HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN
After glossing through the past two Torah portions of Vayikra and Tzav, one may have noticed that there is an abundance of karbanot (offerings, for lack of a better translation) discussed -- the olah, chata'at, asham, and todah, to mention just a few.
After glossing through the past two Torah portions of Vayikra and Tzav, one may have noticed that there is an abundance of karbanot (offerings, for lack of a better translation) discussed -- the olah, chata'at, asham, and todah, to mention just a few. The mishkan (Tabernacle) and subsequent Temple service was based upon and revolved around the bringing of karbanot, and they were the central form of our "worship" of Hashem until the Temple's destruction.
An innocent bystander and observer may have wondered, upon witnessing the many animals ascending the ramp onto the altar, whether this was all really necessary. Does Hashem really need such a proliferation of offerings in order to "satisfy his hunger"? Such a concept of Hashem "needing" something runs counter to every other aspect of our belief and understanding of Him. Furthermore, what exactly does the oft repeated phrase, "a sweet smelling fragrance to Hashem" (Leviticus 1:9 and other places) mean? Surely, we are not meant to perceive that Hashem derives physical benefit and pleasure from the actual fragrance of the burning karban (offering). Finally, you may be wondering why I, along with the rest of the Torah from Dixie staff, insist on using the Hebrew term "karban" to describe the process in question, rather than the common translation of "sacrifice" These questions (all but the last one), undoubtedly, have been asked by millions of Bible readers throughout the ages, and require our attention. However, all of these questions are based on and stem from an incorrect perception of what a "karban" is and the role that it was meant to serve. A better understanding of the karbanot's purpose may provide us with some answers.
The Ramban, one of the leading Torah scholars of the Middle Ages (also known as Nachmanides), in his commentary on last week's Torah portion explains that the purpose of bringing a karban is to counteract the thoughts, words, and actions a person does in the process of committing a sin. Every detail of the intricate service, from the confession while leaning on the karban to the sprinkling of the blood at its conclusion, compensates for a specific aspect of the process which led him to sin in the first place. As the animal is on the altar, the person should be thinking to himself, "That could be me!" All of the ill-conceived ideas and mistaken perceptions that he may have had at the time of his sinful act are swept away by the sudden, awe-inspiring awareness that perhaps he himself may not be deserving of the precious gift of life with which Hashem has bestowed him. After all, since Hashem created us, He has every right to destroy us if we fail to listen to His command even once. It is only because of His infinite mercy that we are given a second chance. The affect of such an experience upon the penitent sinner will serve as a lasting reminder of his position in the general scheme of life, an idea which will pervade his thoughts when the next occasion for temptation arises.
With this understanding of karbanot, our many questions raised above immediately fall away. As we have seen, the bringing of a karban is not for Hashem's "pleasure" and He does not need His creatures to be "sacrificed" upon an altar. The purpose lies in correcting our mistaken ideas and perfecting our blemished characters for our own good, allowing us to draw closer to Hashem. In fact, the word "karban" comes from the Hebrew word meaning "to draw close." Therefore, defining a karban as a sacrifice is certainly not ideal, if not blatantly incorrect, as the term sacrifice implies the giving away of something for the benefit of another person -- of a person sacrificing his own property and possessions -- with no direct benefit to the giver. On the contrary, the karban rests on the altar in place of the giver. When brought with the proper intentions, a karban should be viewed as the perfect opportunity to rectify past mistakes with an eye towards becoming closer to Hashem, the ultimate goal and purpose of everyone.
When the Torah states that the karban is a "sweet smelling fragrance to Hashem," it speaks of Hashem's pleasure in seeing the person return to Him in repentance, as Hashem envisions the future good deeds and potential for spirituality that the person will experience. A karban brought with the proper intentions returns a person to the correct path leading to his achieving his ultimate purpose of proximity to Hashem. If, however, he simply goes through the motions, not experiencing the "it could be me" feeling of which the Ramban spoke, there is no "sweet smelling fragrance" before Hashem. In fact, of such a person Hashem says in the Book of Isaiah, "Why do I need your numerous sacrifices?. . .bring no more vain offerings; incense of abomination they are to me" (Isaiah 1:11-13).
Today, and for the last two thousand years with the Temple in Jerusalem lying in a state of destruction, prayer has taken the place of the karbanot in our attempt to draw close to Hashem. Known as avodah shebalev, the service of the heart, our prayers to Hashem should come directly from the heart and express our desire for sanctity, as opposed to simply being lip service. Even if one does not fully understand the words being recited, proper intentions and a minimal comprehension of the fact that one is standing before Hashem are indispensable and greatly enhance the overall experience. With this in mind, our prayers will reach the gates of Heaven, while at the same time inspiring us to fulfill our potential.
Michael Alterman, who hails from Atlanta, is currently a sophomore at Yeshiva University in New York.
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