Why offer animals to an incorporeal, immortal and unhungry G-d? How could the ritual described in the opening verses of our parshah atone for sin?
In the 16th century, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (“Rama”) published Torat Ha’Olah to explain the Beit haMikdash and its services on philosophical and mystical levels. In it, he presented no fewer than thirteen reasons, culled from many centuries of diverse texts, to explain the roles of korbanot. His eleventh explanation emphasizes the power of human behaviour to shape our universe.
Rama referred to Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra’s 12th century comment on korbanot: “When one gives each portion at its proper time, then the [owner], who has a place in the next world, escapes [harm]. Thus the word l’chaper [to atone] means lateit kofer [to present a ransom], etc.” (Commentary to Vayikra 1:1) In other words: the korban is a lightning rod, absorbing punishment which had been meant for its human owner. As Rama explained, “A decree expressed via the constellations will not shift, if a bad fate has been decreed for this person. Hashem causes the decree to be fulfilled upon another [i.e. the korban], to save this person.”
This view is problematic, though. If a transgressor repents, as required before bringing a korban of atonement, then let G-d annul the decree! Why must anyone suffer? To understand Rama’s approach, we need to grasp what happens when a person sins.
Most of our world’s rules are either Real or Perceived.
· The “Real” arena includes laws of weather, health and physics. These are immutable, applicable regardless of anyone’s personal preferences or cultural ideals.
· The “Perceived” arena includes government legislation, social manners and popular fashion. These are conventions, binding only to the extent that we honour them. Even the term “laws” does not sit easily in this category.
The precepts of Judaism occupy an in-between space, bridging the two arenas. On one hand, the Torah expresses its laws as immutable Divine requirements. On the other hand, Judaism softens the impact of law, saying: “G-d desires the heart. (Sanhedrin 106b)” “G-d considers intent [to fulfill a mitzvah] as though one had fulfilled the mitzvah. (Berachot 6a)” Apparently, the laws of Judaism are flexible, in ways that a snowstorm or coronavirus is not. So why should a Divine decree of punishment be irreversible? Why do we need a korban as a proxy for the penitent sinner?
Ibn Ezra addresses this by arguing that spiritual law occupies the realm of the Real. Teshuvah is effective, but a price must be paid for violating Divine law; once a judgment for guilt has been issued, one cannot cancel the penalty.
This idea also reveals the power of mitzvot. Our tzedakah, Torah study and observance of Shabbat are more than checked boxes on a list of communal expectations; they are deeds which affect the universe in meaningful ways, as part of the Real category. The specifics of that impact lie in the foggy province of mystics, but the essential point is clear: Let us see our mitzvot not as private deeds which are meaningful only in our circle, but as real-world interventions, with a radiance as powerful as the brilliance of the sun.
May we merit that our deeds should be accepted like this light, and we should celebrate a Pesach of peace and health and complete redemption.