How might the animal sacrifices of the ancient Temple give meaning to your worship today?
Parashat Vayikra, which begins the book of Leviticus, describes different kinds of sacrifices to be offered in the sanctuary of the Temple. They are the olah, or “burnt offering,” the minchah, or “meal offering,” the zevach Shelamim, or “sacrifice of well-being,” the chatat, or “sin offering,” and the asham, or “guilt offering.” The manner in which each offering is made is described in detail during this week’s Torah portion.
In Vayikra’s model of worship the offering to God is tangible and consists of blood, innards, and flesh. Arranging for the sacrifice is a visible process; a person must take the time to travel to the Temple, purchase the animal for sacrifice, hand it over to the priests at the alter, and watch it be slaughtered. As the smoke rises from the burnt offering, the entire community bears witness to this sacrificial act that connects an individual with God.
There seems to be such a huge disconnect between modern Jewish worship and the descriptions of animal sacrifice during the Temple period. Being a people who rejected the concrete idol for one God we could never see, why did our mode of worship need to involve outward, visual displays of sacrifice? In his famous book, Guide for the Perplexed, Moses Maimonides explains that sacrifices were an early form of worship that was modeled after the rights of the surrounding peoples. Animal sacrifice served as a bridge between pagan worship and the development of synagogues and tefilah. Slowly, fixed and personal prayer was introduced and synagogues were established outside of Jerusalem so that by the time the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the concept of prayer was familiar and comfortable to the masses.
Unlike animal sacrifice, prayer cannot be quantified nor seen. There is no outward motivation for a person to pray to God —no one can judge another’s private prayer and longings. A person does not need to announce his relationship with God by offering the fattest lamb or the most expensive animal in the Temple marketplace. The prayers of our hearts cannot be judged by anyone or anything but God, they are priceless. As a community, we can bear witness to the deeds of our members, but not to the avodah—the active connection between God and the individual.
Perhaps remembering the active more tangible history of worship can help us think more about the quality of prayer we engage ourselves in today. If you had to choose the type of animal sacrifice that would symbolize your current relationship with God, which animal would it be? And more importantly, are you giving God the most unblemished, rich piece of yourself?