An Alternative for Animal Sacrifices
The parsha of Vayikra concerns itself with the topic of kodshim - animal
sacrifices which constituted the core service of the kohanim/priests and the
people of Israel in the Mishkan/Tabernacle and later in the Temple in
Jerusalem. Much ink has flowed and much human genius has been expended to
attempt to explain and rationalize the nature of this type of service and
why, somehow, it should be found as being pleasing in the eyes of the Lord.
Regarding the sacrifices of animals on the altar by Abel and Noach in the
book of Bereshith, we see that their offerings were received with Divine
favor. But the entire issue, as to how killing an animal somehow might
expiate a human sin and bring forgiveness to that, is mysterious, especially
from the perspective of current Western values. It would be foolish to deal
with this issue as far greater people than me have been reticent to go
there. Suffice it to say that we must treat this area of kodshim as being on
a plane and level of beyond human understanding and appreciation.
But just as in the physical world there are so many things that work and we
cannot explain why they should work, so too in this spiritual realm of
kodshim we have to accept that animal sacrifices somehow do accomplish their
Torah purpose - even though we are unable to understand why this should be
true. Judaism is a faith of rational thought and moral values. But, it is
also a faith of mystery and other-world spirituality. It is this combination
of wisdom and truth that make Judaism so unique.
The Torah presupposes human error and sin to be a constant. Even the most
righteous person is not truly free of sin. Yet, Judaism does not foster any
idea of "original sin." It believes that we are born with noble souls and
enter this world unsullied. Nevertheless, it also recognizes human nature -
and that it can become cruel, violent, lustful and sinful even from an
The Torah, of necessity, must provide a mechanism to cleanse one's soul once
more if the person has sinned. This mechanism is kodshim/animal sacrifices.
With the absence of the Temple that mechanism has morphed into prayer, good
deeds, and true repentance for wrongs committed. The goal is the same - to
reintroduce into our lives a sense of holiness and higher purpose. It
teaches us that we can right wrongs and repair broken hopes and hearts.
The details of kodshim as written in the Torah and, as expounded and
expanded in the Mishna and Talmud, are like the mysterious formulae and
equations used by physicists and chemistry professors that are
unintelligible to the ordinary man on the street but nevertheless work and
accomplish their stated functions and goals. We have to find our way without
the Temple being present, without these formulae and equations to help us to
cleanse ourselves. The Torah has provided us with an alternate route to
arrive at that goal. We should constantly exploit these opportunities -
prayer, good deeds, honest repentance, and improvement. Then our lips will
truly replace the kodshim that we no longer have.
Rabbi Berel Wein