Much of the book of Vayikra/Leviticus discusses the animal sacrifices offered up in the Temple, a practice which modern minds, even Jewish ones, often find disconcerting. Some non-Jews consider them primitive, and even barbaric, and find in this subject no contemporary relevance. Without understanding the animal sacrifices in their historical context, we will never grasp their deeper meaning.
In any area of study involving history and religion (any religion), the greatest challenge is this: we cannot, and must not, judge a different culture, historical period or religious practice by our own contemporary standards and mores. If we do, every shred of objectivity is lost and the ability to derive any meaningful understanding of the topic is destroyed. In this case, what we need to do is find the deeper meaning contained in the sacrificial system and seek to relate it to our contemporary spiritual expressions of prayer.
Certainly Hashem knew that the Tabernacle and later, the Temples, would not last throughout the generations. From the beginning, there was a plan. In Vayikra/Leviticus 6:5, we find the key to that plan. A perpetual fire shall remain aflame on the altar; it shall not be extinguished.”
We are taught that the Temple service is a paradigm for each person’s journey to come nearer to Hashem, to find one’s purpose in life and in so doing, fulfill their unique ‘tikkun olam’ – repairing of this world. The perpetual fire upon the altar represents our responsibility to consistently serve Hashem as every experience, every situation, every challenge in life is an opportunity to connect with G-d, to choose to do good, and to add light and healing to our own souls and to the world around us.
When the altar fire was extinguished with the destruction of the Temple, the perpetual fire within our souls was to remain aflame. How was that flame to be nurtured? By prayer. The Temple service, including its sacrifices, was to continue, albeit in a different form, through the personal and communal prayers of Hashem’s people.
Beginning with the elevation offering, the rich, deep significance of the Temple service unfolds for our inspiration. The elevation offering (olah) was completely consumed on the altar. Prayer, to be truly effective and meaningful, requires our kavana, concentration and passion from the depths of our soul. The elevation offering was voluntary, symbolically representing our inner desire to grow spiritually. It represents the free choice which is foundational to the process of maturity. The fire on the altar conveys the passion, the commitment and the joy which we are to bring to our service of Hashem.
Another one of the sacrifices brought was the Thanksgiving Offering. Today we turn to Psalm 100 to express the same depth of gratitude to Hashem which our ancestors did in the Temple. This Psalm is recited daily by observant Jews and is our consistent expression of love, praise and appreciation of Hashem. Indeed, a significantly large portion of the daily prayers in the Jewish Siddur (prayer book) are dedicated to thanksgiving and praise.
In response to the suggestion that the sacrifices were attempts to “bribe” Hashem, one needs to understand that the Hebrew word for sacrifice — korban — means ‘to draw close’. The sacrifices were never an attempt to appease or bribe the Almighty, G-d forbid. Rather, they were a public recognition of Hashem as Sovereign King of the Universe and Sovereign King of each individual life.
Through the sacrifices, we expressed our submission to Him, we drew closer to Him and we offered ourselves symbolically to Him through the offering given.
Is this not exactly the same thing we should be doing every time we pray?
There is no effective prayer without submission to Hashem on the part of the one who prays. The self-discipline which causes us to set aside the time, to make the effort to focus diligently on our communion with Hashem, makes of prayer a living ‘sacrifice’, does it not?
Understanding how and why prayer has replaced — or perhaps better stated — has continued the Temple service, though in a different form of spiritual service, should teach us that any negative attitudes or comments about the sacrificial offerings are misguided at least, and disrespectful of the Torah at most. Despite the fact that anumal sacrifices are no longer offered, their deepest meaning is very much alive every time we choose to pray.
The very nature of the Jew is thanksgiving and praise. The word ‘Jew’ is derived from Yehudah (Judah) which means “Thanks” and “Praise”. These are the fundamental qualities on which every other spiritual principle is built. As David, the sweet singer of Israel, declared, “I will bless Hashem at all times; His praise will continually be in my mouth.”
In Tune with Torah this week = How thankful are we on a day to day basis for the abundant goodness of Hashem in our daily lives? How often do we express that gratitude and appreciation? If we are prone to complain and be negative, this Shabbat is a good time to repent of that negativity, and to focus on developing a thankful heart.