The Sacrifices

The Sacrifices Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Sacrifices, the subject of this week’s parsha, were central to the religious life of biblical Israel. We see this not only by the sheer space devoted to them in the Torah, but also by the fact that they occupy its central book, Vayikra. We have not had the sacrificial service since the destruction of the second Temple almost 2000 years ago. What is deeply relevant today, however, is the critique of sacrifices we find among the Prophets of the first Temple. That critique was sharp and deep and formed many of their most powerful addresses. One of the earliest was delivered by the Prophet Samuel: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the Lord’s command? Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice, compliance than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22). Amos said in the name of God: “If you offer Me burnt offerings—or your meal offerings— I will not accept them; I will pay no heed to your gifts of fatlings … But let justice well up like water, righteousness like a never-ending stream” (Amos 5:21-24). Likewise Hosea: “For I desire goodness, not sacrifice; obedience to God, rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). We find a similar critique in several Psalms. “Were I hungry, I would not tell you, for Mine is the world and all it holds. Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?” (Ps. 50:8-15). “Lord, open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise. You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings. True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart” (Ps. 51:17-19). Jeremiah seems to suggest that the sacrificial order was not God’s initial intention: “For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice. But this is what I commanded them: Do My bidding, that I may be your God and you may be My people; walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you” (Jer. 7:22-23). Strongest of all is the passage at the beginning of the book of Isaiah that we read on Shabbat Chazon (before Tisha b’Av): “‘What need have I of all your sacrifices?’ says the Lord. ‘I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before Me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of My courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to Me’” (Is. 1:11-13). This entire line of thought, sounded by many voices and sustained across centuries, is extraordinary. The people were being criticised not for disobeying God’s law but for obeying it. Sacrifices were commanded. Their offering was a sacred act performed in a holy place. What then aroused the Prophets’ anger and rebuke? It was not that they were opposed to sacrifice as such. Jeremiah foresaw the day when “People shall come from the towns of Judah and from the environs of Jerusalem … bringing burnt offerings and sacrifices, meal offerings and frankincense, and bringing offerings of thanksgiving to the House of the Lord” (Jer. 17:26). Likewise Isaiah: “I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be welcome on My altar, for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is. 56:7). They were not criticising the institution of sacrifices. They were criticising something as real now as it was in their time. What distressed them to the core of their being was the idea that you could serve God and at the same time act disdainfully, cruelly, unjustly, insensitively or callously toward other people. “So long as I am in God’s goo