To sacrifice and become closer

The soul is the spirit within us that gives us insight, feelings, understanding and, primarily, a conscience.

Soccut Western Wall 370 (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
Soccut Western Wall 370
(photo credit: 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.
This 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 while working.
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 altar.
Indeed, these are difficult questions; the concept behind sacrifices is especially profound.
I will try to explain it briefly.
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 and bet.
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.
When we 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 scales.
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 moral soul.
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 souls.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.