After a period of some months of building and preparation the Mishkan is finally ready for use. Our Parsha therefore begins delineating the different type of Sacrifices that are brought in the Mishkan, and the various details associated with them. It is hard nowadays to understand the notion of connecting to H’ through sacrifice, and it seems rather outdated. Furthermore, the Jewish practice of sacrifice as a means of worship is also undoubtedly linked to Kabbalistic meaning and this only goes to cast even more mystery to the whole idea. That said, when looking in the classic Torah sources we are given some ideas as to the nature and purpose of sacrifice and can give us some insight into the matter.
There is a famous dispute between the Ramban and the Rambam as to the reason for the commandment to bring sacrifices. The Rambam explains that since very early on in the history of the Jewish people, we were surrounded by different nations of the world who worshipped different sorts of pagan deities through the medium of sacrifice. So common was this practise that most humans were drawn by nature into such practice, and this inclination began to influence Yisrael. After the giving of the Torah though, there is a prohibition against worshipping false gods. To assist people in harnessing the drive to worship through sacrifice the Torah gave the Jewish people the opportunity to engage in this practise in a way that provided a connection between them and H’.
The Ramban takes issue with this thesis. Among the questions he poses, he mentions that we see that as far back as Noach there was a concept of sacrifice, so how can it be suggested that it was only after the nations of the world became involved in this practise that the need came to counter this tendency; it is clear that this is a practise that stems back to the very beginning of the world. Therefore, the Ramban provides a different, albeit esoteric, explanation. He explains that our world is the physical representation of higher and more spiritual worlds. All of these worlds, including our own, are connected and depending on the thoughts, speech and actions that take place in our world, are drawn closer or further away from each other. The sacrifices were a shortcut to achieving extreme ‘closeness’ between our world and the spiritual realms.
Although the Ramban is making clear references to ideas that stem from Kabbala there are some basic points that can be understood. Part of our responsibilities as the Jewish people includes ‘unifying’ the world. This means that although ours is a world of many disparate parts, we acknowledge that there is a unique factor that does indeed connect the world. When we exclaim in the Shema that H’ is one, we do not merely refer to His being the only true G-d as opposed to there being others, we mean that He is one in that everything that exists ultimately finds its source from H’. Everything exits only as an expression of His will.
Now, there are a number of later sources who have attempted to reconcile the opinion of the Rambam. The Meshech Chochma in his introduction to Sefer Vayikra explains as follows. As well as there being a Beis Ha’Mikdash and Mishkan, there was one other place where it was permitted to engage in sacrifice. That is known as a ‘Bamma’, a private alter, which Yisrael were allowed to use during certain periods in history. The Meshech Chochma posits that the Rambam who says that the purpose of sacrifice is to entice people away form pagan idol-worship was referring only to sacrifice on a Bamma. The Ramban who explained that the purpose of sacrifice was to attain closeness with the higher worlds, was referring to sacrifice in the Beis Ha’Mikdash/Mishkan.
Now, this seems at first glance to be a little creative on the part of the Meshech Chochma; there seems to be no indication in either the Rambam or the Ramban that their explanations are limited to any particular place. In his continuation though, he brings a very beautiful proof for his proposal. After the destruction of the second Beis Ha’Mikdash the practise of sacrifice on a Bamma was prohibited forever. Now, there is a famous Gemora that quotes a story of the Sages after the second Temple period. They had had enough of the negative repercussions of the evil-inclination towards idol-worship. They pleaded with H’ to remove this inclination once and for all. H’ acquiesced and from that moment on there was no longer the same drive to be involved in idol-worship. It is most interesting to note that in the same period in history the tendency to idol-worship had been eradicated and the practice of sacrifice on a Bamma was prohibited. The Meshech Chochma indeed makes this observation and uses it to prove that the idea of Bamma is inherently linked to the thwarting of desires to engage in idol-worship. This confirms that when the Rambam explained that the purpose in sacrifice was to draw people away from pagan idol-worship.
The Ohr Gedalyahu has another way to resolve the problems on the thesis of the Rambam. He explains that when the Rambam claims the purpose of sacrifice is to negate any drives towards idol-worship he does not only refer to the basic and crude understanding of idol-worship. Rather, it includes something much more subtle, namely, our own feeling of importance. When we act in the world and achieve success, in whichever endeavour it may be, we tend to gain an inflated sense of self-satisfaction. The greater this feeling is the less likely we are to relate to H’ as being the ultimate source of our success. Therefore, there must be something to reverse the trend. The Ohr Gedalyahu claims that this is what the Rambam refers to. The idea of sacrifice is not to draw a person from such basic idol-worship as we first understood, rather it is an exclamation in the clearest way that a person understands that everything is ultimately connected to H’ and that even our very selves are not an independent entity.
Therefore, the Ohr Gedalyahu explains, the Rambam and the Ramban are really not arguing at all, they are speaking about the exact same thing, the Ramban from the perspective of the positive aim of sacrifice and the Rambam is referring to the negative aspects that sacrifice purports to veer away from.