Much of this week’s Torah portion Tzav deals with various sacrificial sin offerings. These offerings were to be brought by transgressors as the way to achieve atonement for sin. The different types of sin offerings depend on different types of sin, the manner in which the sin in question was committed, and sometimes by whom it was committed.
At first glance, the entire body of laws relating to animal sacrifices is peculiar. We are certainly aware that most, if not all, pagan sects included some form of sacrifice in their rituals of worship. It is impossible not to notice the similarity between Judaism and the ancient pagans in this regard. In fact, Maimonides (12th cent.) goes so far as to suggest that this similarity is the reason that the Torah commands us to perform sacrifices at all.
“… and as at that time the way of life generally accepted and customary in the whole world and the universal service upon which we were brought up consisted in offering various species of living beings in the temples in which images were set up,… His wisdom, may He be exalted, and His gracious plan, which is manifest in regard to all His creatures, did not require that He give us a law prescribing the rejection, abandonment, and abolition of all these kinds of worship…. Therefore He, may He be exalted, suffered the above-mentioned kinds of worship to remain, but transferred them from created or imaginary and unreal things to His own name, may He be exalted, commanding us to practice them with regard to Him, may he be exalted.” (Guide of the Perplexed III:32)
In other words, Maimonides asserts that animal sacrifices were commanded in the Torah due to the fact that the children of Israel at that time were accustomed to worshiping with animal sacrifices and therefore would be more comfortable worshiping God this way as well.
While there is a similarity between the Torah and Paganism with regard to sacrifices, a number of important distinctions between the Pagan sacrificial traditions and the Torah’s sacrifices exist.
One such distinction relates to sin offerings. In Pagan cultures, sacrifices were brought for a variety of purposes. Regarding sin, the idea was that the god or gods were angered by the sin. In order to appease the angered god, an offering must be made. In such cases, the victim was often human. Specifically, the victim would often be the sinner himself. Once the sacrifice has been made, the angry god has been appeased and all is well. In this system, a person’s relationship to the god consists of avoiding angering the god and of offering gifts to keep the god happy. Furthermore, in a situation where the sinner himself was sacrificed, it is obvious that the possibility for repentance was limited. Inasmuch as we may understand the death of the sinner in such cases as punishment for the sin, there is no room for a distinction between penance and punishment.
The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban. A precise etymological translation of this word would be “that which draws close.” A person who sins has undermined his relationship to God. The purpose of the offering is to “draw close” to God, to restore the relationship.
As opposed to the Pagan concept of sacrifice, a korban is not appeasement for the angered god. We see this most clearly in the fact that a sin offering is only brought when a sin was committed unintentionally. The Torah states this explicitly. On the other hand, if a person sins intentionally, they can not atone by offering a sacrifice.
Think about that. At first glance this may seem counter intuitive. An intentional sin cannot be atoned for with a sacrificial offering. If the purpose of a sacrifice is to appease the angry God, it would make more sense for offerings to be brought by intentional sinners. Surely, a premeditated sin angers God more than an unintentional mistake.
Pagans understood the importance of penance but lacked a concept of repentance. The basic idea that one who sins must mend their ways and return to a healthy relationship with God was alien to them. The only problem with sinning, for Pagans, is that the gods will be irate. Make the gods happy with a gift or two and they will forget all about the sin.
The Torah sees it differently. An unintentional sin – as opposed to one that is premeditated – is the result of a lapse in attention to God. One who sins by mistake is not brazenly rebelling against God. Rather, the sinner’s careless lack of awareness of God led to a sin which in turn caused a spiritual distance between the sinner and God.
Fortunately, the sinner is not forever damned. The relationship with God can be repaired. He needs only to bring a korban, to be drawn close to God. He must rebuild his awareness of God so that he will not misstep again in the future.
Our approach to our own religious growth must echo this lesson. We must understand that the optimal response to our own sins is repentance rather than penance. If we sin and then try to pay God off by giving some charity in the hope that it will erase the sin, we are fooling ourselves. God can not be bought. Until the sinful ways have been discarded and replaced with adherence to the will of God, the distance remains.
Sometimes, when we grow distant from those who care about us – be they our parents, God, or anyone else – our inclination is to run even further away so as not to face the problem. This solution is not a solution and never leads to a harmonious result. Buying back their love with gifts also probably will not suffice. The proper – and more difficult – approach is to “draw close” to those from whom we have grown distant; to approach and mend the relationship by changing our behavior. The result is a stronger more committed relationship that is freer of guilty feelings. This is repentance. This is how we relate to God who cares about us, as opposed to a god who does not care and must merely be appeased when angry.
When we sacrifice we do not give anything up. On the contrary. We only gain. We draw closer and more intimate with God.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and cohost of the “Shoulder to Shoulder“ podcast.