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Parashat Vayikra- Positive Peer Pressure

The Torah in Parashat Vayikra speaks about the procedure for offering sacrifices. Describing a person who brings a sacrifice to the Temple, the Torah uses the term "Yakrib Oto" ("He shall offer it" – 1:3), which Rashi (Rabbi Shelomo Yishaki of Troyes, France, 1040-1105) explains to mean that he brings it even against his will. Meaning, if a person is required to bring a sacrifice, but he refuses, the leaders force him to bring the offering. Yet, Rashi notes, the very next word in the Torah is "Li’rsono," which means "willfully." Right after requiring that the individual bring the sacrifice even if he refuses, the Torah then stipulates that sacrifices must be brought willfully, rather than under coercion. To reconcile this contradiction, Rashi explains, "Kofin Oto Ad She’yomar Roseh Ani" – "He is coerced until he says, ‘I want’." In other words, the person is subjected to coercive measures until he decides to bring the sacrifice willfully.

What exactly does this mean? How can a person be forced to do something willfully? Is this not inherently contradictory?

The conventional explanation of Rashi’s comment is that each person, deep down, wishes to do the right thing. At the innermost recesses of the soul each person experiences a genuine desire and longing to fulfill God’s will. Our inclination to sin is external to our true, inner beings, the product of the Yeser Ha’ra (evil inclination) in all its many manifestations. When a person is coerced to fulfill his obligations, what really happens is that the external pressures are removed so that his true, inner desire can be fulfilled. He is not forced to act against his wishes, but rather to eliminate the emotional blockades that have prevented him from fulfilling his true wishes.

The Hatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer of Pressburg, 1762-1839) suggested a different explanation of Rashi’s comments. We can easily imagine a farmer, for example, who commits a sin that requires offering a sacrifice, but is very reluctant to do so. He has a large agricultural enterprise to tend to, as well as family and communal obligations, and he is less than eager to take time off to journey to Jerusalem and invest in an expensive animal as a sacrifice. Plagued by guilt, he ambivalently purchases an animal and prepares for his trip. His townspeople, of course, hear about what he is doing, and mock him.

"Hey," they jeer, "you’re going to Jerusalem? What do you expect to get out of it? So you made a mistake, what’s the big deal?"

All along his trip, he meets people who poke fun at him for being "so religious" and bringing a sacrifice in the Mikdash. He actually shares their skepticism, and feels no desire whatsoever to make this trip. But he figures he might as well go through with it, and eventually, less than halfheartedly, the man arrives at the Bet Ha’mikdash with his animal.

But at the holy site of the Mikdash, his attitude suddenly changes. He looks up and sees the Kohanim, dressed in their magnificent attire, diligently tending to the sacrifices and other Temple rituals. He hears the beautiful, inspirational music of the Leviyim, and sees the Rabbis of the Sanhedrin, the greatest sages of the time, convening to discuss the most pressing and difficult Halachic issues. The sight of the Mikdash and the flurry of activity fills the visitor with awe. By now, he is no longer reluctant. He feels overjoyed that he came to the Mikdash, and happily gives the Kohen his sacrifice. And he even decides to extend his trip so he can spend more time soaking in the special Kedusha of Jerusalem and the Bet Ha’mikdash.

This is how a person can be coerced and yet bring his sacrifice willingly. He might require some coercion, but once he arrives at the Temple, he offers the sacrifice willingly, lovingly and joyously.

This insight of the Hatam Sofer underscores the critical importance of placing oneself in an atmosphere of positive peer pressure. As long as the farmer was in his hometown or on the road to Jerusalem, he was discouraged from doing the right thing. But once he placed himself in the Bet Ha’mikdash, his entire perspective changed. Suddenly, fulfilling his religious duties was the natural thing to do. It was not even a question anymore. The encouraging and spiritual aura of the Temple aroused his heart and stirred him to lovingly fulfill his commitments as a religious Jew.

It is critical for every Jew to ensure that he is, at all times, in the right crowd, in the right community, in the right neighborhood and in the right surroundings. Peer pressure, as we all know, is a powerful force that exerts a very strong influence on a person and his behavior. It behooves us all to ensure that the peer pressure we are under is a positive peer pressure – one which pushes us to remain faithful to our tradition, to the study of Torah and observance of Misvot. We must place ourselves among peers who will encourage us to do the right thing, to live the way we are supposed to live. This is the peer pressure that we want – the pressure to live meaningful lives, lovingly committed to God and His Torah, and eager to fulfill all His Misvot.

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