LTTN med xp logoThe Sacrificial Service in the Temple:
Getting Near to God

by Rabbi Chaim Richman

1997 Light to the Nations, Rabbi Chaim Richman - All Rights Reserved


Of all studies related to the concept of the Holy Temple, one of the most difficult for us to relate to as contemporary, Western-thinking people is the idea of the sacrifices. Indeed, many find the whole notion completely abhorrent, and even some devout Torah Jews dismiss the entire affair with an embarrassed shrug, proclaiming it to be an obsolete part of Judaism which they would rather do without...ancient history with no possible relevance or bearing whatsoever for modern man. "That was OK for those primitive people, who needed it, since they came from a society born in that context," they say. "But we are way past that, having advanced so much spiritually, and Israel will never go back to the cult of sacrifices when the Temple is rebuilt."

We hear comments of this sort quite often. But is this assertion correct? Is it acceptable for any of the Torah's commandments, decreed for all time by the Holy One, to be disparagingly categorized as a "cult" whose shelf-life has expired with the advent of modern, emancipated man?

For many, the Torah's commandments pertaining to the sacrificial service seem to have faded in the dazzling light of our sophisticated and vastly superior intelligence. But it is a fundamental Torah belief, emphasized by every prophet of Israel without exception, that the Holy Temple will be rebuilt-and it is the much-anticipated Third Temple that is associated with Messianic times, ushering in an unparalleled era of unity and harmony in the service of God for all humanity.

These same prophets tell us that sacrifices will be brought to that Temple not only by Israel, but by all the nations! Indeed, God's word to Isaiah declares "And they shall bring all your brethren out of all the nations for an offering to the My holy mountain the children of Israel bring their offering in a clean vessel...and also of them will I take priests and levites, says the Lord...and it shall come to pass, that every New Moon and every Sabbath, all flesh shall come to bow before Me, says the Lord" (Isaiah 66:20-23).

The significance and meaning of the Temple sacrificial system deserves-and requires-an entire treatise in its own right. The Torah prescribes animal sacrifice to be conducted in the Holy Temple as an integral part of the observance on many occasions, for both the individual and the community; not only for various minor sins that were committed. In fact, the vast minority of offerings which were brought to the Holy Temple were sin offerings. Understandably, the present forum is not the place for a lengthy and exhaustive explanation of this complex subject. Still, since a great deal of misunderstanding does exist with regard to the true purpose of the sacrifices, it is our purpose to present a brief and altogether general introduction to the subject. Although intensely aware that we cannot do justice to a Torah concept as sensitive and involved as this, we can nonetheless attempt to clarify a number of important points.

The Concept of Sacrifice Dates to the Beginning of Time

Moses Maimonides, the great philosopher and codifier of Jewish law, writes (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:32) that animal sacrifice dates back to the most ancient times, having been a common form of worship from the earliest days of man's need for religious expression and experience. He opines that the Torah incorporated this type of practice by providing for such offerings. In other words, God sought to give His people an avenue by which this primordial, innate desire may be expressed to Him, and thus made provisions for it by issuing the sacrificial commandments. Indeed, it is a common position of many great scholars and thinkers that sacrifices of animal life were among the earliest and most profound expressions of the human desire to come as close as possible to God. Thus the Bible records the sacrifices of Cain, Abel, and Noah.

It is evident that the Jewish concept of sacrifice as it existed in the Holy Temple is widely misunderstood. For this worship functioned on many levels: ethical, moral, philosophical, mystical...and most of all, in fulfillment of the word of God. For although the idea of the sacrifices may seem difficult for contemporary man to accept, it is the commandment of the Holy One.

Checking the definition of the word "sacrifice" in Webster's Dictionary, we begin to see a conceptual gap in our thinking which may help us expose the cause behind much of the misunderstanding. For the English the verb "sacrifice" means something entirely different:

sac.ri.fice \'sak-r*, -f*s also\ n [ME, fr. OF, fr. Lsacrificium, fr. sacr-, sacer] 1: an act of offering something precious to a deity; specif : the offering of an immolated victim 2: something offered in something else 3b: something given up or lost {the ~s made by parents} 4: LOSS, DEPRIVATION

However, the Hebrew word for "sacrifice" (Korban, le-hakriv) is from the same root as "to come near, to approach. . . . to become closely involved in a relationship with someone." For this is meant to be the essence of the experience which the bearer of the sacrifice undergoes. Indeed, it is unfortunate that no word in the English language can adequately render the idea behind the Hebrew word korban. We allow ourselves to use the word "sacrifice" for lack of a better word, but it is a highly unsuccessful attempt at translation; it could even be called unfortunate. The idea of a sacrifice or offering seems to indicate a gift or present; giving up something of value for another's benefit, or going without something of value yourself, for the benefit of that other.

