How much of a sacrifice is a sacrifice?
When any person of you brings a sacrificial offering to the Lord —– Leviticus 1:2
Take pleasure G-d, our Lord, in Your nation Israel and their prayers; And return the [sacrificial] service to the chamber of Your house and may the fire of Israel and their prayers, with love, be received with will. And may the service of Israel, Your nation, always be pleasing; And may we see with our eyes Your return to Zion. Blessed be You, G-d, who is returning His Divine Presence to Zion. –from the 18 Benedictions a daily Jewish Prayer
Torah considers prayer to be an avodah—a service to G-d. How could our prayers be a service to G-d when, in fact, our whole prayer is asking Him to do for us and serve our needs? What pleasure could our prayers give G-d when, in fact, we are asking G-d to give to us?
And yet Judaism teaches that G-d desires our prayers and, so to speak, enjoys them. How so?
Feeling G-d’s Presence
Kabbalah teaches that G-d wants to give us the greatest pleasure— His presence in our lives; to feel connected to Him. We are therefore, commanded, “To love the Lord your G-d, listen to His voice and bond to Him (Deut 30:20).”
However, G-d cannot give us this great gift of His presence, unless we want Him in our lives. We must first know in our hearts that G-d’s presence is, indeed, the greatest gift we could ever hope to receive; that it is pure ecstasy. We give G-d pleasure, so to speak when we want to receive what He wants to give us.
Our problem is that we often get distracted from what’s eternally real and pleasurable and pursue temporal things. Not only does this not give G-d pleasure, it causes Him, so to speak, much pain.
This is similar to the pain a nursing mother feels when her baby does not want to suck. As the saying goes, “More than the baby wants to suck, the mother wants to nurse.” When a baby does not want to nurse from its mother, the mother experiences intense emotional and physical pain.
Our daily prayers should arouse within us the desire to receive what is truly worth wanting; what G-d wants to give us. G-d, so to speak, enjoys great pleasure, when we hunger to receive His gift of presence.
We are, therefore, able to say, “Take pleasure G-d, our Lord, in Your nation Israel and their prayers.”
From Praying to Offerings
Prayer, however, is only a prelude to an even greater connection we can feel with G-d and an even greater pleasure we can give Him. The sacrificial offerings in the great Temple of Jerusalem drew an even greater manifestation of G-d’s presence in our live. We, therefore, ask that G-d restore the Temple service so that He will receive pleasure from both our prayers and our sacrifices.
And return the service to the chamber of Your house, and may the fire of Israel and their prayers, with love, be received with will.
In other words, we are essentially saying, “Right now, G-d, we can only ask You to enjoy our prayers, but may we soon bring You the sacrificial offerings in the Temple which will increase our ability to receive Your presence and intensify our pleasure and Yours.”
The daily sacrificial service in the Temple inspired quite a dramatic spiritual awareness. The Talmud records that in the First Temple, 12 miracles occurred daily. Everyday people beheld a fire in the shape of a lion descend from the heavens and consume each sacrifice. Then they watched as the smoke rose from the altar and ascended in a straight line, even on windy days. While the Temple stood, the powerful and loving presence of G-d was obvious.
Therefore, when we pray for the return of these services, we ask for G-d’s presence to be literally visible again. We want to see G-d with our very eyes. And may we see with our eyes Your return to Zion.
The Kabbalah teaches that our purpose on earth is to experience two types of yichudim (unifications); truths about G-d’s oneness: 1) His single rule, and 2) the singularity of His existence—that nothing exists but G-d.
When we pray we testify that G-d is in control of everything. We acknowledge that He is the one and only true Master of life and source of all blessing; only His will rules. Through prayer we accomplish what it says in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers), “Make your will G-d’s will, and G-d will make His will your will;” our will becomes a channel for G-d’s will to be manifest in the world. According to the Kabbalah, when we properly pray we will experience mochin d’gadlut—expanded mind. In this heightened state of consciousness, we experience ourselves as an instrument of G-d and our will fills with the presence of G-d’s will.
