As we begin to read Vayikra/Leviticus this week, we plunge immediately into the details of sacriﬁcial worship in ancient Israel.
The Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E. As it became clear that it would not be rebuilt in the foreseeable future, the rabbis of the Talmud and classical Midrash asked profound questions. Among them:
• How do we fulﬁll our worship mitzvot in the absence of sacriﬁcial rituals?
• Can we extend the meaning of these passages to apply them to our Jewish lives today?
• What does it mean to pray for the restoration of the Temple?
Torah commentators have been addressing these and related issues ever since. Let’s explore a corner of this large issue.
Many of the mandated sacriﬁces were offered in atonement for sin. This is one of the values of religion: It offers us a structure for dealing with the sad, shameful and frightening aspects of our lives. That same structure gives us hope that we can salvage our mistakes and live better and more holy lives through atonement and repentance.
Here are three ways in which sacriﬁce leads to repentance, in our own day as well as in biblical times:
• Judaism urges us to examine our misbehavior in the light of God’s goodness to us. Like a parent, God sustains and teaches us. Let’s not forget that God has provided us with what one Jewish liturgy has called “the delights of the senses.” Sacriﬁce means loss of pleasure — “I could have enjoyed eating that animal” — and redirection toward living our highest values.
On Yom Kippur morning, we read the haftarah from Isaiah (Chapter 58) in which God asks, “Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve themselves?” Rather: “No, this is the fast I desire … to share your bread with the hungry.”
• Judaism reminds us that sin is expensive — “I could have sold that animal” — and a sacriﬁce is like a ﬁne for bad behavior. The Torah even provides a “sliding scale” for those who could not afford to offer a bull or a ram; they were allowed to substitute an offering of lesser value. Restitution was decreed when one person harmed another, and today we imprison many offenders. But without literal sacriﬁce for sins against God, Torah reminds us that our misdeeds carry costs, obvious and hidden, and we must pay them.
• Judaism teaches us that we should make the most of our lives — “I could have kept that animal alive for my proﬁt or enjoyment” — whose duration we cannot know. To witness an animal sacriﬁce is to be reminded of one’s mortality. What we value, we will ultimately lose, and what we value most is life itself. We know that we will go the way of those we have lost, whom we continue to love and honor. Sacriﬁce can lead us to examine how well we measure up to them, and to ask how those who follow us will recall us.
“Days are scrolls,” wrote the medieval ethicist Bahya ibn Pakuda. “Write on them only what you want to be remembered.” How much time does any of us have to right wrongs and change for the better the way we live our lives?
The responses of our ancestors to sin and guilt offerings are no less valid for the absence of a Temple in which to sacriﬁce them. As we read these passages, let the idea of sacriﬁce move us to express the best that is in us.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)