The Book of Vayikra discusses many aspects of sacrifices. The philosophical rational behind this commandment is difficult to understand but this has not stopped the greatest of commentators from attempting to explain the reasons behind them. In this article, I refer to the enormous argument between the Rambam and Ramban.
The Rambam’s position is very difficult to understand. In his “Guide to the Perplexed”, he states that the Jewish people, influenced by different cultures, had become accustomed to this ritualistic dependency. The Torah recognizing our weakness simply called upon certain adjustments and allowed man to do as he desired. This position is extremely difficult to understand but it is worth noting that the same Rambam in his Magnus Opus the “Mishneh Torah”, takes a different stand altogether. There the Rambam stresses that korbanot are one of the “foundations of the world” and that they are considered to be Chukim – laws whose reasons we do not know.
Obviously, there is a contradiction in the Rambam. He offers a reason in the Guide to the Perplexed that he says does not exist in the Mishnah Torah. I believe that there is a simple resolution to this problem. The Mishnah Torah is a work that addresses the masses and it was written with them in mind. The Guide to the Perplexed on the other hand is a work that was written for a single student that was having difficulties in faith. The Rambam was trying to convey to the perplexed student that these types of questions should not bother him, as one can explain them on rational grounds (even if we do not know the real reasons behind them, as they are chukim). Rav Chaim Soloveitchik would always stress that when there is a contradiction between the Rambam’s philosophical work, the Guide to the Perplexed and the Rambam’s halachic masterpiece, the Mishneh Torah, the latter is the more authoritative.
The Rambam’s position in the Guide to the Perplexed left such an unpleasant taste that it led to a stinging attack by the Ramban. The Ramban brings a series of sources that prove that Sacrifices are fundamental and not merely a response to external influences on the Jewish people. Firstly, The Torah tells us that Kayin offered a sacrifice, obviously predating any pagan influence. Secondly, in many places the Torah refers to korbanot as being “reiach nichoach laHashem” – a pleasant fragrance to G-d. If korbanot are merely a concession to man’s weakness, why would G-d be so pleased with them? What is most interesting about this debate, amongst others, is that it is the Ramban with his attack who effectively publicizes the position of the Rambam. Prior to it, Rambam was better known for his halachic perspective in the Mishneh Torah.
The Ramban’s perspective is that the various actions involved in bringing a korban relate to different aspects of man’s need for exoneration. Take for example, the spilling of blood, which is meant to serve as a reminder that sinning man has in essence forfeited his own life.
The Chofetz Chaim elaborates on this point and says that any sin is in some way a rejection of G-d. At the moment of sin, the sinner either denies G-d’s existence or that he is unaware of the sin or that he does not care. At the very least, he believes that he will be able to bribe G-d at a later point. Sin in essence evolves from a temporary heretical position. Man, therefore who directly separates himself from G-d needs to be rehabilitated through the mechanism of sacrifice. If the bringing of the Korban does not lead to spiritual growth then the action becomes an abomination. Indeed the Prophet Hoshea calls a sacrifice that does not lead to change, slaughter. Man is commanded not to hurt any of G-d’s creatures in vain and animal sacrifice is not an expression of disregard to animals but a statement of the importance of human life. However, when it is done without repentance, it results in a violation of tzar baalai chayim – the requirement to look after animals.
Whether sacrifices fall into the domain of a chok or not, much can be learnt from these laws.