Rabbi Aaron Feigenbaum
Community Rabbi of the Young Israel of Memphis
What the Korbanos Might Teach Us About Prayer
We continue this week in Parshas Tzav our journey through the Torah’s world of Korbanos. The concept of animal sacrifice is perhaps foreign to the modern mind, and in truth it troubled the Rishonim as well.
Rambam posits that the purpose and function of animal sacrifice is to distance us from Avoda Zara. In a celebrated passage Rambam writes:
“Scripture tells us, according to the Version of Onkelos, that the Egyptians worshiped Aries, and therefore abstained from killing sheep, and held shepherds in contempt… Some sects among the Sabeans worshiped demons, and imagined that these assumed the form of goats, and called them therefore “goats” [se‘irim]. This worship was widespread. Comp. “And they shall no more offer their sacrifices unto demons, after whom they have gone a whoring” (Vayikra 17, 7). For this reason those sects abstained from eating goats’ flesh. Most idolaters objected to killing cattle, holding this species of animals in great estimation. Therefore the people of Hodu [Indians] up to this day do not slaughter cattle even in those countries where other animals are slaughtered. In order to eradicate these false principles, the Law commands us to offer sacrifices only of these three kinds: “Ye shall bring your offering of the cattle [viz.], of the herd and of the flock” (Lev. i. 2). Thus the very act which is considered by the heathen as the greatest crime, is the means of approaching God, and obtaining His pardon for our sins. In this manner, evil principles, the diseases of the human soul, are cured by other principles which are diametrically opposite.” (Moreh Nevuchim 3:46 Friedlander Translation)
Ramban (Vayikra, 1, 9) finds Rambam’s approach untenable on philosophic and historic grounds. Philosophically, Ramban finds it troubling that the Korbanos don’t have an intrinsic value, meaning they add nothing of positive value on their own, but they are commanded to us to as a preventative measure against following Avoda Zara. On historical grounds Ramban points out that you find Korbanos being sacrificed to Hashem by Kayin, Hevel, and Noach before the Ancient Egyptians existed.
Ramban, therefore, suggests an alternative explanation for animal sacrifice, that the Karbanos are a tool in encouraging Teshuva. For Ramban, the sacrifice is meant to depict what should befall one who violates God’s command. Ramban believes that the intent of animal sacrifice “is for a person to ponder when he brings a sacrifice that he has sinned against God with his body and his soul, and that it should be fitting for him to have his own blood spilled and body destroyed were it not for God’s kindness that He takes from us an exchange and ransom, the sacrifice.”
Yet a third approach can be found in Kuzari. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi (Kuzari 2:26) suggests that the purpose and function of Korbanos is for Hashem to have a means through which he can show honor to those bringing the sacrifice. For Kuzari, Hashem commanded us to bring Korbanos in order that “He, so to say, accepts their hospitality and dwells among them in order to show them honor. He, however, is most Holy, and far too exalted to find pleasure in their meat and drink. It is for their own benefit.” Fascinatingly for Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi the sacrifice is not intended to better man, but to honor him via God’s acceptance of his gift.
Perhaps if our prayer is meant to take the place of the Korbanos, we can understand better some of the benefits of prayer if we apply the rationales of Korbanos to prayer. Perhaps, as Rambam suggests, prayer is intended to wean us away from Avoda Zara, to realize what is truly important in life and to put us on a path away from vanity and egoism. Perhaps, as Ramban suggests, prayer is intended to humble us and lead us on the path of Teshuva. And maybe, as Kuzari suggests, prayer is meant to be a source of pride, not a method through which we can advance our own needs, but a time and place where God comes to meet us, giving us honor in knowing we have an audience with the King.