To sacrifice and become closer
The soul is the spirit within us that gives us insight, feelings, understanding and, primarily, a conscience.
Soccut prayers at the Western Wall. Photo: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
This coming Shabbat, we begin reading the book of Leviticus. This book deals
mostly with the sacrifices that must be sacrificed in the Temple.
topic is not familiar to many, and raises questions – if not actual aversion –
among Westerners for several reasons.
Firstly, one wonders, does God need
food? Do the animals sacrificed in the Temple fill a need or provide Him with
something He lacks? Secondly, a person of the 21st century might ask, where are
the feelings of pity and morality toward animals? Doesn’t this phenomenon of
slaughtering live animals convey cruelty? These questions are even more burning
when we read in the Torah about the prohibition to be cruel to animals, about
the special commandment to unburden a heavy load from the back of the animal
carrying it or the prohibition from putting a muzzle on the mouth of an animal
that is working in the field in order not to prevent it from being able to eat
These examples, from a long list of places where the Torah
takes cruelty to animals into consideration, teach us that the Torah does not
ignore the feelings of animals. How, then, can we explain the seeming immorality
inherent in sacrifices? In addition to these questions, the imagination of a
progressive and modern human being cannot fathom the derivation of any benefit
from an act as horrific as slaughtering and sacrificing an animal on an
Indeed, these are difficult questions; the concept behind
sacrifices is especially profound.
I will try to explain it
We are used to defining the term “sacrifice” as something man
gives of himself for another person or for some idea or value. But this word
also shares a root with the word for “closeness” in the Hebrew letters kuf, resh
The purpose of the sacrifice offered in the Temple was not to
provide food for God, which is an absurd idea. Rather, the purpose of the
sacrifice was to cause man to feel a greater closeness to God.
understand that making a sacrifice benefits us – which will be explained shortly
– we ask ourselves honestly: Is there a difference between a man eating a
hamburger, wearing leather shoes or playing a game with a leather ball and a man
sacrificing an animal and gaining a different benefit from it? Undoubtedly, this
is a bold question. There are those who would say that a man eating a steak for
enjoyment is immoral. But most people who are not vegetarians would have to
admit that they see this behavior as moral. Why is this? The accepted notion
explains that animals were created for man’s enjoyment, and therefore there is
no moral problem with man enjoying them.
By the way, it is interesting to
note that the Torah does not take for granted that this phenomenon is obvious,
explaining that only at a certain stage in the history of humanity did it become
permissible to eat the meat of animals.
So now that we know the
sacrifices were not meant for God but for us, and as a result we understand that
sacrificing an animal presents no more of a moral dilemma than does any other
use of the meat or skin of animals, we are left with the question of what
purpose sacrificing an animal serves.
Man is composed of two parts that
complement one another wonderfully: the body and the soul. We are all familiar
with the body. The soul is the spirit within us that gives us insight, feelings,
understanding and, primarily, a conscience.
The body allows the moral
soul within us to function, since without a body, the soul would have no
connection to the physical world. The soul is that which is meant to guide the
body in how to act in a way that is moral and beneficial to both the individual
and his surrounding environment.
When man does not follow the moral path
indicated by reason and conscience, it can be said that, instead of the soul
guiding the actions of the body, the body has taken control of the soul. When a
person sees this happening, he searches for a way to even out the
How does one return to the position wherein it is the soul or
conscience that is directing the body? Correcting the situation is achieved
through sacrifice at the Temple.
When man sacrifices an animal, it is as
though he is replacing himself with the animal, expressing his desire to return
the balance between body and soul by slaughtering the body of the animal and
offering it to God. This appalling act, in which the animal is a substitute for
the body of the man, has the power to put man in his place and provide him with
a powerful reminder regarding the proper place for his body in relation to his
This is the great benefit that man gets from bringing a
sacrifice to the Temple. And now we can understand that this benefit is at least
equal to that of eating a steak. (It should be noted that, in addition, most of
the sacrifices were actually meant to be eaten by the person sacrificing them as
well as by the priests who served in the Temple.
And even in the minority
of cases when the sacrifices were not meant to be eaten, the animal hide was
allowed to be used.) In order to gain the desired balance between body and soul,
the Torah permits us to sacrifice animals and, through this, to become closer to
the divine morality embedded in us in the actual presence of our
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.