One of the hardest commandments of the Torah to understand is animal sacrifice. How can Hashem who is “good to all and merciful to all his creations” (Psalms 145:9) command Israel to bring animal offerings. The Torah devotes most of the book of Leviticus and many other parts of the Torah describing in great detail the laws of animal sacrifice. In fact, there is not one book of the Torah that skips over animal sacrifice. Why is this necessary?
Two great giants of the Middle Ages the Rambam (Maimonides 1135-1204) and the Ramban (Nahmanides 1194-1270) present two approaches in understanding animal sacrifice.
The Rambam in his philosophical work “The Guide to the Perplexed” part three chapter 32 explains that the Torah takes into consideration human nature. Hashem did not demand the nation of Israel to immediately wean itself from the rituals of animal sacrifice that were prevalent at that time. Before the giving of the Torah, the entire world was accustomed to bring animal offerings as part of their idol worship practices. Therefore, it would not be fair to demand the almost impossible – the task of having to move from one extreme to the next overnight. Instead, Hashem allowed the continuation of animal sacrifice but at the same time changed the focus of this type of ritual to Himself, the One and Only G-D of the universe, and limited this kind of service to the boundaries of the Tabernacle. In this way, all traces of idol worship were uprooted from the nation of Israel. Through this process, the unity of G-D was established without causing confusion among the nation. The Rambam brings down another example in the Torah of taking customs of Israel’s surroundings into consideration and the weakness of human nature. In Exodus 13:17 When Pharaoh let the people go, G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For G-d said, “Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.” Here we see how Hashem designed the route of Israel’s exodus from Egypt by taking into account the limitations of Israel’s ability to overcome the fear of war.
The Rambam explains that this is why the prophets spoke out against animal sacrifices many times. Samuel said, “Does G-D delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices As in obeying the voice of the G-D? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams. (Samuel 1 15:22)
“What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?” Says Hashem. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams And the fat of fed cattle; And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats” (Isaiah 1:11)
“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: “Add your burnt offerings to your peace offerings, and eat the flesh. “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Jeremiah 7:21-22)
Listen Israel I will testify to you I am G-D, Your G-D. “I do not reprove you for your sacrifices, And your burnt offerings are continually before Me. I will not take a bull out of your house or he goats out of your pens. For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains. Everything that moves in the fields is mine. “If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world is mine along with everything in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls? Do I drink the blood of goats? Bring [your] confession to God as a sacrifice, and keep your vows to the Most High. Call on Me in the day of distress; I will deliver you, and you will glorify Me.” (Psalms 50:7-14)
Here we see that the focus is not on sacrifice but on building a true relationship with the Creator of the universe. The Rambam’s teaching can be supported by the words of the Midrash that say in the end of days all animal sacrifice will be eliminated and only meal offerings will remain. Humanity is being lead through a process that will eventually lead to a higher level of human conduct. Nevertheless, the Rambam in his Halachic work the Mishneh Torah, does not mention this Midrash. On the contrary, he brings down the laws of building the temple and animal sacrifice. In other words, according to the Rambam, after the building of the third temple animal sacrifice will continue as usual.
The Ramban (Nahmanides) harshly disagrees with the Rambam. The Torah tells us of Abel offering a sacrifice that was accepted before Hashem. When Noach left the ark, he offered sacrifices and at that time, there were no Idol worshiping Chaldeans or Egyptians since it was the beginning of human history.
“Abel also brought a gift–the best of the firstborn lambs from his flock. The LORD accepted Abel and his gift” (Genesis 4:4)
“Then Noah built an altar to Hashem, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And G-D smelled the pleasing aroma…” (Genesis 8:21-22)
The Ramban explains that offering a sacrifice is a gift of kindness that the Creator has bestowed upon his children. Instead of them being killed in their sins, they are cleansed through the process of bringing a sacrifice. People’s actions are dependent on three aspects – thought, speech and action. All three of these actions are rectified through sacrifice. When a person places his hands on the animal it rectifies his action, when he confesses over it he rectifies his speech, and when he offers the inner organs that are the vessels of desire and thought, he rectifies his thoughts. One can still ask why should a poor animal suffer for the evil actions of a person. A simple explanation can be that if people are willing to slaughter animals to satisfy their human cravings for meat then even more so it is understandable that one may offer an animal to rectify his animalistic desires behind the cravings.
The Ramban then goes on to give an esoteric explanation of sacrifice. The word sacrifice in Hebrew comes from the word “Karev” meaning to bring closer. Through the process of sacrifice, one can unify himself with the creator of the universe. According to the Ramban, we must say that the fact that the prophets spoke out against sacrifice did not mean that they disagreed with it. They were disturbed by the fact that if became too superficial of and act and there was no real internalization of what was behind the sacred laws involving animal sacrifice.
The great Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (1534-1572) explains how the entire cosmos meets within the boundaries of the temple. There the four parts of creation are unified together with Hashem. The inanimate world, the plant kingdom, the animal kingdom and man. The common denominator of all creations is that we are all created from the same stardust of the universe. Through animal sacrifice, we are uplifting the sparks that have fallen after the sin of the first man.
In summary, we must admit that we are very limited in our ability to grasp everything in the Torah and we should humble ourselves with the fact that we are only human beings and there is still a lot to learn. We must approach the Torah and obey its laws with total devotion and reliance on the Creator of the universe. He knows what is good for us!!!! Let us just simply follow His guiding light – Amen.
Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith