Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.
The theme of Sefer Vayikra (The Book of Leviticus) is korbanos, the animal sacrifices brought in the Tabernacle and, later, in the Temple.
The Rambam (Maimonides), in his Guide to the Perplexed, writes, “The purpose of sacrifices being incorporated into the Divine service of the Jewish people was to accommodate the transition of the people going from the extreme falsehood of idol worship to the extreme truth of worshipping one true God.
“The Jewish people had been steeped in an idolatrous culture and could only free themselves from it by utilizing the same form of animal sacrifice that they were accustomed to. Now, through strict rules and regiments, they could direct it toward the service of God.”
Unfortunately, this statement has been grossly misunderstood. The Rambam never meant to imply that korbanoswere a temporary means of service, whose practice would be abandoned as soon as the Jewish people were weaned from their idolatrous ways. Noach and his sons offered korbanos after the flood; Avraham offered various sacrifices. Neither of them needed to be weaned from idolatry.
Though the concept of animal sacrifices seems foreign, almost antithetical, to our notion of avodas Hashem (serving God), korbanoswere offered in the Temple on a daily basis. The detailed rituals of sacrifices played an essential role in the celebration of each Yom Tov (festival), and various sacrifices were offered to mark significant events in the lives of people.
Korbanos obviously played a major role in avodasHashem. How are we to understand that role?
Ultimate Way to Serve God
The ultimate way to serve God and come closer to Him is through prayer and Torah study, for those methods involve one’s heart and one’s intellect. At the same time, we are created with physical drives, and we are therefore driven to relate to God in a physical, tangible way. Offering a korban(from the word karov–to come close) is a hands-on project. But this very human need is not given free reign; rather, the offering of sacrifices is governed by strict regulations, in order that we tangibly relate to God in a true, proper way.
Furthermore, korbanos address the human emotion of guilt. After a person sins, it is natural for him to feel guilty about having done wrong, having failed to live up to expected standards of behavior. Instead of allowing a person to wallow in guilt, to feel disappointed and disillusioned and to succumb to a sense of hopelessness, the Torah requires the sinner to bring a sacrifice. He must purchase an animal–a living creature–bring it to the Temple, confess his sin, express a firm resolve never to repeat it, and then offer the sacrifice upon the altar. These steps allow for the individual to express his natural guilt in a constructive manner, to improve and cleanse his character instead of tarnish it.
Even in today’s times, in absence of korbanos, the Torah continues to challenge us to use our yeitzer hatov (good impulse) to control our yeitzer hara–our physical and emotional drives–and always channel them to achieve a higher purpose, to relate to God in a way that allows us to grow and improve and approach perfection.