The Meaning of Sacrifice
Rabbi Reuven Mann
Vayikra’s major subject is the laws pertaining to the various sacrifices that were offered in the Mishkan and later in the Holy Temple. Jews have not brought animal sacrifices for the few thousand years that we have been in exile, without the Beit Hamikdosh. Yet we continue to study the extensive halachot pertaining to them and to pray for their restoration. What is the purpose and goal of this unique religious service?
The subject of sacrifice is a major aspect of the dialogue between Moshe and Pharaoh which is recorded in Shemot. As the blows brought upon Egypt become harsher the Egyptian King seemed to be softening and growing more agreeable. The plague of Barad (Hail) was too much to take and Pharaoh begged Moshe to end it. But once the pain was removed his stubbornness returned and he did not send forth the Jews.
But the devastation wrought by the Makkah of Arbeh (locust) caused Pharaoh to reconsider. He was now willing to grant the Jews their request, but once the locust were removed he again failed to follow through. This led to the 9th and deadliest blow so far, choshech (darkness). For three days every Egyptian was paralyzed unable to see or to move. For the first time Pharaoh summoned Moshe after the plague was removed. Apparently, he had had enough.
Pharaoh yielded to Moshe saying that the Jews could take everyone including the children on their journey. He only had one condition, that they leave behind their livestock. Pharaoh suspected that the real intention of Moshe was to leave Egypt on the pretext of needing to serve Hashem in the Wilderness, and never return. He therefore demanded that Moshe leave the animals behind as a security which would be forfeited if the slaves did not return to resume their labors.
But if they did not bring along their animals how could the people offer sacrifices to Hashem? Pharaoh was not altogether unreasonable. His point was that Moshe should estimate how many of the flocks he would probably need and leave the rest behind. Why was it necessary to leave Egypt with all their livestock unless they never intended to return?
Moshe replied; “Even you will place in our hands feast-offerings and elevation-offerings and we shall offer them to Hashem, our G-d. And our livestock, as well, will go with us-not a hoof will be left-for from it we shall take to serve Hashem, our G-d; and we will not know with what we are to serve Hashem until our arrival there.”
At first glance Pharaoh’s position seems reasonable. Why must all their animals be taken? Why not take what you think you will need and leave the rest behind? Rabbi Israel Chait explained that Moshe was making a significant point here. He was telling Pharaoh that we serve Hashem whose nature is inscrutable. We refrain from projecting our wishes onto Him. For us to determine what He will require of us in our sacrificial service would be the height of arrogance implying that we have some way of anticipating His Will.
This negotiation did not end well as Pharaoh became angry and summarily dismissed Moshe threatening to kill him if he ever sought to return. The effort to persuade Pharaoh to recognize the Creator and agree to His command regarding the Jews was now over. What remained was the plague of the firstborn which would bring Pharaoh and all Egypt to their knees impelling them to beg Moshe to lead his people out of the country immediately.
The saga of Pharaoh is very tragic. Hashem provided him with every opportunity to change his course. The period of the plagues was one of Divine Revelation. Hashem provided the Egyptian ruler with Moshe and Aaron two of the greatest ever prophets to instruct and guide him. Pharaoh was not a stupid individual and he had his moments of clarity but ultimately he could not overcome his resistances and make the necessary changes. Why was he unable to grasp the lessons of the Divine Revelation which unfolded before him and was obvious to everyone?
Every individual has areas of psychological irrationality which impedes him from perceiving the truth even when the evidence is very compelling. Pharaoh was not emotionally disposed to accept the message of Moshe. The manifestations of the Divine were so convincing that even Pharaoh saw them. But when it came to acting in accordance with his knowledge his resistances dominated him.
We must all learn from the story of Pharaoh and discover the hidden pockets of irrationality within us and work to overcome them. The goal is to adjust ourselves to obeying the Will of Hashem even though it may be contrary to what we would prefer to do.
A major objective of sacrifices is to enable us to come before Hashem and acknowledge that He is the source of all existence. In doing so we must look deeply into our souls and identity our flaws and resolve to rectify them. It is only when we stand before G-d that we can summon the honesty, humbleness and courage necessary to change our direction in life.
Rabbi S.R. Hirsch explained that the root of the hebrew word Korban (sacrifice) is KRV which means to “draw close.” Thus the purpose of the offering is to enable the offerer to get nearer to Hashem. This can be a transformational experience which prompts the individual to put his ego aside and achieve a greater resolve to conform to the Will of G-d. May we merit to achieve it.
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