None of this gift-giving idea is present in the idea of the korban. First of all, it is a word which never carries a connotation of a present or gift, and is used exclusively by the Bible in the context of man's relationship with God. Thus its true meaning can only be grasped through its root...the concept of coming close.

People are under the impression that the whole idea was to bring something precious to God and give it to Him. Their logic goes like this: "In those days, it was an agrarian society, and people raised animals from birth. Naturally they felt very close to these creatures, and were attached to them. So, when they brought them to the Temple altar, they were giving up something for God which meant the most to them."

But if this were the case, and the whole secret of bringing the sacrifice is to give something up to God, then in our own time, when the Holy Temple will be rebuilt, perhaps man has to bring something else altogether to the your cellular phone, or your microwave, or your VCR machine, or your car?!

What remains for us to examine, and attempt to understand, is how this process of "coming close" to God is supposed to work, through the Temple worship.

There are two approaches that I would like to take, in order to try and answer this question.

The first approach is based on a question that I was asked on my last visit to the US. I was lecturing about the universal significance of the Holy Temple in a church in the southeastern US, and someone in the audience asked about the resumption of animal sacrifice. The question was, "What about the animal rights people? Aren't they going to raise a hue and cry over this?"

I am sure that the motivation of animal-rights activists is pure and noble. However, one cannot be more religious or sensitive than God Himself, and the bringing of sacrifices is His idea in the first place! Of course, for many people, the idea of sacrifices in the Temple is abhorrent, but its OK to go out to BurgerKing if you're hungry, cause you like the taste...but if God wants it, that's something else altogether (BTW, the author of this note is a vegetarian...precisely because on a mystical level, I feel silly eating meat while the Temple is not yet standing and all the cosmic themes are still not rectified).

But I would suggest something else, as well. I suspect that another factor in the motivation of many of these activists, is the fact that they do not realize that man is more important than the animals. They are so sensitive to animal rights because they do not understand that everything God created in the universe, He created for the sake and benefit of order for man to utilize to draw closer to His creator, because man is the jewel in the Creator's crown. Everything that exists, exists only for man to find God.

This brings me to the second approach. And that is based on another very difficult, cumbersome, and strange thing about the Torah's sections dealing with the aspect of sacrifices, and let's not be afraid to admit that it appears strange and even bizarre...very difficult to understand. And that is the Torah's repetition, time and time again throughout the book of Leviticus, of the expression "a sweet savor unto the Lord."

What in the world does this mean? Is God such a carnivore, such a meat-eater, that He prefers the smell of meat to a good dairy meal? What is this "sweet savor" referring to?

If the definition of the korban is "to come closer," then the goal of the Temple sacrifices is nothing less than the aim of dedicating human life to a higher sphere of awareness...closer to the Creator and the source of all life. The Temple sacrifice is not an idea of giving something up or losing something of value; it strives for nearness to God. For as King David prayed in the book of Psalms (73:28), "But as for me, nearness to God is good"-for the Jew, nearness to God is the truest, the highest, the only conception what goodness really is. Without this aspect to his life, without this Godly relationship which uplifts his physical existence and imbues his life with a sense of connection to the Divine, he feels himself to be like an animal, devoid of that which makes him into a human being: the spark of his Godly soul...without this he feels similar to the animal before him, on the altar. In a sense, what happens to the offering is also taking place within the heart and mind! of he who brings it...

This in itself is the secret to understanding what is going on when an individual brings a sacrifice to the altar. Unlike the animal-rights activists who see no difference between our right to exist and the right of the animals, he realizes that indeed, we do have something in common with the animals...the animal soul. But man also has something more, that the animals don't have...the Godly soul, the part of Hashem within him, that must be elevated above the physical, and dedicated solely to a life of Divine purpose. It is this separation, this refinement (referred to by the Kabbalists as "birrur," sifting) which is the process that takes place when a man brings a sacrifice. He separates the animal spirit within himself from the man...and this itself is the "sweet savor" to the Lord!! It is this process of self-introspection, of "tikkun," fixing one's own character, and fixing one's own personality traits (the most difficult task of all) which truly gives God the most 'nachas,! ' the most satisfaction, the "sweet savor." When a man brings a sacrifice to the Temple and by his vicarious experience, realizes that he is not an animal, after all, but a human being who must live a life totally connected to God...this is true Divine service (upon which the world rests), and the real "sweet savor..."the greatest satisfaction that the Holy One can possibly have from us.

