I have always had a rough time getting into the idea of animal, bird or grain sacrifices meaningful. The idea of killing an animal and spritzing its blood on the alter and burning some of it, eating some of it – has never spoken to me. Just last week, in Re’eh, we talked a lot about centralizing sacrifices. And this week, Parshat Shoftim, while focusing mainly on leadership issues, still manages to slip in how sacrifices: Which sacrifices go to the Kohanim, the spiritual leaders? How to make “leadership” sacrifices, and not blemished ones. What do we make of all this talk about sacrifices, and, more to the point, how do they relate to today’s world?
Here are some ideas I’ve picked up over the years: Even though “korban” comes from the root to get closer to God, the word “sacrifice” actually does convey the meaning of this ritual, but we normally forget that “sacrifice” is a powerful word for the lives we live: it means to give up something for a causes, for someone you love, for something you believe in and feel is right. At the core, that is what God wants – God wants us to make the necessary sacrifices in life in order to have a better connection to God – to come closer to God – and to have a meaningful life and to make this a better world.
One easy read of this interpretation and translation is in the “avodah” blessing we say at least three times every day of the week: “Retze Hashem Elokeinu… v’ishei Yisrael … t’kabel b’ratzon…” We ask God to please be happy with the People of Israel and to accept the “fires” – read sacrifices, day to day sacrifices – of Israel with favor… That doesn’t mean the ritual slaughter we do; that means the real tough choices we make to be Jews. No, it doesn’t have to be hard, “shveir”, to be a Jew, but it does require the ability to give up some things at some times. It’s those “fires” – we want God to accept. At the most painful and radical level, those are the burnt bodies of the millions of Jews who gave their lives merely for being born Jewish. That sacrifice, involuntary and tragic, is a holier fire than all the animal sacrifices offered in the Temple – first or second. But even the smaller burnt offerings, the moments of pleasure and opportunity that we sacrifice and burn for the sake of our love of God and Judaism and what is right, we ask for God to see them all and take them all in a sign of our devotion to God and our ability to rise up – the olah offering – and reach closer to God.
But will these sacrifices of love and devotion be enough? After all, in the standard Musaf, we Orthodox maintain the language: “And the Musaf of Yom… we will do and sacrifice with love as you have desired and as you have written to us in the Torah…” That’s not some vague offering of love and devotion and sacrifice. No, that‘s the real animal and grain, and we say so in the musaf davening as well. Actually, we would fulfill our obligation not enumerating the details, and so we see that those details are not central to the prayer. But still, we say we will sacrifice as God proscribed in the Torah! Look closely, however; we say we will do this sacrifice WITH LOVE! Yes, we will do the same thing God told us to do in the Torah, but we will do it in a mode of love. What will that look like? I don’t know. But what it looks like is not as important. What is important is that it is essentially a sacrifice not of an animal or a grain, but a sacrifice of love. And perhaps we won’t even need any animals to do these sacrifices in the future – the Torah commandment will be fulfilled with love. There are plenty of midrashim that clearly state that almost all the sacrifices will be eliminated in the Messianic era. I say no! The sacrifices will still be here, but they will be offered through love and devotion not through physical destruction of an animal or a bird or a grain.
One more thought regarding these sacrifices of love: Last week’s Parsha of Re’eh warned us not to offer these sacrifices anywhere but in the Holy Land and the Holy City where God’s name is sanctified. I think there is a hint in these verses that the sacrifices we make for Judaism and for God’s presence in the world should be done in Israel, the Land of Zion, and not, primarily in the Diaspora. Yes, there was a period where sacrifices were allowed on “bamot” – on altars everywhere. But ultimately, the Torah wants us to put our effort, our commitment our devotion and our love into the Land of Israel and come together to show our love of God. So work hard, Jews everywhere, and make the sacrifices of love that God requires, but save your most profound work for Israel, for the Land where God wanted all the sacrifices to be made, to build a great people in order to be the light onto the nations.