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Does God Really Want Sacrificies?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

A substantial part of the book of Leviticus deals with the details of animal sacrifices, which were to be used in service of God. The idea of animal sacrifice in service of God is one that is naturally very troubling to modern sensibilities in the 21st century.

Maimonides was also troubled by our ‘modern values’ and addresses this very issue more than eight hundred years ago. In his guide to the perplexed, he quotes the following fascinating verses from the prophet Jeremiah (chapter 7 verses 22-23): “For I spoke not to your fathers, nor commanded them on the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices, but this thing commanded I them, saying: hearken to my voice, and I will be your God and you shall be my people.” What does Jeremiah mean by this? After all, the Jewish people were certainly commanded at Mt. Sinai concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.

Maimonides explains that God, in his Torah, does not only deal with the ideal human being, but also relates to the imperfect human being, conditioned by the social milieu of his/her time. In the society in which the Jewish people lived, the standard service of a deity was through animal offerings. Telling the Jewish people to serve God in prayer, alone, would have been something that the average person could not relate to at all (it would be somewhat similar to our view of sacrificial service). Therefore, God made a special dispensation and created a framework of animal sacrifice in the service of God.

The verses in Jeremiah have God explaining that his true intention was that the Jewish people draw close to him through fulfilling his will, prayer, etc. God is bemoaning the fact that the Jewish people focused on the mechanical action of the sacrificial dispensation and completely forgot God’s real intention – fulfilling his will and drawing our hearts and minds close to Him.

Whilst the above view of Maimonides is considered highly controversial, there is a universal lesson to be gleaned that is broadly accepted. External, ritualistic activity without meaningful and deep emotional commitment, is not what God desires. The basis of our performance of rituals commanded by God should be to hearken to his voice – to be just and kind and walk humbly with God, as he commanded us. Only then does God declare: “I will be your God and you shall be my people.”