We at times have a reaction of wonder and bewilderment when we consider the entire topic of korbanot. Initially, at first glance, the act of offering a sacrifice seems strange, anaesthetic, certainly unholy, and perhaps even irrational. A holy place, we would think, should generate an atmosphere of sanctity; it must be aesthetic, impressive, full of grandeur, clean and well kept. But according to the descriptions in the sources of the Mishkan, and then the Beit Hamikdash, the buildings used for offering sacrifices, they were hardly aesthetic. They were filled with the blood and flesh of slaughtered animal-sacrifices. This is our holy site: a slaughterhouse. But if we try to perceive the korbanot as an external expression of a deep, internal feeling, a feeling of love and strong, genuine desire to draw nearer to the Almighty, then perhaps we will arrive at a somewhat different picture.
Why is it that today, when we do not have a Beit Hamikdash, we find it difficult to grasp the concept of korbanot, whereas in Biblical times we find considerable attention given to this realm, which served as the primary expression of man’s relationship to his God? Tanach is filled with descriptions of sacrifices offered to Hashem on the one hand, and to pagan deities on the other. It appears that there was always a strong attraction to religious worship in a direct, authentic manner, while today, the notion of idolatrous worship has no place in our culture. Descriptions of korbanot therefore seem irrational and have an immediate association with paganism. Was this caused by mankind’s cultural progress, in which case we should view this as a regression, rather than progression, in the development of human culture?
The Gemara tells that the Sages of Israel saw just how much damage idolatry caused both in the world at large and within the Jewish camp in particular. They therefore decided to eliminate from the world the inclination towards idolatry, which also caused the elimination of prophecy from Am Yisrael. This means that the world underwent a fundamental transformation at that point. The entire nature of the relationship between man and God changed drastically. Throughout the Biblical period, Am Yisrael experienced a bilateral relationship with the Almighty. During this period, the people knew, through the prophets, how Hashem viewed their conduct, what He thought of their behaviour. There was then a strong impulse towards avodat Hashem, an impulse that manifested itself through both korbanot, in accordance with Hashem’s will, and idolatry which was always widespread. When this impulse was eliminated, everything changed. This transformation (which occurred approximately at the end of the FirstTempleperiod) is often referred to as the transition from nevu’a (prophecy) to chochma (wisdom, scholarship). Now, the relationship is one-sided, and there is a much weaker impulse towards avodat Hashem. Hashem is distant and hidden; we can no longer meet Him through His prophets. Instead, we can get to know Him to a very limited extent through the scholar, through the wisdom of God which is revealed in the Torah and the Sages of Israel. The connection to God is weaker and duller; it is difficult to maintain a connection when one side tries to connect and form a relationship while the other give no explicit response and does not draw tangibly near.
The longing for the restoration of the Beit Hamikdash is a longing to return to that deep, direct relationship, only in a more mature and secure form. After accumulating a vast wealth of knowledge over the course of the many years of history, after the elimination of paganism and barbarism, it will be possible, so we hope, to restore the impulse towards avodat Hashem that has long since been forgotten, and to experience once again the direct connection with our God through the renewal of prophecy and the renewal of the service of God as described in the Torah.
Today, the realm of korbanot perhaps appears peculiar and odd. But with the renewal of our connection with our God, when the longing to serve God directly will return, the concept of korbanot will become something natural and self-evident, perceived as an expression of a deep and direct relationship between the individual, the nation, and its God.