The Temple sacrifices, on the other hand, affirm the truth that nothing exists but G-d. Not only is G-d the sole ruling power, but He is all there is. This is what the Torah means when it teaches: “Unto you it was shown that you would know that the Lord, He is G-d. There is none else besides Him” (Deuteronomy, 4:35); “Know this day and bring it to your heart that the Lord, He is G-d in heaven above and the earth beneath; there is none else” (Deuteronomy 4:39).
Rav Chaim of Volozhon, (1749-1821), states in his book Nefesh HaChaim Sha’ar (3), “Apart from Him, blessed be He, there is nothing else whatsoever, in reality, from the highest of the high to the lowest depth of the earth …… all is filled with the essence of His pure unity, blessed be He.” In other words, we do not exist independent and separate of G-d. Rather, we exist within G-d, as part of Him. Every moment of our existence is completely dependent upon Him, enveloped and permeated by Him alone. The sacrificial services in the temple acknowledged this awesome truth and enabled us to experience it.
The Hebrew word for sacrifice is karbon, which is derived from the word karov—to come close. The incense burnt in the Temple was called the ketorit, which means to tie. The goal of the Temple service was to feel close and tied to G-d. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar, said of himself, “I was bound to Him with one knot” (Zohar III, 288a, Idra Zutra).
When we ask, “may the fire of Israel and their prayers, with love, be received with will,” “the fires of Israel” not only refer to the sacrifices but also our burning desire to experience ourselves completely subsumed within G-d’s all-encompassing oneness, as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai also said, “My soul was united to Him, burning for Him” (Zohar III, 292a).
This passion is what Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady the founder of the Chabad (Lubavitch) movement wrote in Liqqute Torah Beresheit (Vilna 1884 pg. 98): “The many waters of concern regarding one’s livelihood and worldly thoughts cannot quench the love (for G-d) that is in the category of hidden love in the soul….. This is the category of the divine soul, whose nature is to ascend and be consumed upwards, as the flame flies upwards of its own accord.”
When we tap our innate love for G-d we feel a burning passion to give ourselves over to G-d and experience our eternal connection. Think about those times you have felt one with someone. You bond with another person when you give yourself over to that person. The more completely we give of ourselves to each other, the more we feel connected. The ability of two people to give mutually is the gift of love. When we love someone, we not only give ourselves to the person, we also give him/her the opportunity to give him/herself to us.
I once heard a story about a man who gave himself completely to his wife, but nonetheless she wanted a divorce. He could not understand it—isn’t love about giving? While he had the first part of the equation correct, he forgot about the second part: He did not give her the opportunity to give to him. He felt deeply connected to his wife, but she felt none in return because he never allowed her to do for him. We feel connected to people through giving. If we do not allow people to give to us, we do not give them the opportunity to love us.
The relationship between parents and children is a good example. Parents feel much closer to their children than children feel toward their parents. As parents, we remember how we changed their diapers, cleaned up their mess, wiped their tears when they scraped their knees and rushed to the doctor to get stitches. Most children do not remember any of these things. As adults, we never remember how much our parents gave us. Parents give to their children constantly and therefore feel deeply connected to them. The more we give to somebody, the more we invest ourselves in them, the more they become part of us and the more we love them.
This is the basic purpose of all mitzvot– commandments; our true joy in serving G-d. The greatest gift that G-d gives us is the opportunity for us to give to Him. And the more we are able to give of ourselves to G-d the more we experience our eternal bond.
The sacrificial service gave expression to our burning desire to give our lives completely to G-d, to remove the physical barriers of flesh that set us apart from G-d and experience at-one-ment. G-d, of-course, does not want us to give up our lives. He rather us give expression and outlet to our burning passion to bond with Him by offering up a sacrifice instead of our own life. However, today, most people are disconnected from their true self and do not feel an irresistible drive to give their life to G-d. This is probably why the Holy Temple and the sacrifices have not yet been restored.
For more on experiencing G-d’s presence see:
The Secret Life of G-d: Discovering the Divine within You