Parashat Vayikra introduces the laws of sacrifices. In the Tabernacle and Temple, the programme of the sacrificial ritual was elaborate and impressive. No wonder that one of the Yom Kippur prayers reflects on the memory with the words, “Happy was the eye that saw all this”.
But the concept of animal sacrifice has its critics who ask how it could possibly bring the human heart and soul nearer to God, and whether the sacrifices really made any difference to the Almighty.
Here are two answers:
1. My teacher Isidore Epstein wrote: “It is not the needs of God which the sacrifices are intended to convey, but the needs of man. They are not conceived as gifts to an offended deity in appeasement of its anger or in reparation of a wrong done to one’s fellow man. Their aim is essentially man’s holiness, with all it implies of religious and moral regeneration and perfection.
“They are designed in all their parts to foster in the mind of the devotee a sense of the awfulness of a religious offence in that it creates an estrangement alike between man and God and between man and man.”
2. From another point of view, Hermann Gollancz wrote: “If these animal sacrifices and offerings were to be of any value whatsoever, and to be pleasing in the sight of Heaven, it was clearly necessary that the bringing of them had to work their chief effect upon those who brought these gifts.
“If the slaughter of the animal did not awaken in the heart of the one who offered it the thought that he must henceforth and for all times slaughter and kill the animal-spirit within himself – if the sacrifice of old did not impress upon the people the idea that they had to sacrifice themselves, to sacrifice their unholy wishes and their wicked desires, in the task of serving their Creator and God, and leading a pure, useful, and holy life, and that this was the best and costliest offering which man could offer unto God – then the sacrifices proved an abomination and a hindrance to the individual who brought the offering, for instead of bringing him nearer unto Heave, it led him further away from the true worship of the One God.”