A Deeper Level of Understanding: Levels of Conflict Within Creation

Existence contains four distinct levels: inanimate, vegetable, animal, and man. These levels are not only physical, but spiritual as well; every aspect of the created universe possesses a spiritual essence. All these elements are locked in a mortal struggle with each other, for each strives to rise to the next level, and thus become closer to the source. The sages taught that the only time when all of these basic forces are rectified and in harmony with each other is in the Holy Temple. For in the Temple service, all four aspects of creation unite together in the service of God, and thus reach their full potential in fulfilling His will and sanctifying His name. The priest who offers each sacrifice represents humanity; the animal offered, the animal kingdom; the flour, frankincense, libations etc. represent the world of plants; and even the inanimate level is represented...for salt must be a part of every sacrifice. Thus when the Temple stands, all of creation functions in harmony. This is one aspect of how the Temple brings peace to the world: "...and in this place, I will grant peace, says the Lord of Hosts" (Hagai 2:9).

Man: The Greatest Contradiction of All

In all creation, man is unique because he is a living contradiction. His life is a tightrope walk between the physical and spiritual worlds, and throughout his life, he finds himself locked in constant struggle between the pull of these two opposing forces. His body, hewn from the earth, is the seat of the darker, physical nature which tries to pull him down, like gravity, in that direction. His Godly soul, which is a very part of Godliness itself, seeks to elevate him by subjugating his physical side to the spiritual.

The Offering is for Man's Benefit

This is part of the concept of the Temple sacrifices as well. For when an individual sinned and brought a korban, the death and burning of the animal on the Temple altar gave him a strong visual symbolization of what he himself deserves, were God to judge him severely, with the exacting scrutiny of unmitigated justice. We have some concept of the identity of God through His names, or attributes. It is instructive to note that throughout the book of Leviticus, in reference to the korbonot-offerings, God never refers to Himself with the Name Elohim, which denotes the Divine attribute of strict justice. For when connected to the sacrifices this could be misconstrued to indicate that the God who commands these offerings does so as a vengeful, bloodthirsty deity who demands a sacrifice as reparation. But nothing could be further from the truth; such imagery is nothing more than the illusion of a heathen vision of God, an unforgiving God who accepts the struggling death throws of an animal as a substitute for the forfeited life of a human being. But the only Name which the Bible associates with the offerings to God is HaShem, YHVH-the attribute of Divine love and mercy.

The God of Love Desires Man to Refine His Own Humanity

Precisely because He is the God of love, not the God of punishment and death, He has prepared the sacrificial system as a method of restoring man's moral and spiritual life, and purifying that life. The sacrifice represents the death of man's physical side, the side of him that will die when kept at a distance from God. But if he will bring his entire self into the service of God, he will connect with his true purpose, namely the empowerment of his spiritual nature through the rectification of his own animal urges. Thus he gives satisfaction to his Creator; the "sweet savor" of the sacrifices is the very fact that man refines his own humanity.

The experience of bringing this sacrifice for the individual was thus comparable to a vicarious taste of death, and it helped to reconcile the animal and spiritual natures within him.

The Sacrifices are Meaningless Without Repentance

It was only in the Holy Temple that the full spiritual nature of this process could be appreciated. It is of crucial importance to be aware that by no means did the sacrifices serve as an end in themselves. For example, the sin offering, which was a minority of all the offerings brought in the Temple, was powerless to atone for sin unless it was accompanied by a thought of resolute, true repentance. Without repentance, the sacrifice was invalid; the korban itself was only a means by which man could arouse himself to repent. We are likewise taught that God Himself did not require the sacrifice but for the betterment of the crown of His creation, man; however He would prefer that man not sin, and not be necessitated to bring any offering (BT Berakoth 22:A).

The Creator Raised Man Above the Animals

Today, there are those who refer disparagingly to the "cult" of Temple sacrifice; they find the concept repugnant. Their viewpoint is understandable, since their entire basis for understanding these lofty concepts comes from a standpoint which is totally pagan. Those of this ilk view the sacrificial system as brutal because they have no conception of a God who beckons to us to raise ourselves above the animals and dedicate ourselves to Him. For man is at the center of creation; all else which God created was brought into existence solely to help aid man in his quest for spiritual perfection.

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