“Do Sacrifices Have Any Relevance for Us Today?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Tzav, continues the Torah’s description of the various sacrifices that were offered in the Tabernacle. As expected, the parasha focuses on a series of offerings, including the daily burnt and meal offerings, as well as the guilt, peace and thanksgiving offerings.

While it may be intriguing to learn about these ancient practices, the question remains: Now that we have no Temple and no offerings, can any of these themes be relevant to contemporary times?

The Midrash Tanchuma, Vayishlach 9, cites Rabbi Yitzchak who asks: Now that we no longer have prophecy, priesthood, sacrifices, Temple, or the altar, how do we achieve atonement after the Temple has been destroyed? Rabbi Yitzchak answers, that the only tool left to us to achieve atonement is our ability to pray. Similarly, the Talmud in Berachot, 15a, states that one who takes care of his bodily needs, dons tefillin, recites the Shema, and prays, is considered as if he has built the altar and offered a sacrifice upon it. Therefore, it is not at all surprising to find that the Talmud in Berachot, 26b, proclaims: “Tefillah k’neged t’mee’dim tik’num,” the daily fixed prayers have been established to parallel the daily fixed sacrifices.

Prayer, however, is not the only means of compensating for our inability to offer sacrifices today. Learning Torah, as well, is considered by the sages to be an appropriate substitute. The Talmud in Menachot, 110a, cites the verse that is found in Leviticus 6:18: “Zot Torat ha’chah’tat,” this is the law of the sin offering. Says Rabbi Yitzchak, anyone “involved” in the “Torah” of the “sin offering,” studying the laws of the chatat, is considered as if he himself has brought a sin offering. We find a similar interpretation with respect to the Asham–the guilt offering (Leviticus 7:1). Rava (Talmudic sage, ca. 270 C.E. – 350 C.E.) is cited as saying that anyone who studies Torah, has no need for burnt offerings, meal offerings, sin offerings or guilt offerings, since the study of the sacrificial rite is the equivalent of bringing sacrifices.

In ancient times, a most important element to assure that a sacrifice was properly offered was the willingness and enthusiasm with which it was offered. The Midrash Rabbah, on Leviticus, 27:10, cites G-d as saying: “If you’ve brought [the offering] with willingness and happiness, then it is My offering.” To bolster this thought, our rabbis point to the verse in Leviticus, 6:2, that proclaims: “Zot Torat ha’oh’lah, hee ha’oh’lah ahl mok’dah ahl ha’miz’bay’ach,” this is the law regarding the elevation offering; it is the elevation offering that stays on the flame on the altar…all night until the morning. Implied in this verse, say the rabbis, is the directive that a person learn Torah with heartfelt enthusiasm, with “flames” similar to the ones that glow on the altar where the sacrifices were brought.

The second essential ingredient required for a successful sacrificial offering was kavanah–sometimes translated as awareness or direction of thought. There are many stringent laws that govern the acceptability of offerings that are brought by one who had improper thoughts. Since each particular type of offering had a mandated time by which it had to be eaten, any person bringing a sacrifice, intending to eat it outside the legally allotted times, rendered the entire sacrifice invalid. Similarly, say our rabbis, since, due to the destruction of our Temple we no longer have sacrificial offerings, and our prayers serve in lieu of sacrifices, improper thoughts nullify our tefillah (prayer) as well.

In response to the Midrash’s question whether the sacrifices have any relevance to us today, we say resoundingly, yes, they do! But only if we make them relevant. With proper enthusiasm, proper awareness, and with well-directed thoughts, through prayer and Torah study, we can, in effect, resurrect the Temple and rebuild the altar.

The prophet Hoshea 14:3 states: “Oo’n’shal’ma far’im s’fah’tay’noo,” let us pay for the bullocks with the words of our lips. Even though today we are only able to offer up prayers in lieu of sacrifices, we may still be able to achieve great spiritual heights and merit to see the rebuilt Temple, soon in our days.

Happy Purim to all.

May you be blessed.