Torah Thoughts for Today
Wednesday, March 24, 2004
#24: Everlasting Sacrifices: Mystery and Purpose
Everlasting Sacrifices: Mystery and Purpose

(Hi, hope your preparations for Passover are going well. Related to the Torah portion for this week, starting Leviticus – “Vayikra”, chapter 1, verse 1 – chapter 5, verse 26. See English text and commentary of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan at http://bible.ort.org/books/pentd2.asp?ACTION=displaypage&BOOK=3&CHAPTER=1
About the Hebrew month of Nisan closely tied to Passover, see http://www.ou.org/chagim/roshchodesh/nisan/default.htm Dedicated to my parents.)

Everlasting Sacrifices: Mystery and Purpose

This Parsha commences with what is probably the toughest book for modern Western people to comprehend, let alone accept: The book of Leviticus with its myriad laws and instructions concerning the sacrificial rituals and commands that needed to be performed in the Tabernacle – “MISHKAN” that God had commanded Moses and the Israelites to build in the wilderness after they escaped from ancient Egypt during the Exodus over 3,300 years ago. The sacrifices were continued when they reached the Promised Land and in the Two Jewish Temples, during a total time frame of about 1,300 years.

Most people do not give the subject a moment’s intelligent thought. In some people’s imagination, the animal sacrifices of the ancient Israelites is as archaic and irrelevant as the mystifying habits of the Aztecs and Incas or the obscure rituals of some primitive tribes in far away places. Yet smack-dab in the middle of the Torah is its third book, called LEVITICUS because it deals with the duties of the Tribe of LEVI in the Tabernacle and Temples, entailing many sorts of sacrificial laws of varieties of animals, foods, incense, for all sorts of reasons ranging from the daily and holiday offerings, sin offerings, purification laws and offerings, as well as many related commandments.

Amazingly close to 250 of the Torah 613 permanent commandments – ‘MITZVOT” are enumerated and described in the book of Leviticus. This means that in some sense ALMOST half of classical Judaism’s core commandments are to be found in a very strange primary source.

Now some have been tempted to just “chuck” the whole notion of animal and other related sacrificial offerings “overboard” and prefer, if at all, to look for Judaism’s eternal moral and spiritual teachings un-attached from any cumbersome and hard to explain ancient rituals. After all, the argument goes, for two thousand years the Jews have been in exile and have not had any temple to practice what the Torah preaches in Leviticus, so what counts are the humanistic and moralistic and even spiritual lessons of Judaism. This view is very shortsighted because it suffers from “historical myopia”. Anyone who would care to take a very close look at classical Judaism throughout time, will find that the Jewish People, as a self-described Torah Nation, NEVER DISCONNECTED or ABANDONED THEIR ATTACHMENT TO THE RITUALS OF THE SACRIFICIAL OFFERINGS.

The great mystic, philosopher, and Talmudic genius, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (Latvia, England, Israel, 1864 – 1935) the first official Chief Rabbi of then British Palestine now Israel, wrote about this subject in great depth.

For your enjoyment and enlightenment, here are some brief passages as translated and quoted by Chanan Morrison:

“The Purpose of Sacrifices”

“Why did God command Israel to serve Him through sacrifices?”

“ Maimonides [Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, (Spain, North Africa, Egypt, 1135 –1204)] known as The ‘RAMBAM’ (with an ‘M’ at the end) gave a controversial explanation in his ‘Guide to the Perplexed’ (III: 32,46). He wrote that the purpose of sacrifices was to wean the Israelites away from idolatry. Having grown accustomed to this form of worship in Egypt, it was impossible to draw them away from idolatry without a service of sacrifices to God.”

“Other [rabbinical] authorities such as Nachmanides [Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Spain, North Africa, Israel, 1194 – 1270) known as The ‘RAMBAN’ (with an ‘N’ at the end)], and Rabbeinu Behayei [(Rabbi Bachya ben Joseph ibn Pakuda (Spain, c.1050 – c.1120)] categorically rejected this idea. Yet there appears to be a supporting source for Maimonides in the Midrash. After describing the unique Temple service of Yom Kippur, the Torah states, ‘Then the Israelites will stop sacrificing to the demons’ [Leviticus, chapter 17, verse 7). The Sages explained this unusual verse via the following parable: ‘This is like the case of an unrefined prince who would eat un-slaughtered meat. The king said: let him always eat at my table, and automatically he will become accustomed to avoid from such foods. So too, the people of Israel were enthralled with Egyptian idolatry. Therefore God said: let them always bring their offerings before Me.’ [Vayikra Rabba 22:8]”

“The Midrash indicates that God commanded the Jewish people to offer sacrifices in order to wean them from Egyptian idolatry - just like Maimonides! Yet if we examine this Midrash carefully, we will see that it does not truly correlate to Maimonides' explanation for sacrifices.”

