We have arrived! It’s that time of year that we begin Vayikra and start to deal with the world of korbanot. For many people out there this is a very hard time of year. The moral and ethical lessons of Breishit are behind us and the inspirational stories of Shemot are as well. This week we start a series of parshiot where the main, if not only theme, is korbanot, a world that seems so foreign.
Contemporary sensitivities lead us very far from animal sacrifice and make it very hard for us to identify with this as a method of serving God. In this context, many people cite the words of the Rambam in the Guide to the Perplexed 3/32. It is there that he explains that animal sacrifice was never intended to be a vehicle to achieve closeness to God, it was simply a compromise with the common practice of the time. Instead of the Torah outlawing it all together, it simply limited it to very specific locations and circumstances. The Rambam concludes that the higher, purer, effective and authentic methods are learning Torah and prayer, as well as the various mitzvoth that represent these ideas such a tzitzit, mezuza and teffilin.
The logical conclusion from the position in the Guide is that we will not be returning to korbanot in the future. After all, if they were only meant to placate the natural tendencies, and given that our attitudes have changed, it stands to reason that there is no longer any purpose in korbanot.
This position is vehemently rejected by most of the authorities, maybe most notably by Nachmanides. He points out that we have korbanot recorded as being offered in a positive light prior to any pagan idol worship. Kayin and Hevel, later Noach and all of the Avot all offer animal sacrifices, making the anti-pagan argument hard to accept. Most of the other commentaries see the realm of korbanot as an integral part of the world of Judaism, as presented in sefer Vayikra.
In truth the Rambam himself seems to take a very different view of things in his halachik work, the Mishne Torah. He writes in Hilchot Melachim 11:1:
The king, the moshiach will be established. He will bring back the Davidic dynasty to its original glory; he will build the temple and gather in the diaspora. All of the laws will be reinstated as they originally were: there will be sacrifices and they will observe shmitta and yovel as it states in the Torah.
There seems, here, to be no doubt that the korbanot will return in the future.
In addition to the above, in his comments at the end of Hilchot Meila, the Rambam defines the different categories of mitzvoth. He talks about the concept of chukim, mitzvoth that have no obvious rationale. He encourages us to treat such mitzvoth with utmost respect, despite the lack of clear reason. When he lists such mitzvoth he writes:
All of the korbanot are chukim, and they are therefore listed (in the Mishna in Avot) as one of the pillars upon which the world stands.
The apparent contradiction between the two writings of the Rambam is glaring. While in the Guide he indicates a clear rationale for the mitzvoth of korbanot and it would follow that they are a thing of the past, in the Mishne Torah he thinks that there is no reason and clearly states that the korbanot will return to the center stage.
There are three main approaches to solving this problem. According to one approach the Rambam really believes what is written in the Mishne Torah, while his comments in the Guide were only meant as apologetics to help those that are perplexed. This of course leads to a long discussion of the entire work of the Guide and is a very dangerous path to take. I find it uncomfortable to suggest that the Rambam would have written such a detailed work that included things he simply did not believe in.
The second approach is that he really believed in the comments in the Guide, while his words in Mishne Torah were simply a summary of the statements in the Talmud and he therefore codified them as such, however he had other reason to believe that the korbanot would not return. This seems to be even harder to swallow. It is hard to imagine that the halachik giant that the Rambam was, was working with another source of authority that contradicted the Talmud.
Rav Kook suggests a third approach. The korbanot originally were there to channel our spiritual energy, which otherwise may have lapsed into pagan idol worship. It is true that the age of reason and rational thought has removed modern man from such tendencies, making it harder to see the purpose of the korbanot, however it is not clear that we are on a one-way street. The underlying principles of modern thought and reason has often had science replace religion. While centuries ago everyone was religious – it was simply a question of which religion – more recently we find large portions of the world not believing in any deity or any power beyond themselves at all. The “new religion” is the belief in ourselves and that we control our destiny in all aspects of life. Rav Kook posits that we will see a reawakening of the concepts that see other forces as being significant in our lives. As society searches for the source of such sources of energy we will, once again, be confronted with the challenges and the need for korbanot will be as relevant as ever.
About a century after Rav Kook talked about this I think we are seeing the meteoric advancement of the scientific world while at the same time a lot of skepticism as to the ability of science to solve all the riddles. Many people are looking to the Far East for alternative approaches to many Western assumptions.
Our discussion thus far has focused on the meaning of korbanot and their relevance to our lives today (and in the future).
In conclusion, I would like to take a step back and question the very validity of our initial question. We presented the challenge of learning about the korbanot as they seem irrelevant to our lives and lacking in meaning. I think we are mistaken by phrasing things in such a way. The very question assumes that the Torah is meant to fulfill some need that we have or provide a feeling of meaning in our lives by striking a chord that resonates in our souls. This attitude seems very egocentric, what can the Torah do for me?
Does it not make more sense to shift the weight of burden to ourselves? Korbanot are classified by the Rambam as chukim, items for which we have no real explanation. The very concept of the unexplainable law seems to underscore the need for complete surrender to God and recognition of His infinite logic. As we read last week we are meant to fulfill everything “as God commanded Moshe”, not as “we feel warm and fuzzy as a result of really identifying with the results of the mitzvah”.
The world of korbanot is known as Avodah, service, of God. The main point of service needs to focus on the One being served. Maybe that is the real “sacrifice” that we need to make, we need to sacrifice ourselves, our sense of control. We need to submit to God and really fulfill the description in the opening of the sefer – “when an individual makes an offering” we offer ourselves.