Mitzvot: Service to Hashem and Self-Fulfillment

And its innards and its legs he should wash in water. And the Kohen should burn the entirety on the altar. It is an Olah, a burnt offering, a sweet odor to Hashem. (VaYikra 1:9)

You did not bring Me a lamb as your Olah sacrifice. You did not honor Me. I did not burden you with a Mincha offering. I did not weary you with frankincense.
(Yishayahu 43:23)

1. Hashem does not benefit from our sacrifices

Sefer VaYikra opens with a detailed discussion of sacrifices. The discussion begins by introducing the Olah sacrifice. This sacrifice is completely consumed on the altar. The Torah describes the Olah sacrifice as a “sweet odor” to Hashem. The haftarah – the reading from the Prophets for the week – also opens with a discussion of sacrifices. The Prophet Yishayahu rebukes the nation. He remarks: You did not bring me a lamb as your Olah sacrifice. The commentators disagree over the meaning of Yishayahu’s rebuke. Most suggest that the rebuke was delivered during the reign of King Achaz. Achaz closed the gates of the Bait HaMikdash and promoted idolatry. According to this interpretation, Yishayahu was rebuking the nation for its tolerance of Achaz’s policies.[1] We can easily appreciate the relevance to the parasha of this reading from the Prophets. The parasha discusses sacrifices. Sacrificial service is an important aspect of the Torah. This is the same message communicated by Yishayahu. He tells the nation that they have been seriously remiss in tolerating Achaz’s suspension of sacrificial service in the Bait HaMikdash.

Malbim offers a very different interpretation of the passage. He explains that Yishayahu was addressing the nation’s attitude regarding sacrifices. The people believed that in offering a sacrifice to Hashem, they were fulfilling His need. To this fallacy, Yeshiyahu responds that Hashem does not benefit when we bring a sacrifice. Of course, this interpretation suggests that sacrifices are paradoxical. We are commended to bring sacrifices to Hashem; yet, Yishayahu mocks the assumption that Hashem somehow benefits from them. According to Malbim’s interpretation of Yishayahu’s message, the selection of this reading to accompany the Torah parasha is more difficult to understand. The Torah portion communicates the importance of sacrificial service and the haftarah suggests that sacrifices actually present a paradoxical dilemma. We are commanded by the Torah to offer them to Hashem but we are not to assume that He derives any benefit from them. Why did the Sages select a reading from the Navi – the Prophets – to accompany the Torah’s introduction of sacrificial service that communicates this message of mystery and paradox?

Thus says Hashem of Hosts, the G-d of Israel: Add your Olah sacrifices to your other sacrifices and consume the flesh. For I did not speak to your ancestors and I did not command them on the day I took them forth from Egypt in matter regarding the Olah and other sacrifices. Rather it is this that I commanded them saying, “Listen to My voice and I will be to you a G-d and you will be to me a nation. You will travel on the entire road that I will command you in order to benefit yourself.” (Yermiyahu 7:20-23)

2. Sacrifices cannot replace obedience to Hashem

Like Yishiyahu before him, Yermiyahu decries the nation’s overemphasis on sacrificial worship. However, the nature of the criticism is more clearly evident from Yermiyahu’s rebuke. The nation replaced obedience to Hashem with superficial service to Him through offering sacrifices. They believe that they can commit any evil as long as they bring sacrifices to Hashem. Yermiyahu condemns this perspective and declares that Hashem did not command our ancestors, whom He rescued from Egypt, to offer sacrifices. He commanded them to obey His commandments. Furthermore, their obedience to the commandments of the Torah will benefit them.

3. Sacrifices are designed to nurture our own development

Malbim observes that also in Yermiyahu’s rebuke the message that sacrifices are not for Hashem’s benefit recurs. Yermiyahu tells the nation that the sacrifices are for their own benefit. In his comments on this passage, Malbim explains that every sacrifice is designed to bestow some benefit upon the one who offers it. For example, our parasha describes the Chatat – the sin offering. He explains that this offering is not an appeasement offered to compensate for the transgression. It is designed to facilitate repentance. The sacrifice is meaningless without contrition and commitment to abandon the sin that has occasioned it![2]

Nachmanides elaborates on this idea in his commentary on our parasha. The Chatat is designed to bring about a catharsis. The sinner sacrifices the animal recognizing that its fate – consumption upon the altar – is representative of the consequence due him for his transgression. But he is spared this fate through his repentance. Clearly, the sacrifice is a means toward the greater ends of repentance and a rapprochement to Hashem.[3]

4. Every mitzvah is an expression of commitment

In this context, Malbim explains Yermiyahu’s strange assertion that Bnai Yisrael were not commended to offer sacrifices when they were redeemed from Egypt. Our parasha initiates a long detailed discussion of sacrifices. In this discussion the Torah does command Bnai Yisrael in sacrificial service. Malbim explains that it is not Yermiyahu’s intention to deny that these sacrifices have an important role. His message is that neither sacrifices nor any other commandment supplants the requirement to obey Hashem. Rather, the commandments are an expression of commitment to Hashem. If a commandment becomes a vehicle facilitating wrongdoings, then it has been perverted from its purpose of being an expression of commitment. His message can be rephrased, “It is not the sacrifice that is important; it is the commitment to Hashem that is expressed through offering the sacrifice that is its aim.”[4] According to Malbim, the message of these two prophets regarding the purpose and function of sacrifices is precise and nuanced. Sacrificial service and all commandments are expressions of personal commitment to Hashem. However, this commitment is intended to enrich and give meaning to our lives.

5. The selection of Yishayahu’s message as the haftarah

Now, the selection of Yishiyahu’s message as the haftarah for Parshat VaYikra can be understood. According to Malbim, our Sages were motivated by the same concern that Yishayahu and Yermiyahu confronted. The Torah’s lengthy, detailed discussion of sacrifices can lead the reader to the very conclusions that these prophets derided. The reader may attribute to the sacrifices a significance or importance that is undeserved and even counter-productive. The message of Yishayahu is read in accompaniment to our parasha in order to caution the reader. The Torah does provide a detailed description of the commandments regarding sacrifices. However, we do not serve Hashem through giving Him offerings. He does not need them. We serve Hashem though our attention to His commandments and our commitment to Him.

6. Properly observing a mitzvah requires precision and contemplation

The practical implications of this message are important. These Prophets tell us that every commandment is designed to benefit us but it’s also an expression of commitment to Hashem. Because the commandments are designed to improve our lives, it is completely appropriate – even compulsory – for a person to seek meaning in the performance of mitzvot. However, this meaning must be consistent with the precise performance of the commandment. We must seek the meaning in the commandment; we cannot transform or translate the commandment in order to make it more appealing to our own tastes and prejudices. The proper performance of a commandment requires exact execution and a contemplative attitude. The mitzvah must be performed as precisely as required by the Torah and we must open our minds and hearts to its message.

1. Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Yishayahu. 43:23
2. Rabbaynu Meir Libush (Malbim), Commentary on Sefer Yermiyahu 7:22.
3. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 1:9.
4. Rabbaynu Meir Libush (Malbim), Commentary on Sefer Yermiyahu 7:22.