The Future of Sacrifices

For Parashat VaYikra

The rebuilding of the Temple, and the reestablishment of the sacrifices in it, are central themes in our prayers and rituals, including the Haggadah, but have you ever tried to visualize yourself making the pilgrimage to that Third Temple, with the animal for sacrifice in tow. Imagine yourself walking uphill, pulling a goat, lamb, or ox, behind you. You are surrounded by thousands of revelers, each with his own animal. You arrive at the gates of the Temple, where you wait in line for your turn. Hundreds of Cohanim hurry across the Temple grounds to perform the ritual slaughtering, while choirs of Levites chant and sing. When your turn comes the Cohen skillfully slits the animal’s throat, as he has done thousands of times before. He deftly collects the blood in a vessel and hands it to a human chain which ends at the altar, on which the blood will be sprinkled. 

How will you feel? Will you be elated and inspired by the frenzied action, the smell of blood, the burning animals, the clamor of the multitude, and the music in the background, or will you feel disconcerted and confused? Do you expect all other aspects of your life to remain the same when the Temple is built? If so, would you be able to walk away from the Temple Mount, barefoot and with blood soiled garments, check into your hotel, change, and be back the following day at your office? You don’t need to be a vegetarian to feel uncomfortable with the description of the sacrifices at the temple, just try to spend a couple of hours at a butcher’s shop, preferably in the summer. Most of us have never seen an animal being slaughtered, except maybe for chicken for Kapparot (a practice forbidden by the Shulhan Arukh). The process happens away from us and we receive the clean, sterilized meat, packed with absorbent pads to save us the discomfort of the sight of blood. Honestly, in the twenty-first century, do people still believe that God demands animal sacrifices of us?

The scholar who best represents this dilemma id Maimonides. In his Guide of the Perplexed he argues that the system of the sacrifices was a concession, made by God to accommodate the Israelites, who knew no other way to worship their gods. According to that explanation, in a Temple built in modern times there will be room for sacrifices, since our society has changed and matured. On the other hand, in his Halakhic work, Mishneh Torah, there are over a dozen sections dedicated to detailed legislation of the Temple, its vessels, and the sacrifices. Which Maimonides do you follow? The rationalist who understands that sacrifices belong in the past, or the legalist who must present the full spectrum of Jewish Law? While many Jews choose to side with one of the options Maimonides offers, others prefer to live with the cognitive dissonance, feeling that the idea of sacrifices does not excite or inspire them, but adhering to the law as presented by Maimonides. 

I believe that we pray for the restoration of the Temple and the sacrifices because we long for the past and this is what we have lost, and that the future may hold for us a different way of life. One might argue that one of Maimonides’ Principals of Faith is the Torah is eternal and will never change, so it would be impossible to entertain an idea of a Temple in any other way than is described in the Torah. The answer to that is the Torah will never be changed by humans, but if God, through the word of the prophets, or maybe by speaking directly to all of us, informs us that a new system is in place, it is hard to imagine that we will reject His orders and say that we adhere to the Principals of Maimonides (though I can think of some colleagues who will do just that.)

In the meantime, if we look for guidance in the Tanakh itself, we will see that the concept of sacrifices was approached with great caution, and even criticism, from the very beginning. There are the scathing prophecies and sermons of Samuel, King David, Isaiah, Micah, Hosea, Amos, and Jeremiah, and there are the failed attempts of Aaron’s sons and of Balaam to appease God through sacrifices. In a subtler way, the Torah informs us of the true purpose of the sacrifices in this week’s Parasha, simultaneously with the introduction of the concept of sacrifices. The Torah does so by intertwining laws of impurity and protecting the Temple’s possessions with laws of business ethics, honesty, and civic responsibility (5:1-26):

