Welcome to a new feature: Questions and answers about the weekly parsha that will open up the text with questions and various approaches. The material is excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s new book Unlocking the Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey into the Weekly Parsha on Vayikra.
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.
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.
Does the Torah-mandated sacrificial rite speak to us, on any level, today? Can any relevant lessons be learned from these seemingly archaic rituals? Do we really desire a return to the practice of korbanot?
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 Israel¬ites 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 per¬son’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.
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” (see Vayikra 1, note 1), 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.
What, however, of the future? Do we truly anticipate a return to sacrifices, as maintained in our prayers? Or, is the sacrificial rite rooted in a past from which our nation has moved on?
The vast majority of classical Jewish thinkers insist that our final re¬demption will feature not only the rebuilding of the Temple but a full return to the sacrificial rite. Particularly noteworthy is the position of the Rambam. In spite of this scholar’s willingness to postulate the origin of korbanot as a concession to man’s limitations (see above, II, Approaches A), he gives no indication that this earthly origin limits the future applicability of these rituals. After dedicating major portions of his Mishneh Torah, his practical compendium of laws, to the strictures surrounding korbanot, the Rambam clearly states towards the end of that work:
The Messianic king is destined to rise in the future and reestablish the Kingdom of David, to build the Temple and to gather the dispersed of Israel. In his day, all the laws will return to their original state. Korbanot will be offered [my italics], the Shmita and Yovel years will be observed.… Anyone who does not believe this, or does not await his [the Mashiach’s] arrival, not only denies the words of the prophets but denies the Torah and Moshe, our teacher.
A solitary alternative position is raised by the first chief rabbi of the State of Israel, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook.
After first maintaining that “with regard to sacrifices it is correct to believe that all aspects will be restored to their place,” Rav Kook builds on kabbalistic literature and envisions a “distant time” when all aspects of the world will be elevated. At that time, he states, humans will no longer need to take the lives of animals for their physical, moral or spiritual needs. The prophet Malachi perhaps references this future period when he states, “Then the grain offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to God as in the days of old and as in former years.” Strikingly absent from Malachi’s vision is the reinstatement of animal offerings. The Midrash seems to go even further with the startling prediction “All sacrifices will be nullified in the future.”
To further strengthen his position, Kook identifies a series of clues within the Torah itself which he claims reflect the secondary status of ani¬mal sacrifices. These offerings remain appropriate as long as man makes use of animals for other needs, such as food and clothing. The time will come, however, when man, reaching his highest state of refinement, will no longer feel the need to take animal life for any purpose. At that point, only grain sacrifices will be offered in the Temple.
Excerpted from Unlocking the Torah Text – Vayikra by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin. Learn more about the book here: link.