This week, we begin the third book of the Torah – Vayikra/Leviticus. The reader immediately notices that this book is completely different from the previous ones as its focus is on the Temple sacrifices and offerings while the previous two books contained primarily narrative. Mention of “sacrifices” oftentimes raises questions; modern man finds it a difficult concept. One of the questions sometimes asked is this: How is it that prayer is now considered a “substitute” for the Temple sacrifices? Isn’t that an “addition” to Torah which the Torah itself prohibits?
A careful study of Vayikra teaches us that atonement for sin consists of both animal sacrifices AND sincere confession accompanied by repentant prayer in conjunction with the sacrifice. From the beginning, the Torah commanded sincere repentance as a means of atonement. To simply bring a sacrifice to the Temple without a change of heart provided NO benefit. In biblical times, atonement prayer was fully sanctioned by God, with or without animal offerings for Jews and non-Jews alike as can be seen in Jonah 3:5-10.
Therefore, let’s settle the question. No, the Rabbis did not “add to the Torah” when they emphasized repentant prayer as a means of obtaining forgiveness and atonement. It is a Torah principle that the primary means for obtaining atonement when animal sacrifices cannot be offered concurrently is repentant prayer.
As a matter of fact, Scripture declares clearly that animal sacrifices are only prescribed for accidental or unintentional sin (see Leviticus 4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:5, 15 (cf. Numbers 15:30). Deliberate, intentional sin can only be atoned for through repentance, unaccompanied by a blood sacrifice- Psalms 32:5, 51:16-19.
Following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., it was no longer possible to continue the sacrificial system, but no innovation was necessary, only a readjustment of what already existed. We see the efficacy of repentance with prayer proven in history. During the Babylonian exile, after the Israelites repented they were allowed to return to their homeland. Yet, they had no means of offering a blood sacrifice; they could only offer contrite repentant prayer.
According to the book of 1 Maccabees (cf. 1:54, 4:52) valid sacrifices in the Temple were discontinued for three years (168-165 B.C.E.). This meant those loyal to God could not offer personal atonement sacrifices in the Temple. During these periods of time, no Temple sacrifice was possible. Did God leave these Jews in their sins, with no means whatsoever for atonement? No the same God who gave the Torah spoke to the exiles in Babylonia through the prophet Jeremiah: “And you shall call upon Me, and go, and pray to Me, and I will hearken to you. And you shall seek Me, and find Me, when you shall search for Me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).
Thus, the Temple’s destruction caused a modification, not an innovation, for the Torah provided ahead of time the answer to the question, “How will the Jews receive atonement if the Temple is destroyed?”.
The inability to offer animal sacrifices causes no interruption in the divine flow of forgiveness and atonement for sin. Biblically, confession and repentant prayer can and does satisfy all the criteria necessary for attaining God’s forgiveness even without the presence of a blood sacrifice.
So what do we learn from this? That God has never left His people without the means for receiving forgiveness of sin. As God had always permitted, and continues to do to our very day, anyone may come to Him with sincere repentance in contrite prayer.
The rabbis were absolutely correct in following the biblically prescribed method to be followed when no blood sacrifice offering is possible. Repentant prayer, the offering of the lips, is not a man-made alternative to offering a blood sacrifice; it is an essential Torah mandated foundation of God’s relationship with Israel, whom He will never abandon or cast away.
In Tune with Torah this week = may God grant to all of us a deeper appreciation of the power of prayer, especially repentant prayer, and the discipline to devote ourselves to it with renewed fervor.