forfeit.

The temptation of “buyer’s regret” and avoiding disrespect to the recipient (in the case of vows, G-d), explain the prohibition of substituting an item of lesser value for one of greater value.  Torah ethics require that we do not vow rashly, that we honor our commitments to others (even when we regret them), and that we do not insult or hurt the feelings of others by substituting gifts or donations of lesser value.  But the deeper wisdom of Torah is demonstrated by the prohibition of substituting an item of greater value for one of lesser value.  Why should that be equally prohibited?

The problem is human nature, or more specifically, our tendency to rationalize.  If we are permitted to renege on our commitment by substituting a “more valuable” object for a “less valuable” one, the door is opened to our rationalizing that the object that we now wish to substitute is actually of “greater value” than the one we regret having agreed to give.  It is all too easy to persuade ourselves that what we now prefer is fair, reasonable, or even better for the recipient.  Perhaps we decide that we need – or deserve -- the originally pledged object more than the intended recipient needs it.  Or that we have been too generous.  Or that we’ve found a more worthy subject for our generosity. 

But as our sages observe, we should be suspicious of our motives whenever we are included to “substitute.”  According to the Bekhor Shor (12th c.), since we do not necessarily know the true value of our sacrifices, we don’t really know whether we would be substituting greater for lesser value or vice versa.  And Abarbanel (1437-1508) observes that every change is in some respect detrimental.  So, better that we be prohibited from substitutions and thus not tempted. 

As it happens, only a few hours after writing the above, I had an opportunity to see this dynamic work within myself.   Much of my legal work requires basic finance, accounting, and spreadsheet skills.  A particular client’s case was “numbers heavy” and financially complex.  Knowing that these areas aren’t my strength, I asked my client (a CFO) for her or her staff’s help.  She replied, “We hired you to figure this out!”  So, I struggled to do so, and was certainly not very efficient.  The result was substantially more time spent than either of us had expected.

Upon receiving my bill, my client respectfully responded that she didn’t feel that she had received full value, and requested a reduction.  I agreed with the client’s assessment, reviewed the invoice, and initially decided to substantially discount my hourly rate for the time I considered “inefficient.” But then, before offering this, I reconsidered my initial discount as “too generous” because, by refusing my request for accounting support, the “fault” was more my client’s than mine (if, indeed, I was at all at fault). 

Only then did I recall what I had written a few hours before.  I decided to apply Torah’s “no substitutes for initial sacrifices” principle.  Having foreclosed this “option,” I stuck with my initial decision and resolved to learn from this experience and try to be more efficient in the future, such as by improving my “accounting” skills or enlisting specialty resources when needed.

As a student of secular law, I learned that one purpose of a contract is to protect a party in case the other changes its mind and decides not to honor its commitment.  As a student of Torah, I have learned a more nuanced and ethical lesson: that one purpose of the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people is to protect us from our inclination to rationalize backing away from a commitment.  

Shabbat shalom! 



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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb