“The Essence of Sacrifice”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, we once again encounter the challenging issue of animal sacrifice.

In several previous weekly messages we have discussed animal sacrifice and have offered possible clarifications of the meanings behind this ancient ritual (Vayikra 5764-2004).

Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer, who we have cited on numerous occasions in our weekly Torah messages, offers a novel and compelling understanding of the purpose of animal sacrifice.

Rabbi Firer argues that more than animal sacrifice serves to atone for sins of the past, the offerings actually serve to prevent future sinful actions. Citing Maimonides Laws of Repentance 1, Rabbi Firer notes that there can be no offerings without repentance, and that the purpose of repentance is to prevent a repeat of sinful actions.

Animal sacrifices are not intended to serve as a compensation for sins that were committed in the past, but to influence the donor to improve in the future. By guaranteeing that the sinful deed is not repeated, these offerings have the power to achieve atonement for the past.

As support for his contention that offerings do not serve to atone for past deeds, Rabbi Firer cites the first offerings ever brought, those offered by Cain and Abel. The Torah, in Genesis 4:3, never refers to the first two sacrifices as atonement for sinfulness. It merely reports that the offering of Abel was accepted, and that the offering of Cain was rejected.

The Torah does not clearly spell out why Cain’s offering was rejected. It does, however, report (Genesis 4:4) that Abel brought מִבְּכֹרוֹת צֹאנוֹ וּמֵחֶלְבֵהֶן, of the choice fat sheep, whereas Cain brought (Genesis 4:3) מִפְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה–only “pedestrian” fruits of the earth–nothing special.

Rabbi Firer suggests that the story of Cain rising up against his brother and killing him, recorded in Genesis 4:8, provides strong evidence that Cain had failed to repent from his evil thoughts at the time that he brought his offering. Apparently, G-d was able to discern that Cain had offered his sacrifice without ever having renounced the evil that was in his heart and, therefore, rejected Cain’s offering.

Rabbi Firer argues that bringing such an offering without Teshuva (repentance) is ineffective, and should never have been brought in the first place.

In light of this novel understanding of animal sacrifice, Rabbi Firer also offers new insight into understanding the custom of why little children begin studying Torah with the book of Leviticus. Leviticus, after all, is a book that is preoccupied with the rituals of animal sacrifice. There are certainly many other, more child-oriented, parts of scripture that are far more appropriate for neophytes.

The Torah portions of Leviticus and animal sacrifice were surely quite relevant to adults in ancient times, when the ritual of animal sacrifice was actually practiced. But what, after all, is the point of little children learning these esoteric matters, especially at a time that there is no Temple and no sacrifices? Surely, it would be far more sensible to teach a child from the book of Genesis and the story of creation, which could implant in a child’s impressionable heart and mind the seeds of faith in the Creator. Even the book of Exodus might inspire a young child regarding the redemptive qualities of G-d by learning about the People of Israel’s miraculous departure from Egypt.

Rabbi Firer suggests that a child who learns the book of Leviticus, and gains an understanding that the offerings are meant to prevent sin, rather than atone for sin, may very well be less likely to sin.

Rabbi Firer’s original interpretations underscore the limitlessness of the insightful meanings that can be found in every facet of Torah. Just when we thought we might have exhausted every possible avenue of interpretation, we discover that there is so much more to serve as a source of inspiration.

May you be blessed.

“Shabbat Across America and Canada” will be celebrated this coming Friday night, March 7, 2014. We expect over 50,000 participants throughout North America. Please call 1(888) SHABBAT, or click here to find a local Shabbat Across America and Canada location, and sign up for “a Taste of Shabbat,” a taste of the World to Come!