The Psychology of Sacrifice

Towards the end of parshat Tetzaveh, the Bechor Shor presents an innovative understanding of the purpose of sacrifices.  As noted in parshat Terumah, the Bechor Shor has a nuanced understanding of why God commanded the Jewish people to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  In this week’s parsha he adds that God obviously does not need mankind to build Him anything, as stated in Psalms 50:12:

Were I hungry, I would not tell you, for Mine is the world and all it holds.

Everything that God commands us to do is for us, not God.  There is nothing that we can give to God - it’s all His already!  Therefore the construction of the Tabernacle was not to fulfill God’s needs, but rather our own.

The Bechor Shor writes that God wanted to benefit the Jewish people and create a system wherein the people would be able to cleanse themselves from sin and always strive for self improvement.  Therefore God had us build a grand, awe inspiring Temple wherein we would offer all types of sacrifices for the purpose of atonement. Offering sacrifices and going through the process of atonement would compel us to view ourselves as spiritually refined and purified, thereby motivating us to maintain this newfound status.  If you think that you have atoned for your sins, then you will be more likely not to continue to sin.  (This is very similar to the cognitive behavioral therapy idea of, “fake it till you make it.”) Meaning, beyond whether or not a person actually received atonement, the goal was to make people think that they had received atonement.

The Bechor Shor provides an analogy to support this idea. If a person gets his clothing very dirty, then he will likely not hesitate to engage in activities that will get his clothing even more dirty.  He’s already dirty, so he does not care to look even worse! However, if a person is wearing crisp, clean clothing, then he will think twice before engaging in activity that will soil his clean clothes.

Likewise, if a person has sinned, what will stop him from sinning again?  He’s already “dirty,” so he will rationalize to himself that a little more dirt won’t really make a difference.  When a person becomes habituated to sin, it can become very difficult to break that pattern (See Yoma 86b).

But if there is a process for him to change out of his dirty clothing and cleanse himself of the sins, then he will be much more cautious about future sin since he now has what to loose.

As King Solomon write in Ecclesiastes 9:8:

Let your clothes always be freshly washed, and your head never lack ointment.

If we always view ourselves as clean and pure, even if perhaps we are not, then we will be much more cautious about dirtying our souls.