SANCTUARY OR SLAUGHTERHOUSE – Tzav – Lev. 6-8 by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This week’s reading, like the bulk of the book of Leviticus, is full of specific regulations about sacrifices to be offered on the altar in the Tabernacle. Those same sacrifices would later be offered on the permanent altars in Solomon’s Temple. Reading these regulations today, we cannot avoid the reaction that Aaron and his sons – and their descendants the Cohanim down through the centuries – were not only prayer leaders, but also had to be skilled butchers. Animal sacrifice was how man approached G-d in the ancient world, and the Torah details the pattern for that process.
Ever since the destruction of the Temple, of course, Jews do not offer animal sacrifices. The rabbis set a policy of t’filah bimkom korban – prayer replacing sacrifice. By reciting our prayers, including a review of the ancient sacrificial ritual, they decided that we can earn credit for the same Mitzvos as if we offered the sacrifices ourselves.
Even before the destruction, we know that a synagogue occupied a spot on the Temple Mount. So the leadership recognized the growing importance of spoken prayer. Yet they insisted, as many still do, that when the Messiah arrives we will return to the sacrificial cult as described in Leviticus.
What about the prophets? How did the religious leadership respond to a man like Isaiah when he cries out in G-d’s name: “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?… I take no delight in the blood of bullocks or lambs or he-goats. Who required this of you, to trample My courts?” Or Jeremiah’s outburst: “Thus says the L-rd… What purpose is the frankincense from Sheba and the sweet cane from a far country? Your burnt-offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices pleasing to Me… When I brought your fathers out of Egypt I did not command them concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices, but this thing I commanded them: Hearken to my voice, and I will be your G-d and you will be My people.” Hosea, too, chimes in: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of G-d rather than burnt-offerings.”
Were these Biblical prophets denying Leviticus, or rebelling against it? Were they perhaps telling us that G-d does not need us to feed Him?
For now at least, we cannot predict with any certainty what the Messiah might do about korbanot – physical sacrificial worship. What we can do is to continue sincerely the historic development of stating our relationship to our Creator: t’filah bimkom korban – prayer replacing sacrifice. Our ancestors brought the best they had, to please G-d, and incidentally fed the Cohanim who did the sacrificial work. Today Cohanim find other ways to make a living, but we all still have the same method of affirming our Jewish identity and destiny. Let’s use it.