Why Sacrifice Makes Sense
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s Torah portion initiates the third Book of the Torah, Vayikra. Its main theme is the sacrifices which were to be offered in the mishkan (Tabernacle) and subsequently in the Temple.
The primary objective of the korban (sacrifice) was to obtain atonement for one's sins. The Hebrew term korban actually means to draw close, which, at first glance, requires elucidation.
What enables man to draw close to Hashem? To address this, we must reframe the question: What draws man away and causes him to be distant from his Creator?
Judaism’s view of sin is unique. Because we have numerous prohibitions that restrict foods, sexual activities, and other things, we tend to develop a certain feeling toward the forbidden. We may sense that there is something ugly and repulsive about eating pork or driving a car on Shabbat. But this is a superficial approach.
The ultimate goal of the Torah is to transform us from an instinctual to a rational being. Only when we function with intelligence and discipline in all areas of our life can we become the wise and compassionate beings we were intended to be.
The more we study Divine wisdom and direct our actions according to it, the more we align ourselves with the Divine will. That is what we call “getting close” to Hashem or “having a relationship with Him.”
The real harm and “evil” of sin is that it creates a breach in our connection to G-d. When people are driven by their instincts, they surrender to the animalistic aspect of human nature and, in effect, repudiate the will of the Creator.
However, when we subordinate our physical desires and follow the lifestyle ordained by Hashem, we become close to Him and come under the orbit of His Providence. According to the Rambam, no harm can befall a person when he is serving G-d with the full concentration of his mind. When our intellect is totally absorbed with thoughts of the Creator, we attain an exalted state of “closeness.”
Conversely, if our mind stops working and the emotions take over, we distance ourselves from Hashem. Yet, Judaism is very optimistic and never gives up on people. G-d is very “patient” and “waits” for sinners to return.
The term for repentance is teshuva, which literally means return. When a person renounces and relinquishes sin, he casts away the barrier that kept him far from G-d and once again resumes his place in Hashem’s presence.
If the essence of teshuva is in our hearts and lips, why do we need the korban? The answer is that man is a creature of thought and action. Resolution of the heart is important, but not sufficient. Actions that express and concretize the mind’s meditations are vital and have a transformative impact.
It’s good to acknowledge that we are selfish and greedy but after doing so, we should write a generous check to a worthwhile charity to seal the deal. Thus, the repentant sinner humbles himself before Hashem and purchases an animal to offer to Him.
This is expressed by semicha, placing the hands on the head of the animal. The great biblical commentator known as Ralbag explains that this action symbolizes that one is removing one’s sins from his own soul and “placing” them on the animal. He thereby affirms that offering an animal, per se, cannot expiate his transgression.
Rather, this is achieved by realizing that he must alter his functioning. Acknowledging that sin originates in the animalistic part of his nature, he offers the korban on the altar to signify that he will master his instinctual impulses and use them in the service of G-d.
We no longer have an Altar of Sacrifice. However, the Rambam teaches that we still have the mechanism of teshuva, and if we do it properly, that is all we need.