“The king requested his son join in the royal meals in order to correct his unruly habits. Yet eating at the king's table is not just a method of discipline. Simply being present at the royal table is in itself a wonderful thing. The true thrust of the parable is this: the prince, due to his inappropriate behavior, did not deserve to eat at his father's table at all meals. The king requested his presence at all times in order to refine his eating habits. Above and beyond its educational value, however, participation in a royal meal is a great privilege.”

“Similarly, the service of God through sacrifices is a truly wonderful matter. Through this form of divine service one merits experiencing sublime holiness. It is like ‘eating at the table of the king’, where one benefits the illuminating favor of the King of life. This Midrash does not refer to the Temple service in general, but rather to a specific situation immediately following the Exodus from Egypt. During their 40-year sojourn in the desert, the Israelites were not allowed to eat meat unless it came from a sacrifice offered in the Tabernacle (see Deuteronomy, chapter 12, verse 20 allowing them to eat meat when they get to the Land of Israel). This was a temporary measure for that generation alone.”

“Why was non-sacrificial meat forbidden to them?”

“Having just left Egypt and its idolatrous culture, it was necessary to stop the Israelites from worshipping foreign gods. Therefore God commanded that generation to eat only meat from sacrifices offered in the Tabernacle, insuring that none would privately continue the idolatrous practices of Egypt. This is precisely the point of the Midrash. The requirement to eat only sacrificial meat was a special decree for the generation leaving Egypt, weaning them from idolatry. Yet the fundamental concept of offering sacrifices in the prescribed times and situations as set down by the Torah - this has its own sublime goal.”

“Perhaps this was also the intention of the prophet Jeremiah, who tried to discourage the people from offering unwanted sacrifices: ‘So said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices, [it would be better that] you eat the meat. For I did not speak nor command your fathers concerning burnt-offerings and sacrifices when I took them out of Egypt. This is the thing I commanded them: Listen to My voice, and I will be your God and you will be My people.’ (Jeremiah, chapter 7, vs. 21-23)”

“How could the prophet say that God did not command sacrifices?”

“The people of Jeremiah’s day wanted to emulate the holy practices of the Israelites in the desert, only eating sacrificial meat. The prophet therefore explained to them that the special decree at that time was not for reasons of spiritual elevation, but in order that the newly freed Israelites would abandon idolatry and listen to God's voice. [(Translated from Rabbi Kook’s) ‘Midbar Shur’ pp. 158-9]. [1]

So what is “The Goal of Sacrifices?”

“Sacrifices are not an innovation of the Jewish people.”

“Noah also offered sacrifices to God. Yet not all offerings are of the same quality. As the Midrash illustrates: ‘There was once a king who had two cooks. The first cooked a meal that the king ate and enjoyed; and the second also cooked a meal that the king ate and enjoyed. How do we know which meal the king enjoyed more? When the king subsequently commanded the second cook, ‘Make for me again the dish you prepared’, we know the second was the king’s preferred dish.’ According to the Midrash, the very fact that the Torah commands the people of Israel to offer sacrifices indicates that God prefers their offerings to those which Noah initiated on his own accord.”

“How do we evaluate the relative worth of different sacrifices? What distinguishes the service of Israel from that of Noah?”

“We can assess offerings according to their ultimate goal. The more elevated the goal, the more acceptable the offering. Noah’s objective differed greatly from that of the people of Israel. Noah sought to preserve the physical world. He wanted to protect it from Divine retribution. ‘God smelled the sweet fragrance and said in His heart, ‘I will no longer curse the land because of man’. (Genesis, chapter 8, verse 21).”

“The offerings of Israel had a far more sublime goal. They sought to establish divine providence amongst mankind. Their goal was to uplift the individual to levels of divine inspiration and prophecy. ‘Make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst.’ (Exodus, chapter 25, verse 8). This distinction between the objective of Noah’s offerings and those of Israel is reflected in the unique phrases the Torah uses to describe them. Noah’s offerings had a ‘sweet fragrance’, while those of Israel are referred as ‘My bread’ (Numbers, chapter 28, verse 2).”

“What is the difference between a fragrance and bread?”

“When an animal eats vegetation, the plant life is absorbed and transformed into part of the animal. In this way the plant has achieved a higher state of being. When an animal is consumed by a human, the animal is similarly elevated as it becomes part of that human being. This transformation to a higher state through consumption corresponds to an offering which strives towards a higher state of existence. The offerings of Israel are appropriately called ‘My bread’, as the change to which they aspire - perfection as prophetic beings - is similar in magnitude to the transformations of plant to animal and animal to man.”

