And Hashem called to Moshe and spoke to him from the Ohel Moed saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them that when a person from among you brings a sacrifice to Hashem, [if] from an animal, it should be from the cattle and flocks that you should offer your sacrifice. (Sefer VaYikra 1:1-2)

I. The importance of sacrifices

Sefer Shemot concluded with the assembly of the Mishcan – the Tabernacle. Sefer VaYikra opens with a discussion of the sacrifices that were to be offered in it. In the above passage, Hashem summons Moshe from the Mishcan – referred to as the Ohel Moed – and teaches him the laws regulating the sacrifices. 

The attitude of the Torah and the Sages to these sacrifices is confusing. In many of their comments, the importance of sacrifices is emphasized. Let’s consider an example. 

Avraham is childless. Hashem tells him that he will have a multitude of children and they will possess the Land of Cana’an. Avraham asks Hashem, “Through what will I know that they will possess it?” What was Avraham’s question? What did he seek from Hashem? 

Midrash Rabbah responds. Avraham understood that Hashem was telling him that his descendants would capture the land and it would be their permanent legacy. To Avraham, this was an astounding promise. His children would sin; they would not be perfect in their conduct and service to Hashem. This would be inevitable. Might Hashem not respond by exiling them from the land and dispossessing them of their legacy? How could Hashem promise that the land will permanently be theirs? According to Midrash Rabbah, Hashem responded that they will atone for their sins through their sacrifices.[1] The sacrifices they will offer in the Mishcan and in the Bait HaMikdash – the Sacred Temple – will atone for their sins. This atonement will preserve their legacy.

Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? says Hashem. I am sated with the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; and the blood of bulls and sheep and he-goats I do not want…. And when you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you, even when you pray at length, I do not hear; your hands are full of blood. Wash, cleanse yourselves, remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes, cease to do evil. Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow. Come now, let us debate, says the Lord. If your sins prove to be like crimson, they will become white as snow; if they prove to be as red as crimson dye, they shall become as wool. (Sefer Yeshayah 1:11-18)

II. The problem with sacrifices

The above passages are an example of an attitude often expressed by the prophets. Hashem does not want our sacrifices. He wants us to conduct ourselves with kindness and justly. If we repent, He will cleanse us of our sins. 

How can these two views be reconciled? We are commanded to offer sacrifices. Avraham is told that through their atonement, his descendants will maintain their legacy – the Land of Israel. Yet, repeatedly, the prophets emphasize that Hashem does not want our sacrifices. He wants us to conduct ourselves properly. 

III. Appropriate and inappropriate sacrifices

Rabbaynu David Kimchi – RaDaK, in his comments on the above passages responds:

And since you abandon My Torah of what use to Me are your many sacrifices. For I commanded you in their regard only so that you should constantly recall Me and contemplate Me and not sin. And if you sinned, so that you should confess [your sin] with the sacrifice and repent from your wicked ways. If you had done this, they would have been a pleasant fragrance for Me like it is stated in the Torah. But now I am disgusted with them and I despise them as one who is sated with something. He is disgusted with it and despises it. (RaDaK, Commentary of Sefer Yeshayah 1:11)

RaDaK provides a simple solution to our questions. The sacrifices commanded by the Torah are different from those condemned by the prophets. The Torah commands us to offer sacrifices as an expression of an internal commitment or resolution. The prophets condemned sacrifices that did not reflect this internal commitment. These sacrifices were superficial actions. They lacked meaning. They were like bodies without souls.

And he rests his hand on the head of the burnt-offering and it will be accepted for him to atone for him. (Sefer VaYikra 1:4)

IV. A meaningful sacrifice

Let us consider this concept carefully. The above passage discusses an Olah sacrifice – a burnt offering. The passage explains that when one brings an animal to the Mishcan or Bait HaMikdash to be sacrificed, he places his hands upon the head of the sacrifice and presses. If the animal is brought as atonement for a sin, then, while pressing upon the animal, one confesses the sin, declares that he has repented, and asks that the animal serve as his atonement. If the animal is not a sin offering, then, while pressing on the animal, the person recites praises of Hashem.[2] 

The sacrifice does not atone nor is it a demonstration of devotion and service to Hashem. It gives expression to the commitment to repent or to the devotion declared while pressing upon the animal’s head. If one does not make this declaration or if it is insincere, then the sacrifice is meaningless. These meaningless sacrifices were condemned by the prophets.

V. Meaningful prayer

Like sacrifices, prayers can be meaningful or superficial expressions. However, the distinction between a superficial and meaningful prayer is not obvious. It is possible to pray sincerely but one’s prayers will not be meaningful. How is this possible? If one is sincere, how is it possible that one’s prayers are not meaningful?

Rambam explains that when the Jewish people are confronted with an affliction we must turn to Hashem in prayer. This seems self-evident. Of course, we should turn to Hashem and ask for salvation! However, Rambam explains that there is a less obvious but more fundamental reason for petitioning Hashem. His explanation includes two important concepts.

First, we cry out to Hashem because we recognize that any affliction that comes upon the Jewish people is an expression of His will. Second, we are acknowledging He has allowed this affliction to befall us because of our actions. Our actions and behaviors are the root cause of our suffering. Rambam maintains that we are not delivered because of our pleas – regardless of their sincerity. We are delivered because through our pleas, we acknowledge that our suffering is Divine punishment for our misdeeds.

Then, Rambam further develops his position. Our pleas are the first step on the path of repentance. When we acknowledge that our suffering is punishment for our sins, then we have embarked on this path.[3] 

VI. The emphasis on repentance

Rambam emphasizes the importance of repentance in another comment. When there is a drought in the Land of Israel a series of increasingly severe fasts is declared. During the most severe fasts, the ark and its Sefer Torah are brought out into the town’s plaza. The townspeople gather in the plaza dressed in sackcloth. Ashes are placed upon the ark and Sefer Torah. Then, the people place ashes upon the heads of their leaders and upon their own heads. A wise elder is appointed and he addresses the people, “Brothers, it is not sackcloth and fasting that will cause [the end of our suffering]. Rather, [it is] repentance and worthy actions….”[4] The elder does not urge prayer and petition. These are inadequate. Ultimately, prayer must express a commitment to repentance. 

At a time of suffering and affliction, we seek Hashem’s deliverance. According to Rambam, sincerity alone does not render our prayers meaningful. Neither can we expect deliverance in response to prayers that are sincere. More is required. Our prayers must be sincere and acknowledge the nature of the affliction. It is a Divine consequence for our deeds. With this acknowledgment we must embark upon the path of repentance.

VII. Responding to our affliction

We have been stricken by a plague. This plague has befallen our people and all humanity. Many of us – maybe, most of us – know victims. The Jewish people have responded in the way of our ancestors. We pray and petition Hashem for our salvation and for the salvation of others. However, our prayers are inadequate to secure the rescue we are seeking. More is needed. We must repent.

How should we proceed? How do we repent? From what sin should we repent? Rambam explains that when a fast is declared, the court and elders gather in the synagogue. They consider the actions of the people. They seek out evil and sin and address them.[5]

Our communities are not likely to adopt this practice. It is upon each of us to individually engage in this process. Each of us must set aside time to study one’s behaviors and deeds. Each of us must acknowledge one’s shortcomings and sins and make a commitment to do better. Change is not immediate. Hashem does not seek from us the impossible. He demands that we rise above complacency and take steps along the path of repentance.

[1] Midrash Beresheit Rabbah 44:14. The Talmud (Ta’anit 27b and Megilah 31b) explains that Avraham foresaw that the Bait HaMikdash would be destroyed. Sacrifices would be discontinued. He asked Hashem, “What will be their means of atonement when the Bait HaMikdash is destroyed?” Hashem responded that they will read the sections of the Torah that state the laws of the sacrifices. Their engagement in these Torah portions will be their atonement. The analysis that follows applies to sacrifices and to atonement through reading these Torah sections. 

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Ma’asai Karbanot 3:6-14.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Ta’anit 1:1-3.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Ta’anit 4:1-2.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Ta’anit 1:17.