Confronting Korbanot

Context

With the opening of the book of Vayikra, we enter the world of korbanot.

In chapter upon chapter of text, God commands the newly formed Jewish nation, encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai, concerning the rituals that will define the sacrificial rite in the Sanctuary.

Questions

The very existence of korbanot creates a powerful quandary.

On the one hand, no area of Torah law seems more alien to modern sensibilities than that of korbanot. As we confront the Torah’s sacrificial rite, we find ourselves at a total loss, unable to relate to these seemingly primitive rituals, wondering why an all-powerful, incorporeal God would demand the offering of animals and grain in His worship.

On the other hand, we cannot deny that the sacrificial rite is an integral part of Jewish law. Not only are substantial portions of Torah text dedicated to detailed descriptions of korbanot, but these rituals apparently remain, to this day, a critical component of our national aspirations and dreams. Jewish liturgy is replete with prayers seeking the rebuilding of the Temple and the reinstatement of the sacrifices.

An honest approach towards the Torah text demands that we not ignore the existence of korbanot. The questions raised by these puzzling rituals must be dealt with head-on.

Why does God demand offerings of animals and grain as part of His worship? An all-powerful, transcendent God certainly has no need for physical gifts from man.

Approaches

A.
Numerous approaches to the concept of korbanot are offered within traditional Jewish literature. Following are several of them.

Rav Saadia Gaon maintains that the sacrificial rite enables the Israelites to demonstrate the depth of their dedication to God by offering of the “best of their possessions.”

The Ba’al Hachinuch remains true to his general postulate that a person’s thoughts and sentiments are shaped, in great measure, by his concrete actions. The performance of symbolic mitzvot is thus critical to the process of attitude formation. A sinner cannot purify his heart simply through a passive confession “between himself and the wall.” Such confession requires no real effort and, therefore, has minimal effect. If, however, the individual is forced to act – if he becomes obligated in a demanding series of atoning rituals; if he must select from his flock, bring his offerings to the Sanctuary and participate in the detailed sacrificial rite – he will then become acutely aware of the extent of his sin and he will avoid such failure in the future.

The Ba’al Hachinuch also suggests that the very act of offering a korban reminds man of the tenuous nature of his own superiority over the beasts of the field. Man’s distinctiveness lies in his ability to reason. When an individual’s reasoning fails and he consequently sins, that individual loses his status as a man and becomes no different from the animal. The Torah, therefore, commands the sinner to offer a korban in the Sanctuary. The slaughter of the animal and the consumption of its remains upon the altar graphically demonstrate that a “reasonless” being is valueless and ultimately destined to destruction. The depth of the supplicant’s failure and the toll of that failure upon his soul are thus underscored.

For his part, the Maharal of Prague perceives the sacrificial rite, with its intimations of mortality, as a fundamental reflection of the inconsequentiality of all creatures in the face of God’s greatness. Nothing exists in the world except as a result of God’s kindness and munificence.

Finally, numerous commentaries move beyond general explanations for the phenomenon of korbanot and painstakingly analyze the symbolic significance of each detail of the Temple ritual. We will encounter some of their observations in our continued analysis of the book of Vayikra.

B.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the Torah’s sacrificial rite, however, is the most obvious: the vast majority of korbanot are simply not “sacrifices” in the commonly accepted sense.

With singular exceptions (such as the Olah, the burnt offering, which is consumed in its entirety upon the altar), portions of every korban are designated as food for the Kohanim, their dependents and/or the individuals bringing the offering to the Temple.

Even more, the very first obligatory korban recorded in the Torah, the Korban Pesach of the Exodus, was, in its entirety, a family meal. No altar was present, no Temple service involved. The Israelites were, instead, commanded, on the eve of the Exodus, to physically consume the Paschal Lamb within the sanctity of their homes and to burn the remainder in the morning.

What then, defines the Paschal Lamb as a korban? How does this puzzling, seminal ritual set the stage for the entire sacrificial rite to follow? Why were portions of so many of the later korbanot designated as food? Shouldn’t each korban have been a true offering to God, consumed entirely in flames upon the altar?

We are forced, it would seem, to reexamine our understanding of korbanot.

In contrast to classical “sacrifices,” consumed entirely on the altar, korbanot were, in large measure, shared meals with God. Faced with the naturally developing distance between man and his Creator, forced to address the separation from God that results from sin, the Torah proposes a path, astoundingly profound in its simplicity: invite God to your table.

A korban, deriving from the root word karov, “to draw near”, is the mechanism through which an individual can begin to repair and reestablish his relationship with a personal God. Just as, in the human realm, a shared meal is a powerful relational tool, so too, a meal consumed with God’s symbolic participation can begin to address His estrangement from our lives.

Consumed with pomp and circumstance in the very shadow of the Holy Temple – with some portions placed upon the altar and others shared with the priests and, often, with the supplicants themselves – each korban became a potentially powerful rehabilitative tool. God’s presence as an invited, honored guest was palpable and concrete. To the participants these observances were far from meaningless rituals. They were, instead, shared meals with God, the first steps back to a fuller awareness of the Divine in their lives.

Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.