The Torah introduces its discussion of the korbenot nedava – voluntary sacrifices – by stating, “If a person among you offers a sacrifice to the Lord, you shall offer your sacrifice from animals, from cattle or sheep” (Vayikra 1:2). Rashi, citing the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 2:7), finds it significant that the Torah here uses the word “adam” (“person”) in reference to an individual who decides to offer a voluntary sacrifice. This term, Rashi comments, alludes to Adam, who, after partaking of the forbidden fruit, offered a sacrifice to atone for his sin. The Torah alludes to Adam in this context to indicate that, in Rashi’s words, “just as Adam Ha-rishon did not bring a sacrifice from stolen property, because everything belonged to him, you, too, should not bring a sacrifice from stolen property.”
The simple meaning of the Midrash’s remark, of course, is that it warns against the distorted notion that one can earn God’s favor by offering as a sacrifice something obtained unlawfully. An act of religious devotion has no value if its performance was facilitated through immoral means. Adam could not have offered a stolen animal, because at that time, there was nobody in existence from whom he could steal. His sacrifice thus serves as the model for us to follow, teaching that stolen goods are unsuitable as a sacrifice.
Rav Yehonatan Eibshutz added another possible reading of the Midrash’s comment. As there was nobody in the world other than Adam, he was not only incapable of stealing anyone’s property, but also incapable of “stealing” in the sense of deception. There was no possibility of Adam offering a sacrifice to make an impression, to project a false image of piety, because there was nobody to impress, nobody whose admiration he could have sought to win. Necessarily, then, his offering was brought sincerely, out of a genuine desire to express his devotion and submission to God. The Midrash thus points to Adam’s sacrifice as the model for us to follow, instructing that we should perform religious acts sincerely, and not to “steal” people’s esteem by disingenuously appearing righteous.
Rav Yehonatan Eibshutz here draws our attention to the fact that projecting a false image is a form of “theft,” in that one thereby seeks to acquire something from others through illegitimate means. Just as we must not seek to obtain somebody’s money by deceiving him, we are likewise not to obtain somebody’s respect and admiration by deceiving him. A person’s feelings of respect are an “asset” that we must earn rightfully and honestly, by making ourselves people who are truly worthy of respect. Just as there are no shortcuts to lawfully earning money, and this can be done only through hard work, similarly, the only way to rightfully earn people’s admiration is through hard work, by living nobly and righteously. Rav Yehonatan Eibshutz here warns that just as we must avoid dishonestly obtaining other people’s material possessions, we must also avoid trying to dishonestly obtain their respect through insincere charades of piety.