The significance of the sacrificial order is hard for moderns to comprehend, but the very fact that the sages preached of its importance hundreds of years after the Temple was destroyed speaks to this very point. The Jewish tradition needed to accommodate the changes brought about by the Temple’s loss, the inability to offer sacrifices, their ultimate religious significance, and to meet the challenge of finding a fitting replacement for this central focus of Jewish religious and national life. In doing so, they also needed to figure out why the sacrificial order was important. The opening verses of this week’s parasha seems to have inspired a midrashic exposition to address these issues:
The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: Command Aharon and his sons thus:This is the teaching of the burnt offering (Torat Haolah) … (Leviticus 6:1-2)
The plain or “pshat” meaning of the word “torah” as mentioned here refers to teachings on a particular subject, but the juxtaposition of the words Torah and Olah (burnt offering) inspired both a message of nostalgia for the religious past and a program for the present and the future. The following midrash is found in the Tanhuma, a 7th-8th midrashic collection composed in Eretz Yisrael:
“Command Aharon […]” (Leviticus 6:2) [We interpret this verse], with what is written in the following verse: “With Your will, do good to Zion” (Psalms 51:20), and immediately afterwards “Then You will desire sacrifices of righteousness, a burnt-offering and a whole-offering.” (Psalms 51:21). That is to say, if Israel does not offer a burnt-offering (olah) before the Holy One, blessed be He, Zion and Jerusalem will not be built. As they are only built through the merit of the burnt-offering which Israel offers before the Holy One, blessed be He. And why is the burnt-offering different, [so that it is] better than all of the other offerings? Because it is called “sacrifices of righteousness,” as it is stated, “Then You will desire sacrifices of righteousness, a burnt-offering and a whole-offering.” The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe, “On account of this, the burnt-offering is so beloved to Me. Hence, ‘Command Aharon and his sons,’ that they be careful with it, to offer it before Me.” (adapted from Midrash Tanhuma Tzav 14)
The olah offering was the most prominent of all of the sacrifices, since the entire animal was offered up before God. Consequently, for the author of this midrash, the Temple’s very existence was dependent on this particular sacrifice. With the destruction of the Temple and the cessation of the sacrificial order, the Jewish world was torn asunder. The midrash continues by offering a transformative alternative, interpreting the juxtaposition of the words “Torah” and “Olah”:
Why does it state, “This is the law (Torah) of the burnt-offering?” It means to say, the reading of the Torah. See how beloved the reading of the Torah is in front of the Holy One, blessed be He… And so did Rav Shmuel bar Abba say, “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel, ‘Even though the Temple is destined to be destroyed in the future and the sacrifices to be nullified, do not [allow] yourselves to forget the order of the sacrifices; but rather be careful to read about them and review them. And if you occupy yourselves with them, I will count it for you as if you were occupied with the sacrifices [themselves].'” (Ibid.)
For rabbinic Judaism, the study of Torah took the place of the sacrifices. The darshan even smooths over this transition by projecting this change back to the period when the Temple still stood. That this change was not a given is indicated by the following imagined dialogue between God and the prophet Yehezkel (Ezekiel) who lived in Babylonian exile when the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians:
And if you want to know [that this is so], come and see that when the Holy One, blessed be He, showed Yehezkel the form of the Temple, what did He say? “Describe the Temple to the House of Israel; let them be ashamed of their sins, and measure the plan” (Ezekiel 43:10). Yehezkel replied to the Holy One, blessed be He: “Master of the World, until now, we are put into exile in the land of our haters; and You say to me to go and inform Israel [regarding] the form of the Temple, ‘and write [it] before their eyes, and they should preserve its form and all of its statutes [and do them]’ (Ezekiel 43:11).” [Yehezkel responded]: “And are they able to do [them]? Leave them until they emerge from the exile, and afterwards, I will go and tell them.” [So,] the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Yehezkel: “And since My children are in exile, the building of My [Temple] should be idle?” The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “Its reading in the Torah is like its building. and they should occupy themselves studying the form of the [Temple] in the Torah. And in reward for its study, that they occupy themselves in studying it, I count it for them as if they were occupied with the building of the [Temple]. And happy are those who busy themselves with the study of Torah” (Ibid.)
Since the destruction of the Temple, Judaism has become unique among the religions of the world in making the study of sacred texts and, in particular, the study of the rites of the Temple tantamount to the worship of God. This act of remembrance not only gives these rites a sense of being a continual part of the living tradition, it also gives the living Jew a sense of legacy and continuity with the past.
In fact, all Torah study gives us our identity as people and our poetry of life, something lacking for so many of us living in the modern disconnected world we live in. That is the essence of the prophet Yehezkel’s query of God. He wants to be connected with the life of his people and their religious life. So do we.