This week’s parsha initiates the third Book of the Torah, Vayikra. In large part, it deals with the controversial subject of korbanot (sacrifices). These offerings can only be brought in the Holy Temple under the auspices of the Kohanim (priests).
Because of that requirement, this mode of worship has been absent from Jewish practice during our lengthy exile. However, we regard this as merely a temporary lull. The Rambam assures us that, in the Messianic era, our Holy House will be rebuilt, and the sacrificial service will resume, along with the other mitzvot (commandments) that are currently on hold. We therefore continue to study all areas of Torah, whether they are currently practiced or not.
The notion of animal offerings seems very strange to modern man. Superficially, it appears a bit primitive and unkind to animals, which is a major focus of contemporary concern. Indeed, it seems that Judaism itself is ambivalent about the ultimate value of this type of worship.
In fact, some of the Prophets severely condemned the practice. Here are just two examples. Samuel said, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and in sacrifice as in hearkening to the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than to sacrifice, to hearken [is better] than the fat of rams.” (Samuel 1 15:22)
Isaiah stated even more harshly, “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? says the Lord; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks or lambs or of he-goats….Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto me; new moon and Sabbath, the holding of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity along with solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates; they are a burden unto Me.” (Isaiah 1 11-14)
These scathing rebukes of the Jews for bringing sacrifices while engaged in the practice of “iniquity” are somewhat puzzling. But why is this condemned in conjunction with sacrifice more than any other mitzvah?
Indeed, Hashem desires that we hearken to His words, implement justice, chesed (lovingkindness), and obey all the commandments. The same critique could be launched with regard to other mitzvot we perform. Yet nowhere do we find the Prophets criticizing sinful people for observing Passover or Sukkot or any other mitzvah. So why is it so vile to bring sacrifices, while at the same time engaging in iniquity?
It would seem that sacrificial worship can be a double-edged sword. If observed properly, it can produce great benefits. However, it also contains the potential for spiritual corruption.
How so? Man is a very complex creature. He is selfish and narcissistic and seeks to enrich himself, even at the expense of others. At the same time, he has been endowed with a conscience, which, when activated, can cause much emotional anguish. To alleviate the pervasive sense of guilt, he desperately needs a mechanism of forgiveness for “his many trespasses.”
In the days of the Temple, the sinner had to bring a sacrifice to atone for his violations. This seemed quite easy and appealing, unless you read the finer print. For, to attain absolution, one had to confess his sin and undergo complete teshuva (repentance). To merely go through the motions of the sacrificial service without genuine regret and inner transformation was worthless.
Even worse, it was harmful, because when people had the notion that the animal offering itself, unaccompanied by authentic repentance, effected Divine forgiveness, there was nothing to hold them back from a lifestyle of sinfulness.
This corruption of the true intent of the sacrificial service was what the Prophets inveighed against. They were warning that the Temple offerings were only strengthening the impulse to sin and were an impediment to authentic spiritual reform.
Indeed our sages point out that Hashem, in destroying the Temple, poured out His anger on “wood and stones.” This means that the destruction which should have come upon the Jews because of their enormous corruption was instead visited upon the Temple whose misuse enabled them to sin with impunity.
Still, we look forward to the complete restoration of the entire Temple service. When people are on a high level, they do not seek a panacea for guilt, but instead strive to know and fulfill Hashem’s will.
That will be the nature of man in the Messianic era, and performance of all the precepts, including sacrifices, will only redound to our benefit. May we merit to see this day.
Shabbat shalom. Purim Sameach.
P.S. Have you finished reading the essays in Eternally Yours: Genesis and are feeling a bit sad that you no longer have thought-provoking material to look forward to reading on Shabbat?
Good news, because Eternally Yours: Exodus is now available. The articles offer a new and original perspective on the weekly parsha that will encourage you to think and enhance your appreciation of Torah and enjoyment of Shabbat.
Titles include “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished,” “Reclaiming One’s Dignity,” “Love Is Not All You Need,” “Saw You At Sinai,” “The True Test of Piety,” “Betrayal,” and many more. The book on Exodus can be obtained at http://bit.ly/EY-Exodus, and the book on Genesis is available at http://bit.ly/EY-Genesis.