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Vayikra: Understanding the Korbonot (Temple offerings)

As we begin Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, let us reflect upon the meaning of the korbonot that were offered in the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple. A great deal of misunderstanding exists regarding the true purpose of the offerings, and although the topic is quite complex, our hope is that this could serve as a brief introduction to the subject.

This concept dates back to the earliest days. Maimonides writes (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:32) that animal sacrifice was a common form of worship from the earliest days of man's need for religious expression. In his opinion Torah incorporated this practice by providing for such offerings. G-d sought to allow this desire to be expressed to Him, and thus made provisions for it by issuing the sacrificial commandments. Indeed, great scholars maintain that sacrifices were among the earliest, most profound expressions of man’s desire for closeness to G-d. Thus the Bible records the sacrifices of Cain, Abel, and Noah.

The dictionary’s definition of "sacrifice," indicates a conceptual gap in our thinking that exposes the cause behind much of the misunderstanding. For the English the verb "sacrifice" means something entirely different:

1: an act of offering something precious to deity; specif : the offering of a immolated victim 2: something offered in sacrifice 3a: destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else 3b: something given up or lost {the ~s made by parents} 4: LOSS, DEPRIVATION

However, the Hebrew word for "sacrifice" (korban, le-hakriv) is from the same root as "to come near, to approach. . . . to become closely involved in a relationship with someone." This is the essence of the experience of bringing a korban. No word in the English language can adequately render the idea behind the Hebrew word korban. The word "sacrifice" is an unsuccessful, even unfortunate translation. “Sacrifice” indicates a gift, or giving up something of value for another's benefit, or going without something of value yourself.

None of this gift-giving is present in the idea of the korban. It is a word that never carries a connotation of a gift, and is used exclusively by the Torah in the context of man's relationship with G-d. Thus its true meaning can only be grasped through its root... the concept of coming close.

If the definition of korban is "to come closer," then the goal of the “sacrifices” is nothing less than the aim of dedicating human life to a higher sphere of awareness... closer to the Creator and the source of all life. This is not an idea of giving something up or losing something of value; it strives for nearness to G-d. For as King David prayed (Psalms 73:28), "but as for me, nearness to G-d is good" - for the Jew, nearness to G-d is the truest, highest, only conception of goodness. Without this aspect to his life, without this G-dly relationship uplifting his physical existence and imbues his life with a sense of connection to the Divine, he feels himself to be like an animal, devoid of that which makes him into a human being: the spark of his G-dly soul... without this he feels similar to the animal before him, on the altar. In a sense, what happens to the offering is also taking place within the heart and mind of he who brings it...

When an individual sinned and brought a korbon, the death and burning of the animal on the altar gave him a strong visual symbolization of what he himself deserves, were G-d to judge him with exacting justice. The Torah teaches us that we are able to approach the identity of G-d and have some knowledge of Him through His names, or attributes. Throughout the entire book of Leviticus, in reference to the korbonot, G-d never refers to Himself with the Name Elohim, which denotes the Divine attribute of strict justice. For when connected to the sacrifices this could be misconstrued to indicate that the G-d who commands these offerings is a vengeful, bloodthirsty deity who demands a sacrifice as reparation. But nothing could be further from the truth; such imagery is the illusion of a heathen vision of an unforgiving god who accepts the struggling death throes of an animal as a substitute for the forfeited life of a human being. But the only name associated with the offerings to G-d is HaShem, YHVH - signaling the attribute of Divine mercy.

Precisely because He is the G-d of mercy, not the G-d of punishment and death, He has prepared the sacrificial system as a method of restoring and purifying man's moral and spiritual life. The sacrifice represents the death of man's physical side, the side of him that will die when kept at a distance from G-d. But if he will bring his entire self into the service of G-d, he will connect with his true purpose, namely the empowerment of his spiritual nature through the rectification of his own animal urges. Thus he gives satisfaction to his Creator; the "pleasing aroma" of the sacrifices is the very fact that man refines his own humanity.

The experience of bringing this sacrifice for the individual was thus comparable to a vicarious taste of death, and it helped to reconcile the animal and spiritual natures within him.

Only in the Holy Temple could the full spiritual nature of this process be appreciated. By no means were the sacrifices an end in themselves. For example, the sin offering was powerless to atone for sin unless it was accompanied by a thought of true repentance. Without repentance, the sacrifice was invalid; the korbon itself was only a means by which man could arouse himself to repent.

Some refer disparagingly to the "cult" of Temple sacrifice, finding the concept repugnant. Their viewpoint is understandable, since their entire basis for understanding these lofty concepts comes from a standpoint that is totally pagan. Those of this ilk view the sacrificial system as brutal because they have no conception of a G-d who beckons to us to raise ourselves above the animals and dedicate ourselves to Him. For man is at the center of creation; all else which G-d created was brought into existence solely to help aid man in his quest for spiritual perfection.


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