Animal sacrifice in Judaism: From spiritual ecstasy to self-perfection

The main purpose of bringing a sacrifice is to clear ourselves of sin, exactly as Yom Kippur does for us today.

Non-Jews employed sacrifice in an effort to transcend to a higher state, including by consuming the 'lifeblood' of animals (photo credit: PUBLICDOMAINPICTURES.NET)
Non-Jews employed sacrifice in an effort to transcend to a higher state, including by consuming the 'lifeblood' of animals
This week’s double Torah portion finds us at the midpoint of the Book of Leviticus (taken from the Hebrew term, the “Priests’ Bible”) where we continue to read about the sacrifices and priestly rituals performed in the Tabernacle. The content of these weekly portions is hard to relate to in the modern era when priests and animal sacrifices are an anachronism in the West.
It is also tedious reading because all the other books of the Bible are filled with stories: Genesis, of creation and the patriarchs; Exodus, of the exodus from Egypt; Numbers, of the stories of the Israelites in the desert; and Deuteronomy, of Moses retelling many of the stories of the exodus and the desert and then the telling of his death.
Leviticus has no stories. Except for one – which has a tragic, cryptic end. The single story recounted in the entire book (save for a short story about a man who curses God) is of the inauguration of Aaron and his sons as priests. The story starts with much pomp and circumstance, as Moses dresses Aaron in the priestly robes, anoints his head with oil and confines Aaron and his sons to the Tabernacle for a week.
On the eighth day (the opening of the portion of Shmini) they are dedicated as priests with an inaugural sacrifice. No sooner does that happen than something goes terribly wrong: two of Aaron’s sons light incense, “a strange fire – which they had not been commanded. And a fire came out from before God and it consumed them and they died.” Aaron and his two remaining sons are, imaginably, in shock. Moses orders them – to use a contemporary turn of phrase – to shelter in place. Aaron’s cousins are called in to remove the bodies, while Aaron and his sons are forbidden to mourn or to leave the premises.
This cautionary tale continues to reverberate and this week’s portion, which opens with a reference to it: “God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron when they came close before God and died…”
What follows is a formalization of exactly how and when the high priest would enter the inner sanctuary (the Holy of Holies). Doing anything uninstructed was, as we saw, risky business and therefore every step is now detailed and regulated. The ritual described was carried out only once a year, on Yom Kippur, and this portion is also read then.
Here we have another instance in the Bible of institutionalizing the relationship between God and man. Remember, the Levites were only chosen to serve God after the sin of the golden calf, replacing the firstborn. God had never originally intended a priestly class (just as, according to Bible commentator Sforno, God had never planned on imposing any dietary laws). If we read the Bible at face value, a lot of this was created as events unfolded; it was a work in progress.
Moreover, because we live in a time and place so removed from animal sacrifices, it is hard for us to relate (to this and many parts of Leviticus), let alone appreciate how revolutionary an approach to sacrifice is being introduced here, in comparison to what was practiced at the time.
In his book, Moses’s Final Oration, Micah Goodman points out how revolutionary it was to insist that if someone wanted to make a sacrifice, he had to do it in the Temple (or Tabernacle), as noted in our parsha: 
“Any man of the house of Israel, who shall slaughter an ox, or lamb, or goat [as a sacrifice] in the camp or outside the camp, and did not bring it to the Tent of Meeting to sacrifice it to God before the Tabernacle of God – it shall be considered blood upon that man, he has spilled blood, and that man shall be cut off from among his people.”
This is a huge departure from common practice at the time. Normally, people used to make sacrifices wherever they wanted, and this turned out to be a point of contention for the Israelites for centuries after they moved into the Land of Israel, as it was common just to build an altar anywhere to make a sacrifice.
This is then followed by another commandment that may be hard for us to relate to, but was integral to this new developing relationship between God and the Jewish people:
“Any man from the house of Israel or any stranger that dwells among them who shall eat any blood – I shall set My face against the living-being who eats the blood and I will cut him off from among his people. For the living-being [“nefesh”] of all flesh is in the blood…”
In the subsequent passages that dwell on the topic, the Bible repeats twice more that “the living-being is in the blood.” For a literary work that is very attentive in its use of words, never does the Torah repeat itself more times regarding a prohibition. (When the prohibition is discussed again in Deuteronomy, there too it is repeated over and over.) This should give us some indication of the centrality and vital nature of this point – even if it is hard for us to relate to today.
