Sefer Vayikra begins with God commanding the sacrificial service to be performed in the Mishkan, and later in the Mikdash. But for all the chapters of detailed description of korbanot, these passages present us with a considerable challenge of understanding.
|The Yom Kippur Service|
In particular, the scripture itself seems undecided regarding the importance of korbanot. On one hand, a large proportion of the Torah's normative portions are dedicated to the korbanot, the mishkan where they are brought, and the responsibilities of the kohanim/leviim who carry out the service. On the other hand, the later prophets seem intent on diminishing the importance of the korbanot in favor of other commandments. For example:
שִׁמְעוּ דְבַר-יְהוָה, קְצִינֵי סְדֹם; הַאֲזִינוּ תּוֹרַת אֱלֹהֵינוּ, עַם עֲמֹרָה. יא לָמָּה-לִּי רֹב-זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר יְהוָה, שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים; וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים, לֹא חָפָצְתִּי. יב כִּי תָבֹאוּ, לֵרָאוֹת פָּנָי--מִי-בִקֵּשׁ זֹאת מִיֶּדְכֶם, רְמֹס חֲצֵרָי. יג לֹא תוֹסִיפוּ, הָבִיא מִנְחַת-שָׁוְא--קְטֹרֶת תּוֹעֵבָה הִיא, לִי; חֹדֶשׁ וְשַׁבָּת קְרֹא מִקְרָא, לֹא-אוּכַל אָוֶן וַעֲצָרָה. יד חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם שָׂנְאָה נַפְשִׁי, הָיוּ עָלַי לָטֹרַח; נִלְאֵיתִי, נְשֹׂא. טו וּבְפָרִשְׂכֶם כַּפֵּיכֶם, אַעְלִים עֵינַי מִכֶּם--גַּם כִּי-תַרְבּוּ תְפִלָּה, אֵינֶנִּי שֹׁמֵעַ: יְדֵיכֶם, דָּמִים מָלֵאוּ. טז רַחֲצוּ, הִזַּכּוּ--הָסִירוּ רֹעַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶם, מִנֶּגֶד עֵינָי: חִדְלוּ, הָרֵעַ. יז לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט, אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ; שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם, רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה. (ישעיהו א)
כב כִּי לֹא-דִבַּרְתִּי אֶת-אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם, וְלֹא צִוִּיתִים, בְּיוֹם הוציא (הוֹצִיאִי) אוֹתָם, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם--עַל-דִּבְרֵי עוֹלָה, וָזָבַח. כג כִּי אִם-אֶת-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה צִוִּיתִי אוֹתָם לֵאמֹר, שִׁמְעוּ בְקוֹלִי--וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים, וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ-לִי לְעָם; וַהֲלַכְתֶּם, בְּכָל-הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, לְמַעַן, יִיטַב לָכֶם. (ירמיהו ז)
כב כִּי אִם-תַּעֲלוּ-לִי עֹלוֹת וּמִנְחֹתֵיכֶם, לֹא אֶרְצֶה; וְשֶׁלֶם מְרִיאֵיכֶם, לֹא אַבִּיט. כג הָסֵר מֵעָלַי, הֲמוֹן שִׁרֶיךָ; וְזִמְרַת נְבָלֶיךָ, לֹא אֶשְׁמָע. כד וְיִגַּל כַּמַּיִם, מִשְׁפָּט; וּצְדָקָה, כְּנַחַל אֵיתָן. (עמוס ה)
These contradictory sources leave us with a quandary as to the significance of this service and it's status relative to other mitzvot.
Before we take on this question, I'd like to turn to Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly's book All Things Shining, and its discussion of the Oresteia.
The Oresteia is a trilogy of plays written by the Greek playwright Aeschylus around 458 BCE during the Golden Age of Athens. But as Dreyfus and Kelly point out, the Oresteia was not just another Athenian play.
At the end of the play Athena affirms the new way of life she has established in Athens...The former Furies, now the Kindly Ones, and the Olympian gods then march out of the theater together singing the glory of Athens, inviting the audience--the citizens of Athens themselves--to join them saying: "Singing all follow our footsteps." Thus both groups of gods together with the citizens of Athens walk right out of the play into the streets of Athens chanting the city's praise.
...Each year the citizens of Athens selected a new prize-winning tragedy to be performed at the expense of the city for just that year. The Oresteia was the only play that was performed at the city's expense year after year. (pp. 98-99)
Indeed, the Oresteia was not just another Athenian play. It was a National ritual publicly funded and participated in by the masses year-round. But what purpose did this practice play in Athenian society?
Clytemnestra sacrifices a ram in Taneyev’s adaptation of the OresteiaThe play itself, then, becomes a glamorized example--indeed a genuine paradigm--of what the Athenians have accomplished...they have reconciled the old gods--the angry, bloody emotions of outrage and revenge--and the new gods, with their tendency towards detachment and moral fanaticism.
The mass-ritual of the Oresteia asserts clearly what is essential in Athenian culture(in particular the successful reconciliation of two competing spiritual traditions). Not only that, but it strengthens those values in the broader culture by celebrating them publicly and having the citizens of Athens themselves participate in that celebration.
The Korbanot as National Ritual
Returning to the temple service, what if we were to view it, as with the Oresteia, as a sort of National Ritual meant to emphasize and strengthen that which is essential to Jewish culture. Suddenly the scriptural contradictions fall away. On one hand the Chumash goes into great detail designing this central cultural edifice. On the other hand, the Neviim Achronim de-emphasize it in favor of other mitzvot because it has little inherent value. Rather, the primary value of this mass ritual is to strengthen that which is essential, such as the Justice and Charity that Amos calls for.
But if this is the correct view of the korbanot, then what are the values they promote and how? There is lots of potential for analysis here. For now, however, I'll simply refer you to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' recent shiur on the topic:
What, then, was sacrifice in Judaism and why does it remain important, at least as an idea, even today? The simplest answer – though it does not explain the details of the different kinds of offering – is this: We love what we are willing to make sacrifices for. That is why, when they were a nation of farmers and shepherds, the Israelites demonstrated their love of God by bringing Him a symbolic gift of their flocks and herds, their grain and fruit; that is, their livelihood. To love is to thank. To love is to want to bring an offering to the Beloved. To love is to give. Sacrifice is the choreography of love.