Why do we need sacrifices? This is the question most commonly asked when studying the sedra of Vayikra today. The types of offerings detailed in the sedra – animals slaughtered and presented on the temple altar to G-d and even the various types of meal-offerings – seem alien to today’s ethos and spirit.
But if we are not to attempt to re-write the Torah as we feel fit, then we have to understand why G-d prescribed this system of sacrifices. The twelve-century philosopher Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed, explained that these commandments were designed to wean the Israelites away from human sacrifices by replacing them with animal offerings. Some mistakenly infer that Maimonides was therefore implying that sacrifices only were commanded for a particular epoch and not for all time; with the myriads of victims of wars every year it is far from clear that mankind will ever be successfully “weaned” away from human sacrifices.
But Maimonides’s view is not universal. The commentator from the thirteenth century, Nahmanides, argued that the Torah would not have described sacrifices as offering a “sweet savour to G-d” if they were merely a compromise. Furthermore, sacrifices existed at the dawn of creation, with G-d approving of those offered by Abel and Noach.
Nahminides explains that when a person sins, he is commanded to bring a sacrifice, and to lean his hands on the animal, whilst confessing his sins. The animal’s body is burnt and its blood spilt on the alter, and the one who brings it should realise that, as a result of his sins, his own body should be burnt and his own blood spilt – were it not for the kindness of G-d, who has accepted a substitute.
We can see that the sacrifice is not for G-d’s benefit – who is in no need of “presents” – but for ours. It is we who must realise, as the animal is slaughtered, that “there but for the grace of G-d go I”.
Each year, as Yom Kippur approaches, we grapple with the need for repentance. For many of us, sincerely acknowledging our faults and resolves to genuinely change our ways is a near-impossible task. After all, we seem to approach each Rosh Hashanna with the same list of sins to confess – a testament to our failure to reform the previous year.
Perhaps this task is so difficult because we lack a Temple and hence cannot perform the sacrifices. The effect of seeing an animal die in place of our own selves, and understanding that the animal’s fate should really have been our own, must have been to create such a powerful message that a sincere change of attitude would have been the result. Of course a corollary follows; if the sacrifice does not result in repentance and change, then it will not bring forgiveness from G-d.
The K’tav V’hakabala, a commentator from the nineteenth century, explains why the Torah describes a sacrifice as generating a “sweet savour” before G-d. When a person wears a perfume, we can sense the fragrance before we can see the individual. The sweet savour of a sacrifice is the fragrance “worn” by the new person – the reformed character who has replaced the old, unworthy, one. If bringing a sacrifice does indeed lead to the creation of a new individual, then the “sweet savour” is indeed acceptable to heaven.