SO LET us try to clarify what is going on. Let’s start with sacrifice. The word for sacrifice in Hebrew in korban. The root of the word has nothing to do with killing, ritual or animal. The root of the word is K.R.B. – “to come close to.” In other words, the point of the “sacrifice” is to come close to God.
Next, the reason for an individual to bring a sacrifice: sacrifices can be given to give thanks, but, more often, sacrifices are brought for atonement. Here too the English word atone, like the word sacrifice, also belies its meaning. The Hebrew word for atone is ”le’chaper”  and atonement “kappara” – like Kapparot we do on Yom Kippur Eve, where we say “this chicken will die and I will have life” (not very sensitive to the animal) or – as immortalized at the Eurovision by Netta Barzilai – “kappara” is used as a kind of well-wishing – that nothing bad should come to you; or, more accurately, there should be a substitution or exchange, the bad for the good, the chicken for the man, an animal for our sins. To summarize, having looked at the Hebrew words closely, an “atonement sacrifice” is more a way of getting closer to God and a way of substituting good for bad.
Now let us compare this to what may have been common pagan practice at the time. How did the gentiles get close to their gods? By sacrifice. Of anything, any time, anywhere. And by ritual use of blood.  Sacrificing, drinking blood, when it was done, was an effort, in non-Jewish practice, to transcend to a higher state, including by consuming the “lifeblood” of animals. Such rituals may have been able to induce a state of ecstasy, which can actually be dangerous.
Perhaps the best modern-day equivalent of trying to transcend to a more intense spiritual state, experiencing ecstasy can come through the use of (hard) drugs. This primal desire – the desire to reach a higher spiritual state, to come closer to God – requires, in all religions, but especially in Judaism, a lot of regulating.
Remember our portion opens by saying Aaron’s sons died “when they came close before God.” They were motivated by this positive primal desire. But, as with getting high on drugs, uncontrolled rituals can also go terribly wrong, as evidenced by what happened to two of Aaron’s sons.
So the Torah puts unprecedented limits on all of this. “As you wish, you may sacrifice,” it says. But then come the very strict limits as to what (which animals), how (laws on precisely how the sacrifice is made) and where (only in the Temple/Tabernacle) sacrifices can be made.
But perhaps the most important precedent and innovation the Torah introduces in relation to sacrifices is the why? The main reason for bringing a sacrifice is not to experience some spiritual ecstasy or flirtation with other-worldliness. Rather, it is to clear ourselves of sin, exactly as Yom Kippur does for us today, through fasting and prayer.
And so, these long, hard-to-relate-to Bible chapters are exceptionally relevant for us today, even if the context of sacrifice is anachronistic and hard for us to relate to. It is to teach us this: the ultimate purpose of religious experience is self-improvement. The Bible harnesses the universal quest for closeness to God (as manifest at the time also in animal sacrifices), and turns it into a mechanism for us to repair ourselves and inculcate what the Bible considered purer, more ethical behavior.
At the Seder, in the “Dayenu” (“it would have been enough”) poem, we list all the things God did for us. He took us out of Egypt, sustained us in the desert, brought us to the Promised Land and then the poem climaxes with “He built us the Chosen Home,” a reference to the Temple, and in the second rendering of the poem, we add “to atone for all our sins.” On the face of it, that seems a bit of a letdown. At the climax of everything God builds us a Temple – so we can atone for our sins?!?
Precisely. God took us out of Egypt not just to make us a nation like any of the others. He took us out so we would be different – and better, individually and collectively. And how do we do that? We channel the urge to come closer to God, into a routine of improving ourselves. Through a constant, unceasing effort to substitute the bad in us for the good, the impure for the pure, to continuously “work on ourselves” to be the best possible individual and collective we can be.