Parshas Vayikra - The Meaning Behind Animal Sacrifice

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah                                                               for her neshama.
By - Shoshana Rosa

In today's day and age, ritual animal slaughter is taboo. Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky, a renowned worldwide speaker (and the funniest man I've ever met) takes note in a lecture he gives on tisha b'av (a day commemorating the fall of the Beit Hamikdah, our holy temple), that Western culture seems to feel a tad uncomfortable with the idea of animal slaughter. Perhaps it is seen as barbaric and unnecessary. The Hebrew word korban, sacrifice, into the modern rendition korban, victim, may also have something to do with it. After the gunshot in the Bambi movie, whose eyes don't fill up with tears when they realize that Bambi has now become an orphan, thanks to some heartless hunter? Therefore, I ask, "What was the benefit to animal slaughter in the mishkan and later on, the beit hamikdash? Was it nothing more than an investment in orphaning animals? 

First of all, let's look at the original meaning behind the above word. The word korban comes from li'karev (to come close) but how did the process of animal sacrifice help us gain that end? Read on.

In this week's Torah portion, Parshas Vayikra, we receive our first mouthful of information on how the priests were to offer up the various sacrifices to Hashem in the mishkan (tabernacle). Amongst the sacrificial laws are included a sample of the following: which kind of animals one could bring up, what the animals' physical and gender conditions must be and even what their age limits for sacrifice were. For instance, some animals could not be sacrificed past their first birthday! Well, that throws my 'orphaning baby animals' theory out the window. Also, the fact that an animal could only be brought up on a the altar in the temple yard, at least after Shlomo Hamelech built the holy temple, shows us that the whole process was bred on humaneness and order, not impulsive cruelty. 

Let's go a drop deeper. The offering discussed at the beginning of the Parsha is called the Olah offering (burnt offering). Hashem calls to Moshe saying, "Speak to Bnei Yisrael and tell them 'If his sacrifice is a burnt offering from cattle, an unblemished male, he shall bring it to the ohel mo'ed (the tent of meeting) before G-d' "(Leviticus 1:3).  A popular branch of Chasidus sees the word olah (literally translated going up) as an allusion to a person with arrogance. Their interpretation of the verse refers to the kind of person who refuses to consider anyone else, "It's my way or the highway." Hashem declares that He cannot exist in the same room as this kind of haughty person, one who considers his opinion as the last say in all matters. Therefore, the instructions pertaining to the olah offering state that the animal must be burnt completely.

We can recognize from the above example that it's not our sacrifices Hashem wants. He wants us. The Mussar masters say, "A person's personality traits mark the direction of his destiny." Ultimately, we are in control of our fates because Hashem gave us free will. However, if we should choose wrong, Hashem taught us how to find our way home in repentance. The animals that were brought in those begone days each symbolized a specific personality trait which had led a person down the path of some sin or another. When that person desired to repent, he knew he had to bring an animal to the mishkan and go through a process of remorse. He was meant to reflect on his actions while seeing the priest go through the slaughtering ritual, "It should be me going up to the slaughter but G-d, in His great mercy, is giving me another chance."

Nowadays, we don't do this. In fact, ever since the temple was destroyed, our mode of repentance has become a wholly abstract experience. Is it better? Some people might say yes. I would disagree. Whenever a creation fulfills the purpose of its creation, its physical being is elevated. When we were serving Hashem in the beit hamikdash, we were never closer to our purpose on earth. How blessed are we if we could but find moments to elevate our daily lives as well! May we be blessed to use the gifts G-d bequeathed us to find some semblance of that long ago closeness and in so doing bring the Messiah soon.

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