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What is the purpose of a Sacrifice?

People tend to think that sacrifices are very hard to understand today – after all, in our modern world, how on earth can it be right to take an animal, slaughter it, and then set it on fire? The practice sounds downright barbaric, and it makes for uncomfortable conversation, with most religious stalwarts falling back on “well, we may not understand it, but it is what the Torah commands, so….”

Of course, there is not even a consensus view among observant Jews that sacrifices are really what Hashem wants from us. Rambam famously argued that we have moved beyond sacrifices, and that the essence of a sacrifice, prayer, has remained as the substitute for the offerings themselves. His opinion, though respected, does not seem to be commonly held. It is difficult for us to directly contradict the words of the Torah that command us to bring sacrifices.

In my opinion, in order to really understand sacrifices, we need to get a sense of what they meant in the ancient world. Imagine, if you will, the life of a typical pagan man in the world before Avraham was born. The world is a collection of forces (sun/moon/stars/earth/water etc.) that can barely be comprehended, and while things like the seasons seem to have some regularity to them, a single oddity like a late frost, or an untimely rainstorm can have catastrophic consequences. Famines force people to remain adaptable, to be able to move short or long distances, carrying all their earthly possessions on their backs. Existence is by the skin of one’s own teeth, and families have to consider themselves fortunate if any of their children survive to reach child-bearing years.

In such a world, people would cling to anything that could possibly make a difference, because even the smallest break could be a life saver. And so sacrifice was born. The idea is simple enough: give up something of value, and the gods could be influenced to give us a better year. Sacrifice a goat for rain, sacrifice a child for a good harvest. The higher quality the goat or child,  the more the sacrifice would be valued by the deity in question.

Judaism’s great improvement over the basic idea of sacrifice is that Hashem forbade human sacrifice. No longer would it be acceptable to offer up those things that are actually most precious to us; G-d does not want our children on a pyre.

But Judaism preserved one key component: the Torah still commands us to offer up sacrifices to Hashem. We should, by rights, have a problem with this: sacrifices were meant to influence pagan gods, to bribe or otherwise sway them in our favor. But Hashem is not weak, and we don’t believe that He can be bribed. Indeed, we read, time and again, that Hashem does not actually care for our sacrifices: the sacrifice of first fruit or an animal is meant for our sake, not G-d’s! Unless we give up something, we have a difficulty having a connection with Hashem. Like the ancient pagans, we need to feel loss in order to have a connection to the divine – but unlike those same pagans, our loss is meant to ultimately benefit G-d only inasmuch as we ourselves improve as a result of the sacrifice.

Rambam, as a hyper-rational thinker, saw prayer as the replacement for that connection for Hashem. But I think he overestimated man’s ability to abandon our innate desire to somehow suffer. A modern screenwriter put it well, when he put the words in Agent Smith’s mouth in The Matrix:

Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world, where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program, entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world, but I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering.

There is little counterevidence.  Even a cursory review of news stories makes it clear that people instinctively need to worry about something; when times are good, we fret about acid rain, or global warming, or high fructose corn syrup. When times are bad, we revert to fundamentals: we worry about our homes and livelihoods. But all newspaperman know this instinctively: “when it bleeds, it leads.” People don’t trust good news. Like the pagans of old, we are always worried about how things can go wrong, how the forces beyond our control can somehow be influenced.

And so today, people find new quasi-religious obsessions to occupy their time.  These obsessions are seemingly rational, but if one scratches the surface, they are little different from the ancient methods of bribing the gods. Recycling is one famous example: study after study have demonstrated that almost all recycling is a waste of time and resources, but its advocates don’t care. Recycling is considered a moral good, whether or not it actually achieves anything that is beneficial. And so people are guilt-tripped or legally compelled to stay up late, using valuable time sorting their garbage to appease Mother Earth. And there are countless examples of similar obsessions: macrobiotic diets, hybrid cars, organic foods, etc. The followers don’t care whether or not their obsession makes sense; it makes sense to them on a subconscious level, because it introduces a degree of suffering and guilt – and a means of appeasing Science or Nature — in an otherwise too-perfect world.

What is the difference between these obsessions and Jewish sacrifices? Ultimately, the difference is that Jewish sacrifices are about improving ourselves, from the inside out. Sacrifices make us better people, in a truly moral sense. But obsessions such as recycling have an entirely different target – they are about introducing a little inconvenience in order to feel superior without actually achieving any net benefit. And so one ends up with the most nature-obsessed parts of the country becoming, in my wife’s priceless expression, “the land of Sodom and Granola.” As long as one lives a “natural” life, then absolutely any sin is defensible. Recycling does not make us love our neighbor, or follow G-d’s commandments – it just gives us carte blanche to consider ourselves good people even when we are not.

Jews are hardly exempt from these kinds of nutty quasi-religious obsessions; we are not only among the worst practitioners of Earth Worship, but religious Jews go out of our way to add extra religious sacrifices to our daily lives. In direct contradiction to the words of the Torah that we must not add anything to the Law, we insist on taking on additional stringencies (chumras) left right and center. Life is too easy, so we add chumras.

The Torah gives us a way to take on additional sacrifice: we can become a Nazir, with all of its stringencies and obligations. Those of us who absolutely must have more suffering are given the option to take it on, completely within a Torah framework. The Torah does not suggest we take on chumras. But of course we don’t become nazirites anymore.

So in response to the Rambam: as much as I’d like to think that Jews are able to grow and sacrifice solely through prayer, the facts on the ground suggest otherwise. Humans are not happy unless we are suffering, and if it is not imposed externally, then we go out of our way to find some way to impose it on ourselves, even when it is tantamount to idol worship in its own right. And so I look forward to the return of the Beis Hamikdash, and the kosher and legitimate way to make sacrifices for the sake of our relationship with Hashem, and as a means of improving ourselves!

Comments are welcome!