By Rabbi Ari Kahn
The world of sacrificial offerings is a new, different and foreign world. As readers, we get lost in the strangeness of the entire subject, and do not pause to think about what we have read, to understand and internalize. The basic premise of sacrifice creates a world of responsibility, in which the individual bears responsibility not only for conscious behavior, for deliberate action - as is the case in the “normal” world - but also for accidental transgressions, for what happens when we lose focus, act absentmindedly or allow ourselves to be led astray by shallow thinking. In this strange parallel universe, even unintended outcomes become the individual’s responsibility, and must be atoned for.
This being so, we tend not to look for a system, for a method in the litany of offerings that comprise the bulk of the book of Vayikra. Have we ever attempted to discern common threads among the various types of sin offerings, or to create categories that would enlighten or inform? Is there something to be learned from the type of animal each sin offering involves? Which offerings are of large animals, and which of small animals? What obligations can be met by sacrificing fowl, and which by grain? Which offerings are comprised of male animals and which of females? Which transgressions are clustered together, and why? What can we learn from the implications of these groupings?
Leaving the micro analysis for a moment and turning to the macro, to the broad mechanics of Temple service, we are able to discern the objective of offerings in general: The Hebrew word for all ritual offerings is “korban,” a derivative form of the root krv– to come near, to approach. Sacrificial offerings afford the individual who has become estranged from God the means to return, to rebuild intimacy.
This objective is described time and time again in the verses of Vayikra as “a pleasant smell for God.” The commentaries are quick to note that this is, at best, an anthropomorphism: God has neither a nose nor a sense of smell, nor does He sit in heaven waiting to be placated by the smell of an earthly BBQ. One of our greatest commentaries, Rashi, explained this concept in a very different way, based on comments found in the Sifri, an ancient Midrash: Sacrificial offerings are not some type of magical divination, voodoo or “hocus pocus;” rather, the key to the korban’s efficacy is obedience.
Nichoach: [This word implies]Nahat ruah, pleasure of spirit, for I spoke and you fulfilled My will. (Rashi, Vayikra 1:9)
Man has sinned by neglecting, ignoring, or forgetting the word of God, but God allows man to correct this mistake by giving us a second chance to obey His command, thus making reconciliation possible. By bringing the precise offering in the precise fashion prescribed, in adherence to the Word of God - even when it bears no intrinsic logic - man is allowed to make amends. Rashi seems to be implying that the main consideration, the element in which God “takes delight,” is not the “pleasing smell” but rather that the Divine spirit is uplifted by man’s adherence to God’s command. The earlier failure to obey is healed by this new opportunity. Thus, the offering itself is almost irrelevant; it bears no intrinsic meaning, other than as an opportunity to exhibit submission to God’s Will and adherence to God’s command. The procedure is the offering; the precise attention to the details is what transforms the sinner and heals the rupture in the relationship.
In his commentary to Psalm 40:7, Rashi is even more emphatic:
You did not desire slaughter or meal-offerings; … You did not request burnt-offerings and sin-offerings. (Tehillim 40:7)
“Slaughter or meal-offerings:” [This refers to] the day the Torah was given, as it states (Shmot 19): “If you listen to the voice of God.” Similarly, [God] said (Yermiyahu 7:22), ‘For I did not speak to your fathers, nor did I command them on the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices;’ I wanted to bring you close, and I had no need to burden you with daily or holiday (offerings). The only pleasure I derived was that I commanded and you adhered to My request, which is a small gesture. (Rashi, Tehillim 40:7)
The verse from the prophecy of Yirmiyahu cited by Rashi is a small part of an entire chapter that laments the behavior of the Jewish community. The Temple had become a place that did not celebrate man’s adherence to the will of God. Quite the opposite: The chapter tells the tale of a city, of an entire society, in which strangers were oppressed, the weak and disenfranchised exploited, and justice trampled. Stealing, murder, adultery, and false witness had become the norm; decency was nowhere to be found. In that society, people deluded themselves into thinking that the Temple service would excuse their behavior. They believed that they could bribe God with offerings and save themselves through the merit of their sacrifices. Yirmiyahu attempted to open their eyes, to dispel their illusions by describing the gruesome fate that awaited their generation, and the Temple they had misused.
Sacrificial offerings are not magic; they are, however, a means through which man may come closer to God. They do not take the place of decent behavior, nor are they generally a remedy for deliberate transgressions. Sacrificial offerings bring about rapprochement only in conjunction with general adherence to the word of God. There is no magic involved. Unlike primitive cultures who believed they could force God’s hand or sway God from meting out punishment, Jewish sacrifice is a method of re-attuning an estranged individual to the Voice of God. This is the source of pleasure, the nachat ruach that God draws from the offering: A person who has become estranged, has taken the relationship for granted and become negligent in the service of God, now seeks a way back to intimacy. The precise adherence to the korban’s rituals reaffirms the human desire to adhere to God’s commandments. Sacrifices brought in this spirit are a step toward perfecting the world, not a fig leaf for moral decay.