Many are familiar with the former chief rabbi of the UK, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory. His predecessor however is not as well known. Lord Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits was the first rabbi to sit in the House of Lords and according to his obituary in The Guardian at the time, “He had the highest public profile of any chief rabbi, matched only by that of his successor, Jonathan Sacks. An expert on medical ethics, Jakobovits’ view was constantly sought by the media when issues of invitrio fertilisation or transplant surgery arose.”
He was also instrumental in creating solid Jewish education in Britain among many other accomplishments. I had some personal interaction with him when we would visit London to see Karen’s family many years ago, after he retired and was the Rav of the smaller, earlier minyan at Raleigh Close synagogue. It was there that I was introduced to The Authorised Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations of The Commonwealth. (The Brits just love those long and cumbersome titles don’t they?) In that siddur is an excellent essay on Sacrifices, which we are reading about these days in the weekly Torah portions.
It’s the best explanation I have heard on this very difficult topic. He speaks of the trouble most of us have with sacrifices whose “whole subject bristles with problems and the theme itself grates on many modern minds.” Yes, he is very frank and not ashamed to say that these long parts of Torah do not resonate with us much these days.
He further mentions that throughout Tanach there is great ambivalence about sacrifices. On the one hand they are extolled and called “holy”, yet on the other they are repeatedly dissed by prophets throughout the generations. From Samuel to Isaiah to Jeremiah to the author of Psalms who writes in a mocking tone about the whole notion that God even needs them. “If I were hungry, I don’t need to tell you because the whole world and everything in it belongs to Me anyway! Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?!” (50:12-13) The very thought of an all-powerful God needing sacrifices is a preposterous one.
Jakobovits then explains that the key to understanding this ambivalence to sacrifices lies in a unique trait that applies solely to them and to no other mitzvot in the Torah. With sacrifices, if you had the wrong thought, or not the best intention on any level, it was disqualified and meant nothing. Yup, one wrong thought, and it was all for naught. Doesn’t count, go do it again and this time do it right. We saw this from the get-go when Cain brought an offering which wasn’t top quality and God tells him, “No thanks.”
But not only does such an offering not count, it counts against you. And this is why the prophets railed against them time and again. If you think you can “buy off” God by bringing Him an offering, then not only is that ineffective, but it is disgusting in God’s eyes and He wished you would rather not insult Him with such foolishness. It is the only mitzvah in the entire Torah that, if not done properly, we would prefer you not do it at all!
With other mitzvot, if I don’t have the purest intentions, it still counts for something. If I give charity to get honour and praise, it’s still effective as it helps the recipient and I will be rewarded. But when it comes to sacrifices, not only is it not useful, it’s counterproductive since it is perverting one’s relationship with God. It’s not helpful but harmful. And thus, sacrifices were a double-edged sword and could actually do as much damage as good.
And so therefore the question arises, of what purpose are they?
A key to understanding their true meaning is the law that dictates that a sin offering, a chatas, is only offered for unintentional sins. If you sinned on purpose and with full knowledge of what you were doing, then sorry, you’re out of luck and bringing Bessie up to the Temple will do you no good. Sacrifices were only effective when a person erred by mistake, had a lapse and was not paying enough attention.
And because of this lapse, a person needed a bit of shock-effect to regain his moral compass. This is what sacrifices were trying to accomplish. As Rabbi Jakobovits points out: (A person needed) an experience so awesome and powerful that it would leave a permanent mark on the offender’s consciousness, an experience so gripping that it would serve as a permanent deterrent to any renewal of momentary mindlessness.
This was the main object of atonement by sacrifice. The very horror of the experience provided a fail-safe shield against renewed forgetfulness. The slaughter of an animal, the sprinkling of its blood, the exacting ritual in the majestic atmosphere of the Temple – all this could not but provide an impregnable barrier to any renewed lapse in identical circumstances. That is the definition of atonement.
Sacrifices were was akin to shock-therapy for complacency and laziness that resulted in moral failings. And indeed sometimes we need just that – a proverbial slap to the side of the head to wake us up from our slumber. A close call or near accident on the highway to remind us of what is important in life and not to take it for granted. A dramatic near-miss event to pull us away from petty first-world problems and awaken us up to see the bigger picture.
This is what sacrifices were there to do. To wake us up. To witness the slaughtered animal and be reminded that “there but for the grace of God go I.” To realize how fragile life can be and to be mindful not to lose our perspective on what is meaningful, good and true in our lives.
We may no longer have a Temple around and please don’t bring your sheep to shul to slaughter. But the wake-up calls we get in the course of our lives sometime serve the same purpose. To realign and remind ourselves of the gift of life and how precious our lives truly are.
It’s a human sign
When things go wrong…
We lose direction
No stone unturned…
But it’s no sacrifice
It’s no sacrifice at all