Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch
Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirschcourtesy

I remember the first time a Christian missionary approached me. I was around 14 years old, and he asked me how I expected to be forgiven for my sins without the Beit Hamikdash.

Implicit in his question was the suggestion that I needed to accept upon myself the lordship of the Christian savior to achieve forgiveness. But his question struck me as bizarre. Who said you need a Beit Hamikdash to be forgiven for one’s sins? I was always taught you need sincere teshuvah. Nothing more and nothing less.

As I grew older, I came to more fully appreciate the centrality of korbanot, offerings, to Jewish life in ancient Judea. But bringing a korban was never the essence of teshuvah, which is why the prophets, nevi’im, several times berate Jews who bring korbanos but otherwise ignore G-d’s will.

As Samuel famously said to Saul, “Does the Lord delight in elevation offerings and feast offerings as much as in obedience to the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (I Samuel 15:22).

To emphasize this point – that divine forgiveness does not require the spilling of sacrificial blood – Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch notes at the beginning of this week’s parasha that G-d forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf before the Mishkan was constructed. In Rav Hirsch’s words, “the greatest national crime was committed, and the highest grace of G-d was regained, without Temple and without offering” (emphasis in the original).

Yes, bringing korbanot was a core element in our divine service in ancient Judea and will hopefully be so again very soon, but the korbanot themselves never magically wiped away our sins. They were symbolic. They were “means of showing the way to gain the grace of G-d.” True atonement can only be achieved through sincere teshuvah – a lesson that’s underscored by the placement of Parashat Vayakhel after the story of Divine forgiveness in Parashat Ki Tisa.

Elliot Resnick, PhD, is the host of “The Elliot Resnick Show” and the editor of an upcoming work on etymological explanations in Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on Chumash.