“The offerings of Noah, on the other hand, had only a ‘sweet fragrance'’. They gave off a wonderful smell and appealed to the natural senses, but did not attempt to effect a change in nature. Their purpose was to maintain the natural world, to perfect man within the framework of his normal intellectual capabilities. In fact, the offerings of the Jewish people encompass both of these goals. Therefore they are described both as ‘sweet fragrance’ and ‘My bread’, as we aspire to perfection in two areas: natural wisdom and divine prophecy. [(Translated from Rabbi Kook’s) ‘Midbar Shur’ pp. 155-158] [2]


Here is Rabbbi Kook’s fascinating, partial, reply: “[(Chanan Morrison says that) ‘Rabbi Kook’s views on the Temple service are sometimes misunderstood. A superficial reading of a passage in (Rabbi Kook’s work) ‘Olat Ri'iah’ (I, p. 292) indicates that only grain offerings (‘menachot’) will be found in the reinstated Temple service. To properly understand Rabbi Kook’s opinion on the matter, it is necessary to examine his essay on the sacrificial order in ‘Otzarot Hari'iah’, pp. 754-6.’]”

“In the future, the Cabalists teach, the entire world will be elevated. Even the animals in that future era will be different; they will be similar to people nowadays. [In the work: ‘Shaar Hamitzvot’ of the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria (Yitzhak ben Solomon Ashkenazi), (Egypt, Israel, 1534 – 1572)]. Obviously, no sacrifice could be offered from such a humanlike animal. It is about this period that the Midrash states, "All sacrifices will be annulled in the future" [Tanchuma Emor 19, Vayikra Rabbah (9:7)].”

“The prophet Malachi similarly predicted a lofty world in which the Temple service will only consist of grain offerings, replacing the animal sacrifices of old: ‘Then the grain-offering (‘MINCHAH’) of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to God as in the days of old, and as in ancient years’. (Malachi, chapter 3, verse 4).”

“In the current state of the world, however, when man is both physically and ethically weak, the time for dealing with animal rights has not yet arrived. We still need to slaughter animals for our physical needs. In addition, man needs moral boundaries to distinguish between the distinct sanctity of human and animal life. At this point, to advocate protection for animals in God’s service would be both wrong and dishonest. What sort of morality would permit man to be cruel to animals for his own physical needs, yet forbid their use for his spiritual service, in his sincere recognition and gratitude for God's kindnesses?”

“If, on the other hand, one’s moral stance against the slaughter of animals stems not from weakness of the spirit and cowardice of the heart, but rather from recognition of the issue’s fundamental divine justice - then the first step towards its fulfillment should be to stop animal slaughter for food. If we feel an emotional discomfort with the slaughter of animals, it is not because the time for full animal rights has already arrived. Rather, it comes from our anticipation of the future, already ingrained in our souls, like many other spiritual aspirations.” [3]


“Sacrifices vs. Fasting”

“When the Talmudic scholar Rav Sheshet fasted, he would add the following request to his Amida (Standing) prayer: ‘Master of the Universe! You know that when the Temple stood, a person who sinned would bring a sacrifice. The fat and blood would be offered on the altar, and the person would be forgiven. Now I have fasted, and my fat and my blood have shrunk. May it be Your Will that the lessening of my fat and my blood should be considered as if I offered them on the altar, and my sacrifice was accepted.’ [(Talmud, Tractate) Berachot, 17].”

“Rav Sheshet's prayer is inspiring, but it raises a few questions:”

“Why bother bringing sacrifices if we can achieve the same atonement through fasting?”

“Why were the fat and blood of the sacrifices the only parts offered on the altar (for sin and guilt offerings)?”

“Rabbi Kook writes that there are two major categories of transgressions. The first type are sins which are the result of excessive involvement in sensual pleasures, luxuries, etc. These sins are atoned via the fats of the offering. The second category of transgressions are motivated by actual need: hunger, poverty. Such physical or financial pressures can persuade one to lie, steal, even murder. The atonement for such sins is through the blood of the offering.”

“By fasting, we can imitate the sacrifice of fat and blood in the Temple. However, there is an important difference. An actual sacrifice served to humble the negative traits and desires. Fasting, on the other hand, weakens the entire body. Just as chemotherapy poisons other parts of the body as it fights the cancer, so too the fast serves to sap both positive and negative emotional energies. The desire to help others, to do ‘mitzvot’ – commandments, to study Torah, etc, are also reduced by the fast. Therefore Rav Sheshet used to pray that his fasting would achieve the redemptive value of an offering in the Temple, without the negative side-effect of sapping positive energies and desires. (Translated from Rabbi Kook’s) Ayn Aya I: 82].” [4]

The magnificent teachings of the great Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook cover some of the most important dimensions of the relevance of the subject of Sacrifices for our times!
May we merit to internalize and rejoice with his holy words!

Have a great Shabbat, and please let me know what you think!

[1] Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, as quoted and translated by Chanan Morrison, http://www.geocities.com/m_yericho/ravkook/AHAREI63.htm
[2] Ibid., http://www.geocities.com/m_yericho/ravkook/VAYIK62.htm
[3] Ibid., http://www.geocities.com/m_yericho/ravkook/VAYIKRA58.htm
[4] ibid., http://www.geocities.com/m_yericho/ravkook/VAYIKRA59.htm

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