It is difficult for us today to connect to the idea of animal sacrifice.
Rambam [מורה נבוכים Guide for the Perplexed 3:32] was no great lover of קרבנות (sacrifices), explaining that it was an accommodation to more primitive people who could only relate to their Maker by way of animal offerings; that the מזבח הקטורת (incense altar) was simply a way of deodorizing the charnel house that was the outer section of the משכן (Tabernacle) and later the בית המקדש (Temple).
The very last things that were added to the Mishkan — after the mystical trio of the ארון (Ark),שולחו לחם הפנים (Showbread Table) and מנורה (Menorah), and after the construction and decoration of the inner and outer holies – were the sacrifice altars which were placed outside the holies; almost an afterthought, thereby supporting Rambam’s thesis.
And yet, from the preambles to our daily prayer of both Shaharit and Minha one would think that sacrifices were the very heart of Beit Hamikdash ritual, with everything else running a distant second.
And now a question:
Why is it that when a קרבן עולה (a whole burnt offering) is brought to the Temple it must be perfect, unblemished and gender-specific and yet, instead of taking this prime, perfect specimen and burning it whole it must first be hacked apart, eviscerated, dismembered and only then (with certain parts hauled out to a special dump) burned as a ריח ניחוח לה (fragrant offering to God)? Would it not make more sense to keep the offering absolutely perfect until the flames consume it in its entirety?
Rashi notices an anomaly: When the Torah speaks of the voluntary whole burnt offering (עולה) of an animal, it refers to the donor as אדם (man) [Vayikra 1:2]. Yet when the sacrifice is that of a vastly more modest meal offering (קרבן מנחה) made of flour, oil, and frankincense, the donor is referred to as נפש (soul) [2:1].
Another important distinction between voluntary animal sacrifices and voluntary meal offerings is that, while the former are referred to as a “sweet savour of the Lord” (ריח ניחוח לה) the seemingly miserly meal offering is described as no less than “a thing made most holy of the offerings of the Lord made by fire (קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים, מֵאִשֵּׁי ה’) [2:3].
Rashi explains the אדם vs נפש distinction as referring to the poverty of the Nefesh donor, as the poor person would bring meal offerings, and God loves the wretched.
Now it is true that later in this parsha where it discusses mandatory sacrifices, actual distinctions are made between what is required of the wealthy and what is acceptable from the poor. Yet no such distinction is made here regarding voluntary offerings. On the contrary, despite what Rashi says, there appears to be a significant preference for both the humble meal offering and its donor with no reference whatsoever to his socio-economic status.
To better understand what we are dealing with here – and in keeping with Rambam’s understanding of animal sacrifice – it helps to understand what these voluntary animal sacrifices meant, not to G-d, but to their donors.
The sacrifice of a prize, unblemished bullock was no minor thing. A bull back then was the mainstay of an agricultural enterprise. It was the bull that pulled the plow, threshed the wheat, and impregnated the cows. To take the very best of these and bring it as a sacrifice was not an everyday occurrence.
If the Torah were to be given today, chances are that instead of sacrificing bullocks – which few of us have or need – we would perhaps be asked to sacrifice our cars, which are the closest thing in modern times to what cattle was way back when. One could imagine the Torah demanding those of us who wish to bring a voluntary offering to G-d to bring a perfect, unblemished, highly polished Mercedez Benz that would then, before our somewhat horrified eyes, be dismembered; their outer panels hauled off to a trash heap, while the 450 horsepower engine would be stacked and melted down in a fiery furnace.
Now this would be a sight to behold – and most likely how one felt 3,000 years ago seeing a perfect young bull “flayed… cut into pieces… to be burnt as a sacrifice” ( ו וְהִפְשִׁיט, אֶת-הָעֹלָה; וְנִתַּח אֹתָהּ, לִנְתָחֶיהָ. ז וְנָתְנוּ בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, אֵשׁ–עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ; וְעָרְכוּ עֵצִים, עַל-הָאֵשׁ. ח וְעָרְכוּ, בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֲנִים, אֵת הַנְּתָחִים, אֶת-הָרֹאשׁ וְאֶת-הַפָּדֶר–עַל-הָעֵצִים אֲשֶׁר עַל-הָאֵשׁ, אֲשֶׁר עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ. ט וְקִרְבּוֹ וּכְרָעָיו, יִרְחַץ בַּמָּיִם; וְהִקְטִיר הַכֹּהֵן אֶת-הַכֹּל הַמִּזְבֵּחָה, עֹלָה אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ-נִיחוֹחַ לַה’) [1:6-9].
By contrast, the almost insignificant meal offering was treated far more gently, and was shared with the officiating Kohanim. And yet this was the “holy of holies” (קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים) of voluntary offerings rather than the BMW of bullocks.
‘Adam’, the giver of the bullock is an ordinary, earthy and very earthbound mortal (the word Adam comes from אדמה, earth). Clearly he is prosperous, certainly prosperous enough to make a gift to G-d of his primo head of cattle. And, surely, such a gift was not made anonymously, but rather with great fanfare. One does not give G-d such a gift without getting a bit of כבוד (honor) in return.
Perhaps this is why G-d demands that the animal sacrifice be dismembered, eviscerated, its pieces stacked on the pyre. Seeing one’s Ferrari taken apart piece by piece and junked on a furnace might prompt a bit more humility in the donor, and make him or her realize that, at the end of the day – be it a prize bull or a prized sports car – it’s all ephemeral. We all end up pretty much the same, our lives terminated, our parts consumed.
The meal offering, however, is brought by a נפש, a soul, which, unlike the earthy אדם, is eternal. The bearer of this gift is not accompanied by a brass band, a hundred relatives, and all his poker buddies from the country club. He comes alone for the sole purpose of connecting to the Almighty in private humility. His gift is truly a “holy of holies”, one fit for priestly consumption.