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Parshas Vayikra (5776)

Korbanos (Ritual Sacrifices): Are They a Thing of The Past?

The first Torah portion in the Book of Leviticus, Parshas Vayikra, deals primarily with the various animal sacrifices that were required to be offered on the Altar in the Tabernacle to atone for a number of sins.

Now I know that many of you who are reading this are likely repulsed by the very idea of offering animal sacrifices and sprinkling their blood on an altar, and are glad that ever since the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, Judaism has done away entirely with the “sacrificial cult” and it’s not coming back.

Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you:

According to Jewish tradition, the sacrificial system will most definitely be restored in the Messianic Era. This means that all public communal offerings such as the Korban Tamid that was offered twice-daily in the Temple and the Korban Mussaf that was offered on the Sabbath and Jewish Holidays will be restored. However, the only private sacrifices which will be accepted will be the thanksgiving offering known as the Korban Todah. Since man’s heart will have been “circumcised” in the Messianic Era, the desire to sin will no longer exist, and the private sacrifices (most of which are mentioned in this week’s Torah portion) which are brought to atone for sins will no longer be needed.

It is also clear that Judaism never “did away” with the sacrificial system after the Second Temple was destroyed. In fact, the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah, the “Men of the Great Assembly”, who formalized the prayers that all Jews have been reciting for well over 2000 years, inserted a special blessing in the Shemoneh Esrei (“Silent Prayer”) that G-d should restore the Temple Service to its original glory.

So you’re probably wondering what’s the good news?!

The good news is that according to Jewish tradition, the sacrificial system will most definitely be restored in the Messianic Era.

I call the restoration of sacrifices in the Messianic Era “good news” because, as King Solomon wrote about the Torah in Proverbs 3:17: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness ...” So that if G-d wrote in the Torah that the Jewish people should bring animal sacrifices in the Temple, it must somehow be pleasant and agreeable – whether we understand it or not.

That said, I would like to share with you two points which might help you make peace with the eventual restoration of the sacrificial system in the Messianic Era, and, who knows, it might even become agreeable (and pleasant?) to you as well.

Point #1: If you find that you are revolted by the whole idea of sprinkling an animal’s blood on an altar and burning its flesh – even as a means of atoning for a sin – you should know that you’re not alone, and that many Jews throughout the centuries and millennia struggled with the sacrificial system just like you.

As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes in his Handbook of Jewish Thought (Vol. II):

“The idea of animal sacrifice might seem repugnant to us, and perhaps rightly so. The sacrificial system would be brutal and barbaric unless administered in an atmosphere permeated by dedication to G-d, where its full spiritual and mystical nature is fully appreciated. Therefore, only a nation of the highest moral and spiritual character could be worthy of offering sacrifices to G-d. When the Jewish people no longer maintained this standard, the sacrificial system was abolished by G-d through the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 CE.”

Even before the Temple was destroyed, and the sacrificial system was in effect, it was considered a most serious sin to offer a sacrifice outside the Temple (see Leviticus 17:1-7). The reason for this is that it must be done in a place of the utmost holiness, so that the sacrificial system will not degenerate into something barbaric and brutal.

Of course, during the Messianic Era when the Jewish people will attain the high level of morality and spiritual sensitivity that they once enjoyed – and will be able to fully appreciate the spiritual and mystical significance of the sacrifices – then and only then will the sacrificial system be restored, at least for communal offerings and for private thanksgiving offerings.

Point #2: A primary issue that many Jews have with the sacrificial cult is the idea that all these innocent animals have to die to please G-d or to atone for our sins.

Whenever I teach a Torah class about the sacrificial system in the Temple (which, I admit, is rarely, as I try to stay away from this contentious topic), I ask the class the following challenging question: If your mother was dying from cancer, G-d forbid, and you were told of a brand new and untested drug that might have a one in a thousand chance of saving your mother’s life, yet whose side effects are believed to be so horrible that it will likely cause incredible suffering and even death to the laboratory monkeys upon which it is first tested – would you be okay with testing the drug on a monkey in order save your mother?

Virtually all the people I that have asked this question to over the years answered that they would be perfectly willing to let an “innocent” monkey suffer a horrible death on the small chance of saving their mother’s life.

This should tell us that it’s not the innocent animal’s suffering and death per se that is the issue that many have with animal sacrifices. Most people intuit that human beings (who, unlike animals, are bestowed by G-d with an eternal soul) are higher up the “food chain”, and that animals are ultimately here to serve mankind, provided that we don’t abuse that privilege. They therefore have no problem killing innocent monkeys so long as there is a perceived benefit to humans, e.g. saving the mother’s life.

The real issue is that many Jews simply fail to see a perceived benefit to humans in the offering of animal sacrifices on an altar. The reality is, though, that burning an animal on the altar had a profound benefit and made an incredible impact on the one who brought it – just that the benefit and impact was of a spiritual nature, rather than a physical one.

As Nachmanides writes in his commentary to this week’s Torah portion (Leviticus 1:9), the primary purpose of the sacrifice was that by being involved in the slaughter of an animal, the person bringing it would also experience vicarious death. When the Kohein (priest) slaughtered the animal and burned it on the altar, the person bringing it would feel as though he himself had been killed and burned for having gone against the word of G-d. This motivated him to do a complete Teshuvah (repentance) and return to G-d.

These two points have helped make the Torah’s sacrificial system more agreeable to me … and I hope they have done the same for you.

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