 (א) וְנֶ֣פֶשׁ כִּֽי־תֶחֱטָ֗א וְשָֽׁמְעָה֙ ק֣וֹל אָלָ֔ה וְה֣וּא עֵ֔ד א֥וֹ רָאָ֖ה א֣וֹ יָדָ֑ע אִם־ל֥וֹא יַגִּ֖יד וְנָשָׂ֥א עֲוֹנֽוֹ. (ב) א֣וֹ נֶ֗פֶשׁ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּגַּע֘ בְּכָל־דָּבָ֣ר טָמֵא֒ … (ג) א֣וֹ כִ֤י יִגַּע֙ בְּטֻמְאַ֣ת אָדָ֔ם… (ד) א֣וֹ נֶ֡פֶשׁ כִּ֣י תִשָּׁבַע֩… (טו) נֶ֚פֶשׁ כִּֽי־תִמְעֹ֣ל מַ֔עַל וְחָֽטְאָה֙ בִּשְׁגָגָ֔ה מִקָּדְשֵׁ֖י יְיָ… (יז) וְאִם־נֶ֙פֶשׁ֙ כִּ֣י תֶֽחֱטָ֔א וְעָֽשְׂתָ֗ה אַחַת֙ מִכָּל־מִצְוֹ֣ת יְיָ אֲשֶׁ֖ר לֹ֣א תֵעָשֶׂ֑ינָה… (כא) נֶ֚פֶשׁ כִּ֣י תֶחֱטָ֔א וּמָעֲלָ֥ה מַ֖עַל בַּיְיָ וְכִחֵ֨שׁ בַּעֲמִית֜וֹ בְּפִקָּד֗וֹן אֽוֹ־בִתְשׂ֤וּמֶת יָד֙ א֣וֹ בְגָזֵ֔ל א֖וֹ עָשַׁ֥ק אֶת־עֲמִיתֽוֹ… (כב) אֽוֹ־מָצָ֧א אֲבֵדָ֛ה וְכִ֥חֶשׁ בָּ֖הּ וְנִשְׁבַּ֣ע עַל־שָׁ֑קֶר עַל־אַחַ֗ת מִכֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה הָאָדָ֖ם לַחֲטֹ֥א בָהֵֽנָּה…  (כו) וְכִפֶּ֨ר עָלָ֧יו הַכֹּהֵ֛ן לִפְנֵ֥י יְיָ וְנִסְלַ֣ח ל֑וֹ עַל־אַחַ֛ת מִכֹּ֥ל אֲשֶֽׁר־יַעֲשֶׂ֖ה לְאַשְׁמָ֥ה בָֽהּ

(1) If one withholds information regarding hearing an oath, witnessing an act, or having certain information, it is a sin. (2) If one touches an impure object… (3) If one touches an impure person… (4) If one takes an oath… (15) If one embezzles the possessions of the Temple… (17) If one transgresses any of the Mitzvoth… (21) If one betrays God’s trust by denying that he is holding another man’s collateral, an object given to him to guard, a stolen object, or past-due salary… (22) Or if he finds an object but denies it and swears falsely, or one of all the transgressions committed by men… (26) The Cohen will atone for him [by means of the sacrifice, but only after the money or goods were return with an additional fine] in the presence of God and he will be forgiven.

The section starts with the responsibility of citizens to report crimes to the judicial branch, and continues to discuss impurity, a powerful word which conjures images of banishment and contamination. The equation of the two is not coincidental. It is meant to plant in our mind the importance of fulfilling our civic duty. The next transgression is embezzlement of the Temple, another looming taboo, from which we go to a general statement on the transgression of any mitzvah. Following that, the Torah speaks of one who betrays God trust. And who is that person who defies God’s authority, who is embezzling, as it were, God’s possessions? It is the one who unlawfully took money or goods from another person. 

The Torah makes it clear that there is no distinction between embezzling the Temple or your fellow man, and that being unethical and dishonest is tantamount to impurity. All these can be cured by a thorough process which includes repenting, paying damages and fines, bringing a sacrifice, and confessing publicly, but it is obvious that if only the ritual is conducted, while reparations were not made, and one did not change his ways, that the sacrifice is meaningless.

We should therefore focus on teaching these values to the next generation and on practicing them ourselves. This might lead to redemption and to the construction of the future Temple, which according to Micah (4:1-2) will be a center not for animal sacrifices, but for the dissemination of the Torah and its values:

 (א) וְהָיָ֣ה׀ בְּאַחֲרִ֣ית הַיָּמִ֗ים יִ֠הְיֶה הַ֣ר בֵּית־יְיָ נָכוֹן֙ בְּרֹ֣אשׁ הֶהָרִ֔ים וְנִשָּׂ֥א ה֖וּא מִגְּבָע֑וֹת וְנָהֲר֥וּ עָלָ֖יו עַמִּֽים. (ב) וְֽהָלְכ֞וּ גּוֹיִ֣ם רַבִּ֗ים וְאָֽמְרוּ֙ לְכ֣וּ׀ וְנַעֲלֶ֣ה אֶל־הַר יְיָ וְאֶל־בֵּית֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י יַעֲקֹ֔ב וְיוֹרֵ֙נוּ֙ מִדְּרָכָ֔יו וְנֵלְכָ֖ה בְּאֹֽרְחֹתָ֑יו כִּ֤י מִצִּיּוֹן֙ תֵּצֵ֣א תוֹרָ֔ה וּדְבַר יְיָ מִירוּשָׁלִָֽם

 At the end of days, the mount of the Temple of God will be established on top of the mountains, elevated above hilltops, and many nations will stream to it. They will say, let us ascend the Mount of God and the House of the God of Jacob. He will teach us His ways and we will walk in His paths, for the Torah shall come forth from Zion, and the word of God from Jerusalem.

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