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The Temple Sacrifices and Offerings

Introduction

The significance and meaning of the Temple sacrificial system deserves - and requires - an entire treatise in its own right. In the Holy Temple animal sacrifice is prescribed by the Torah not only for various minor sins that were committed, but on many other occasions as well. This is not the place for a lengthy treatment of this subject. Still, since a great deal of misunderstanding does exist with regard to the true purpose of the sacrifices, we present a brief and altogether general introduction to the subject. Although intensely aware that we cannot do justice to such a sensitive and involved subject in this format, we can nonetheless attempt to clarify a number of important points.

The Concept of Sacrifice Dates to the Beginning of Time

Maimonides writes (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:32) that animal sacrifice dates back to the most ancient times, having been a common form of worship from the earliest days of man's need for religious expression and experience. He opines that the Torah incorporated this type of practice by providing for such offerings. In other words, G-d sought to give His people an avenue by which this desire may be expressed to Him, and thus made provisions for it by issuing the sacrificial commandments. Indeed, it is a common position of many great scholars and thinkers that sacrifices were among the earliest and most profound expressions of the human desire to come as close as possible to G-d. Thus the Bible records the sacrifices of Cain, Abel, and Noah.

It is evident that the Jewish concept of sacrifice as it existed in the Holy Temple is widely misunderstood. For this worship functioned on many levels: ethical, moral, philosophical, mystical... and in fulfillment of the word of G-d. For although the idea of the sacrifices may seem difficult for contemporary man to accept, it is the commandment of the Holy One.

Checking the definition of the word "sacrifice" in Webster's Dictionary, we begin to see a conceptual gap in our thinking which may help us expose the cause behind much of the misunderstanding. For the English the verb "sacrifice" means something entirely different:

sac.ri.fice \'sak-r*-.fi-s, -f*s also -.fi-z\ n [ME, fr. OF, fr. L sacrificium, fr. sacr-, sacer] 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." For this is meant to be the essence of the experience which the bearer of the sacrifice undergoes. Indeed, it is unfortunate that no word in the English language can adequately render the idea behind the Hebrew word korban. We allow ourselves to use the word "sacrifice" for lack of a better word, but it is a highly unsuccessful attempt at translation; it could even be called unfortunate. The idea of a sacrifice or offering seems to indicate a gift or present; giving up something of value for another's benefit, or going without something of value yourself, for the benefit of that other.

None of this gift-giving idea is present in the idea of the korban. First of all, it is a word that never carries a connotation of a present or gift, and is used exclusively by the Bible 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 the korban is "to come closer," then the goal of the Temple 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. The Temple sacrifice 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 in the book of Psalms (73:28), "but as for me, nearness to G-d is good" - for the Jew, nearness to G-d is the truest, the highest, the only conception what goodness really is. Without this aspect to his life, without this G-dly relationship which uplifts 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...

A Deeper Level of Understanding: Levels of Conflict Within Creation

Existence contains four distinct levels: inanimate, vegetable, animal, and man. These levels are not only physical, but spiritual as well; every aspect of the created universe possesses a spiritual essence. All these elements are locked in a mortal struggle with each other, for each strives to rise to the next level, and thus become closer to the source. The sages taught that the only time when all of these basic forces are rectified and in harmony with each other is in the Holy Temple. For in the Temple service, all four aspects of creation unite together in the service of G-d, and thus reach their full potential in fulfilling His will and sanctifying His name. The priest who offers each sacrifice represents humanity; the animal offered, the animal kingdom; the flour, frankincense, libations etc. represent the world of plants; and even the inanimate level is represented... for salt must be a part of every sacrifice. Thus when the Temple stands, all of creation functions in harmony. This is one aspect of how the Temple brings peace to the world: "...and in this place, I will grant peace, says the L-rd of Hosts" (Haggai 2:9).

Man: The Greatest Contradiction of All

In all of creation, man is unique because he is a living contradiction. His life is a tightrope walk between the physical and spiritual worlds, and throughout his life, he finds himself locked in constant struggle between the pull of these two opposing forces. His body, hewn from the earth, is the seat of the darker, physical nature that tries to pull him down, like gravity, in that direction. His G-dly soul, which is a very part of G-dliness itself, seeks to elevate him by subjugating his physical side to the spiritual.

The Offering is for Man's Benefit

This is part of the concept of the Temple sacrifices as well. For when an individual sinned and brought a korbon, the death and burning of the animal on the Temple altar gave him a strong visual symbolization of what he himself deserves, were G-d to judge him severely, with the exacting scrutiny of unmitigated 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. In this light it is instructive to note that throughout the book of Leviticus, in reference to the korbonot-offerings, 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 does so as a vengeful, bloodthirsty deity who demands a sacrifice as reparation. But nothing could be further from the truth; such imagery is nothing more than the illusion of a heathen vision of G-d, an unforgiving G-d who accepts the struggling death throws of an animal as a substitute for the forfeited life of a human being. But the only Name that the Bible associates with the offerings to G-d is HaShem, YHVH - signaling the attribute of Divine love and mercy.

The G-d of Love Desires Man to Refine His Own Humanity

Precisely because He is the G-d of love, not the G-d of punishment and death, He has prepared the sacrificial system as a method of restoring man's moral and spiritual life, and purifying that 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.

The Sacrifices are Meaningless Without Repentance

It was only in the Holy Temple that the full spiritual nature of this process could be appreciated. It is of crucial importance to be aware that by no means did the sacrifices serve as an end in themselves. For example, the sin offering, which was a minority of all the offerings brought in the Temple, was powerless to atone for sin unless it was accompanied by a thought of resolute, true repentance. Without repentance, the sacrifice was invalid; the korbon itself was only a means by which man could arouse himself to repent. We are likewise taught that G-d Himself did not require the sacrifice but for the betterment of the crown of His creation, man; however He would prefer that man not sin, and not be necessitated to bring any offering (BT Berakoth 22:A).

The Creator Raised Man Above the Animals

Today, there are those who refer disparagingly to the "cult" of Temple sacrifice; they find 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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