People, even well-meaning Jews, students of the Torah, consider these portions the least stimulating and the least relevant section of the Torah. It is not like the ethical or legal areas of the Torah that helped shape the conscience and the values of all societies it has touched to date. It is technical and does not speak to the realities and sensitivities of the modern era. Christian critics had in the past referred to our ancient temple as a “blood cult”. It is indeed, a symptom of the Jewish exile, that our great national treasure, our gift to the world- is sometimes misunderstood- and sometimes even by us.
So what is the purpose , the context, and the beauty of this section of the Torah?
-The Torah Raised the Jewish People Above the Nations
The Rambam, Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon (d. 1204), famously wrote in his philosophical work “Guide to the Perplexed” that a Korban was a service given to the Jewish nation to help wean them away from the similar Pagan practice of idolatry.
His contemporary the Ramban, R. Moshe Ben Nachman (d.1270) refuted this claim vociferously challenging that Adam’s children were commanded to bring a sacrifice (Cain and Abel famously in Genesis 4: 1-18) at a time that clearly preceded Paganism. (According to the Midrash Adam also brought sacrifices. Our forefathers brought sacrifices at several occasions, and we know that they were not tainted by Pagan influences. This easily refutes Rambam’s argument.
So was Rambam engaging in apologetica?
Furthermore, we might ask from our perspective, prodded by the Torah’s demand for respect to every living creature : Why kill animals in order to worship G-d!? What is the sense of this?
Finally, we will ask why the Torah expends so much space and detail to the intricacies of this service.
- A Love Offering:
To gain insight into Korbanos we will focus on a few details that are often overlooked in the discussion.
- The name “Elokim” is not used in these Torah portions. The Torah refers to Hashem by his four-lettered name (Yud and hey and vav and hey). It sometimes includes the term “Elokim” connoting “the G-d of Judgement”. Our rabbis point out that this term is noticeably absent from the laws of sacrifice. This is because G-d doesn’t want us to approach Korbanos as the Pagans did- namely, as an appeasement to an angry deity. (“Throw in another virgin, quick!”)
The Torah avoids the term Elokim, to ensure the korban evokes feelings of love, of a gift or a rapprochement with an estranged parent or friend- not a scapegoat sacrifice.
- The first of all offerings was the burnt offering…but it doesn’t end there!
Our forefathers brought an offering in which an animal is slaughtered and its meat is fully consumed by the fire. This korban is a voluntary korban, and it is called an “Olah” meaning “one that rises”. The idea is that this is a basic sign of devotion; “I renounce and regret the imperfection of my fleshy existence. I want to transcend and come close to Hashem.”
Now here is the catch. Until the Torah was given, this was the only korban brought. Only with the giving of the Torah was there introduced a type of korban in which humans would consume the meat. In a sin offering the Kohein and his tribe eat the flesh. In a “Shlamim” a peace offering, the one who brings the korban brings home the meat to eat and share.
Furthermore, a Gentile- who is free and welcome to bring a korban- may only bring an olah. What is the reason for this limitation?
I would suggest two reasons. One practical and one theological.
Firstly, the practice of eating parts of the Korban was likely unique to the Jewish nation. If a Gentile was to spend several hundred dinars to purchase an animal as a sin offering and then see the Kohein tribe walking off with the meat he could snidely decide that the Jews built their temple for profit! Even if he were to bring a shelamim (peace offering) and walk away with a rack of meat, he could consider the sacrifice trivial and self-serving. Therefore we let him worship in the manner he is used to: Subjugation to the Deity.
Secondly, and this is the point I want to get to, the idea that a. Korban is eaten by a human is an idea that was introduced to mankind with the giving of the Torah. Through this book of morality and spirituality the Jews, and mankind, are elevated- and challenged- to harness the gifts of the natural world and use them towards an other-worldly pursuit. The physical is given meaning with the Torah and this is a concept basic to Judaism.
Therefore, the pure motives and sentiments of remorse that accompany the sinner and his sin offering creates a meal for a Kohein, that must be eaten in holiness. Likewise, the peace offering is consumed partially on the altar and partially by the sponsor as a way of repairing his connection to G-d and celebrating it with a feast eaten in holiness.
While these concepts have been embraced by other religions to different degrees, there is (to date!) a great association between religion and ascetics among world cultures, not only those that require celibacy from their clergy, but more so from the middle-eastern and far-eastern cultures.
If one is uninitiated to the holiness of the Jewish people and their unique ability to comfortably achieve holy experiences through the use of the physical, we suggest that they serve G-d through the means that they appreciate: Subjugation.
So the olah korban is the original, pre-Sinai, primordial Korban. It is not outmoded, since even in Judaism, in order to realign oneself with spirituality the method of abstinence and full subjugation has its place. But it is only one of the many offerings to be brought at the temple, and it is rarely the type of Korban that is obligatory to the individual.
