For Shabbat Hachodesh: On Sacrificing

This week's dvar Torah is by Rabbi Baruch Weintraub–Former Sgan Rosh Beit Midrash at YU-TMT Zichron Dov Toronto (2011-14) Current Rav Kehila in Tel Mond and Ram at Yeshivat Har Etzion.

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This Shabbat Parashat Hachodesh, with its two facets, connects us twice with the world of the korbanot (sacrifices). First, as in the weekly parsha we begin the reading of Vayikra, which is dedicated primarily to the temple service in general, and the detailed laws of the  sacrifices in particular. Second, as the yearly calendar adds to our Shabbat a special reading – Hachodesh Haze ('this month'). There too, the main part of the reading is dedicated to the introduction of Korban Peasch.

It seems, then, that our Shabbat presents a good opportunity to deepen our understanding of the main role given to sacrifices in the Torah – both in quantity, as the laws of korbanot are much more detailed than those of Shabbat, to state one example; and in quality, as the Pesach sacrifice is connected directly to the redemption from Egypt (Shemot 12:13) and as all the sacrifices are "a pleasing fragrance to Hashem" (Vayikra 1:9).

What makes the korbanot so important? This question is, of course, not a new one. The Rishonim discussed the reasoning underlying the Korbanot   thoroughly, and we will bring here the main three reasons being given by them:

The Rambam (Moreh 3:32) explains that G-d commanded to sacrifice in order to prevent the people from returning to Avodah Zara. The common practice at the time was to sacrifice to the gods, and there was no way to Am Yisrael will be able to cease this practice. Thus, G-d commanded that sacrificing will continue but to Him alone.

Ramban (Vayikra 1:9) offers two suggestions. The first one finds the reasoning for sacrificing in human  psychology – the burning of the animal and shedding of its blood will assist its owner to internalize the punishment that he deserves for his sin, thus advancing him towards Teshuva.

The second suggestion of Ramban is according to "the way of truth", i.e. Kabbala. While the details are beyond my apprehension, the general theory seems to be clear enough – the Korbanot serve to bring the owner closer to Hashem.

While according to the third explanation we can readily understand the immense importance of the Korbanot and the dependency of the exodus upon them, in the first two it is more difficult to understand. Why, according to the Rambam, do we give such importance for what is merely an outlet? And why, according to the psychological explanation offered by the Ramban, is there a need for sacrifice in Egypt, with seemingly no sin committed?

I would like to suggest an understanding which combines these two explanations, and which is based upon ideas expressed by Rabbi Soloveichik in his "Festival of Freedom". We are used to judging strength and success, for individuals as well as for societies, by their achievements: money acquired, positions of power conquered or art and wisdom created. In sefer Mishlei, however, we are being told: "better is slow to anger than a mighty man and the ruler of his spirit than a city conqueror." (16:32); or in the words of Chaza"l "Who is mighty? Who he overcomes his desires".

The sacrifices in the pagan world were intended to 'butter up' the gods or even to outright bribe them. They really were, then, manipulations of the gods by man. In other words, by possessing something the gods want – animals, fruits etc. – man could force the gods to help him in his own goals. It can be claimed, therefore, that in accordance to the Rambam's explanation of the sacrifices for G-d, the latter do not act only as an outlet for the human desire to sacrifice, but also represent a deep surrender. Shifting the Korbanot from the idols to   Hashem is not only a change of address; it requires man to surrender his illusion of control over the divine realm, and replaces it with a willing acceptance of the heavenly yoke. Korban Pesach is not coming to 'appease' G-d, but to fulfil his commands, and to differentiate between those who keep them and those who do not.

Letting go of one's hope to manipulate the metaphysical world can be seen as an act of weakness; but Korban Pesach teaches us to see it in a completely different light – giving up our desire to control the gods, enables us to connect with The G-d. And what is true between man and G-d, is also correct in the human realm – only letting go of our desire to enslave the other will enable us to finally meet him; the ability to put limits to our freedom is essential in order to render it meaningful.

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