This week's parashah, Wayiqra, addresses the laws regarding qorbanoth. Instead of focusing on the halakhoth governing qorbanoth or looking into the meanings of various passages in the parashah, I would like to focus on the nature and purpose of the qorbanoth. The understanding one receives when studying the words of Hokhme Yisrael is that God instituted the qorbanoth not because He needed them, or even for the sole purpose of atonement (the Holy One, blessed is He, is able to forgive without the need for blood), but to keep us from idolatry and draw us near to God.
In the midrash, Nur al-Zalam, we are shown the importance of one's intent when offering a qorban: And he slaughtered [Wayiqra 8:23] has the cantillation sign that is called shalsheleth, and it is also called mir'am. The reason for this is that he who slaughters [the sacrifice] must have the correct intention. As the Midrash haJadol says: Proper intent leads to love, fear, and knowledge of God, and then the sacrifice is immediately accepted. But if the proper intent is lacking, then there is neither love nor fear, and if there is neither love nor fear there is no knowledge of God; and if there is no knowledge of God, then the sacrifice is ineffectual.
Similarily, it also shows how the various parts of qorbanoth draw us near to God: And this is what you shall do upon the altar [Shemoth 29:38]. Meat is the favourite of the carnal appetite, i.e. the natural faculty, whose seat is the liver. Wine is the favourite of the vital faculty, whose seat in the heart. Melodies and pleasant sounds are the favourte[s] of the psychic faculty, whose seat is the brain. For this reason the sacrifice was made up of those things: wine, meat, and sounds, i.e. hymns. Each of these three facultues was drawn closer by means of that which is most beloved to it.
The Midrash haJadol, on Wayiqra specifically states that Yisrael was commanded to bring sacrifices only so that they might busy themselves in the service of the LORD. This corroborates the statement in Pirqe Aboth (1:2): Shom'on haZaddiq was one of the last Men of the Great assembly. He used to say: The world stands on three things - on the Torah, [Temple] service, and deeds of kindness. These are all things which distinguish bene Yisrael from the pagans. This abstention from idolatry which is hinted at by the above is what led Hazal to state that "any one who refrains from abodah zarah is a Jew."
In the Moreh Nebukhim (2:32), rabbenu Moshe ben Maimon is explicit that animal sacrifice was a universal practice among men: But the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Yisraelim were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images, and to burn incense before them. He then states that in God's wisdom He (may he be exalted) allowed bene Yisrael to offer sacrifices that they may train their inclinations towards him (ibid): It was in accordance with teh wisdom and plan of God, as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by action. For this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue; He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings, and of things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in teh same manner.
In maintaining the theme of qorbanoth as a deterrent to abodah zarah, the RMb"M continues (ibid 2:46): Scripture tells us, according to the Version of Onqelos, that the Mizrim worshipped Aries, and therefore abstained from killing sheep, and held shepherds in contempt...Some sects among the Sabeans worshipped demons, and imagined that these assumed the form of goats, and called them therefore, "goats" [se'irim]...For this reason those sects abstained from eating goats' flesh. Most idolaters objected to killing cattle, holding this species of animals in great estimation. Therefore the people of Hodu [Indians] up to this day do not slaughter cattle even in those countries where other animals are slaughtered. In order to eradicate these false principles, the Law commands us to offer sacrifices only of these kinds...Thus the very act which is considered by the heathen as the greatest crime, is the means of approaching God, and obtaining His pardon for our sins.
With all these profound matters, it is easy to loose sight of the most basic purpose of qorban, which is explicated by Sa'adia Jaon (Emunoth waDe'oth Treatise 3, Chapter 10): As for the endurance of pain [resulting from slaughtering] and the shedding of the animal's blood and [the offering up] of its fat, the purpose of that, as is made clear in the Torah, was to make us pensive. For the blood is the dwelling-place of our soul (ie: the spiritual, non-physical connection to the soul involves blood), as Scripture says (Wayiqra 17:11): For the soul of the flesh is in the blood. Seeing that then, we would repent, saying: "We shall not sin again lest our blood be shed and our fat be burned as, alas, we see it happen.
Shemeryahu ben Esrael