I would suggest the Rambam’s claim that Korbanos were instituted to wean the public away from idolatrous practices can best be accommodated by the inclusion of the Olah into Jewish ritual practice.
I have two “proofs” to this idea.
- The Midrash at the beginning of Parshat Tzav: “Command Aaron and his sons saying, ‘These are the rules of the Olah’” The Midrash and the Zohar point out the use of the word “Tzav- command” saying: “ The word command connotes idolatry”. This ambiguous note is left up to interpretation. I would suggest the message is as follows. “Command Aaron! If the Jewish nation feels the need to fully subjugate their will and their physicality to G-d, to offer a ‘sacrifice’ as the Pagans do with great devotion and the feeling of full submission…so be it! There is a place in Judaism for letting go. But make sure the message is clear. Let go of the animal instinct, give up your beastly thoughts and your laziness. But do not give up your mind and your heart! The things that make you different from the animal must be accentuated, but never revert to the state of mindless drones. I can be the G-d who asks for subjugation, but then you really need to subjugate and become…not a lifeless droid, and not a angel, but more of a human being!”
- My second allusion to this concept is the explanation of Rashi to the word “tzav- command”. Rashi: “Since there is a loss of money in the bringing of an olah (there is no monetary gain to the kohein) Aaron must be commanded not to be lax in offering this korban”. These words of Rashi, quoting a Medrash have always been troubling. Does it not go without saying that every korban must be offered with equal importance?! Does a kohein really think about his profit in bringing a korban? Some might suggest that the Torah is being cautious and taking all considerations seriously. I want to suggest that the “loss of money” is the attitude the kohein might have when he sees an offering of full subjugation and burning of meat that could have been used to serve G-d through the expanded array of korbanos available since the giving of the Torah. The kohein might look at the bringer of an olah as a fanatic who only understands service of G-d through the pre-Sinai ways of self-denial. The kohein thinks, “Here comes another simpleton. A farmer with simplistic views of religious requirements. Why waste a good korban? There are so many more options!” To digress, it is like the chef who can make so many fine foods with exotic spices and condiments, but the customers keep ordering the stuffed cabbage! The Torah tells the Kohein, “ Do not judge another person’s religious sentiments and their validity!”
There is a well known story about a Rabbi in Safed, Israel during the time of the great Kabbalist Arizal. Every Friday this Rabbi would find a loaf of bread inside of the Torah ark. He couldn’t understand how it got there, but he would bring it home for Shabbat. One week, he kept vigil from the balcony to see who was bringing the bread. He saw a simple farmer enter the shul place the bread and pray to G-d to accept his offering as every other week. The rabbi descended from the balcony and yelled at the man for assuming that G-d wants his offering, or that there is even an idea of giving bread to G-d at all! The man left dejected.
After Shabbat, the rabbi received a message from the Arizal stating that he should prepare his burial shrouds since he will die shortly as a punishment for disrupting the simple man’s homage to G-d- which was received in heaven with as much love as in the age of the temple when fresh bread was laid out every Friday upon the table.
We should not underestimate the Jewish desire to come close to Hashem even when it takes on different forms, since sometimes there is a place for exactly the kind of sentiment the person expressed. Of course, we don’t aim to remain simple in our approach to Hashem, rather to open up vista after vista to greater understanding and service.
So, returning to our original questions. The Rambam was not engaging in apologetics. There are aspects to Korbanos that serve to harness very real emotions towards Hashem, even when those emotions had been tainted by perversions of other cultures. Of course, we go further and seek deeper meanings and full understanding of G-d and we don’t quit after taking “baby steps”.
A Korban is not a waste of an animal, firstly because G-d asked for it and he created every living being. But even G-d would not ask for what is not absolutely necessary. Rather, the animal is the highest creation in the universe besides man, but decidedly below man. Man must sometimes accentuate this distinction when he needs to return to the state of humanity. At other times, the animal, which is typically eaten by man, should be first brought to the temple, to remind man that if he eats an animal he better be living a better life than that animal and make the loss of the animal worthwhile. (Vegetarianism in Torah thought is a discussion for another time.) Bring holiness to the world where there is such a potential for beastly behavior.
Finally, the Torah expends so much time and parchment to these laws, because precisely in this realm, the realm of expressing the spiritual in the world of the physical, we need to fine tune our expression until it is worthy of transcending to the higher worlds. We need to carefully “wean” ourselves away from foreign approaches to service and subjugate our subjugation! Because even subjugation is rebellion if we insist on deciding the “how” and the “when” of the expression.
This is an approach to Korbanos that I prepared for the group discussion. It is based partially on the writing and style of Rabbi Samson Rapahael Hirsch (d. 1888) and my own thoughts. I welcome your reactions through the website or directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for reading!