This Shabbat, we enter the 3rd of the Five Books of Moses. It is a book of the Torah which contains precious little narrative and hardly any interesting stories. Instead we find a heavy concentration, at least in the beginning, of laws related to various kinds of sacrifices offered in the Sanctuary, and later in the Holy Temples.
This idea of bringing animal sacrifices really ticks a lot of people off. Current sensitivities about animal rights and cruelty make some people bristle at the thought of a merciful God commanding the killing of animals. Some might even express this opinion while comfortably enjoying a steak or a hamburger with fries, not even realizing the irony.
I don’t mean to easily dismiss those who are taken aback by sacrifices, but I often find that their righteous indignation about what happens to animals is far stronger than what happens to people.
Moving on….as hard as it is for some to accept that God commands these various kinds of animal sacrifices, there is a recurring phrase about God’s reaction to them, which really puts people over the top. Once the sacrifice is described in its detail, the Torah says that when it is offered on the altar, it provides a “rayach nichoach” to God. To the Almighty, this smoke from the sacrifice is a pleasing fragrance, a sweet savor unto the Lord.
I remember in one Torah class that I taught this, several of the people around the table had a harsh reaction to God loving this activity. “You mean, Rabbi,” they would say, “when the animal’s insides were gutted and placed on the fire, along with the animal itself, the smell of the fire was something that God actually liked? That’s sick!”
Of course I had an answer to their question, but first I had to remind them of how they react at a barbecue. “Let me ask all of you something, “I would retort, “when you go to a barbecue, don’t you begin to salivate when you see the burgers and hotdogs and steaks on the grill? Do you really find it disgusting? I think you enjoy it!” In their silence, I had their attention. I was now ready to share a beautiful interpretation I just learned about why God enjoys the fragrance of the sacrifices.
You may know that in biblical days, when someone sinned or did something that caused a distance between themselves and God, they were commanded to bring specific sacrifices, mostly animal ones. Considering the value of each animal, it really was a sacrifice to bring a sacrifice. But it was the way God commanded to make restitution for the distance caused by the sin. So why did God enjoy the fragrance?
For two reasons: one, the thick column of smoke from sacrifices created a kind of visible connection between heaven and earth. God may have been pleased to see this connection reinstated. The other reason is, when God “smelled” the fire of the sacrifice, he knew that someone’s spiritual life was about to change. As the person bringing the sacrifice watched something precious go up in flames, there was the potential for a deep spiritual change of heart and reconciliation with God. Into the flame of the sacrifice, the vices of arrogance, indifference, egotism and conceit could be thrown, and a new spiritual path could be charted.
When God saw that through the sacrifice someone’s life was about to change for the better, that smoke, which to us is noxious and overpowering, became a “sweet savor,” a pleasing fragrance unto the Lord.