This week we enter the book of Leviticus, third of the five books of Moses and full of lengthy law codes. Barely has the book begun than we are faced with laws about sacrifices; which sacrifices, what for, when for and how they’re done. These archaic rituals are a foreign concept to us in modern society, where sacrifice now means something very different. To us a sacrifice is giving up chocolate for the good of our waistlines, or not having a summer holiday so that our family money stretches further than might otherwise be the case. Sacrifice for us is all about loss.
To understand the true meaning of sacrifices in temple times, we first need to consider the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, coming from the root, kuph reysh vet, meaning to be or to draw near. From this we begin to develop a deeper insight into what sacrifices truly were, a means of connecting people and the Infinite. For our more distant ancestors, sacrifices were not a loss, but the opposite. They were an act to gain a closer relationship with God, to solicit God’s favour, and it was this intention behind them that made them meaningful when the Temple still stood.
The importance of the motivation behind the sacrifice seems to be shown by the fact that sacrifices were not just limited to those people who could afford to buy the most expensive animals. We read about the offering of flour for those who could not afford anything else, and the person offering the flour is called a nefesh a word meaning both a soul and a person.
The Midrash states that the reason behind the use of this word is that the act of giving all you can afford, however small, is the act of offering your soul, an idea which forms a key aspect of Maimonides’ eight levels of tzedakah; that it is better to give little but to do so willingly and with a good heart than to give much grudgingly.
The biblical prophets reprimanded popular worship when it consisted purely of sacrifices, because they knew that sacrifices alone did not encourage people to act in an ethical manner. Modern scholarship has taken the view that the prophets were not intrinsically opposed to sacrifices but rather were suspicious of the intention behind certain sacrifices. And many of the prophets who favoured temple worship nevertheless were firmly of the opinion that the ritual act of sacrifice was no substitute for moral actions, and believed that it was far better to act morally without the need for sacrifices at all. After the destruction of the temple Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai returned to the site with his pupils. When he saw their despair at being unable to atone for their sins through the Temple’s sacrificial cult, he explained to them that there was a means of atonement as good as sacrifice, the act of doing good deeds.
Progressive Judaism does not aim to resurrect the act of sacrifice as a way of developing a connection to God, however it still embraces the intention behind the act of sacrifices, of finding a way of linking ourselves more closely to the divine. We now have to strive to find a way to do this. Tefillah is a tool that can help us embark on the path to a connection with the Unknowable. Professor Art Green has written “Since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, prayer has taken the place of sacrifice, but that does not imply that sacrifice was abolished when the sacrificial rite went out of existence. Prayer is not a substitute for sacrifice. Prayer is sacrifice. What has changed is the substance of sacrifice: the self takes the place of the thing. The spirit is the same… The word is but an altar. We do not sacrifice. We are the sacrifice. Prayer is a hazard, a venture of peril. Every person who prays is a kohen at the greatest of all temples. The whole universe is the Temple.”
However if the intention behind our prayer is only to seek forgiveness, will they be heard? Surely, to release ourselves in prayer, we need to follow the example of our ancestors, who gave of the little they had, equivalent to their whole being, to make a connection with the divine. We don’t need to give up our possessions any more to connect with the unknown, but maybe if we put our nefesh, our very essence on the line, as our forebears tried to do, we might bring ourselves one step closer to God.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.