But no sin offering of which any of the blood is brought into the tent of meeting to make atonement in the holy place shall be eaten; it shall be burned with fire.
—— Leviticus 6:23
There are different opinions regarding the actual meaning of the animal sacrifices. Maimonides (1135-1204) understood the sacrifices as a divine concession. G-d recognized that when the Israelites left Egypt they were steeped in a religious culture that brought sacrificial offerings to their gods. G-d decided, so to speak, to allow the Israelites to express their religious passion in a somewhat similar way that they were accustomed to with some limitations which were meant to help wean them off this approach towards the eventually annulment of animal sacrifices.
Thus Maimonides writes:
Many precepts in our Law are the result of a similar course adopted by the same Supreme Being [i.e. gradual evolution]. It is impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other; it is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which has been accustomed . . . The custom which was in those days widespread among all people, and the general mode of worship in which Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images and to burn incense before them . . . For this reason, G-d allowed these kinds of service to continue. He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings [i.e. idolatry] . . . By this Divine plan it was effected that the traces of idolatry were blotted out, and the truly great principle of our faith — the existence and unity of G-d — was firmly established. This was achieved without deterring or confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of the service to which they were accustomed and which alone was familiar to them.
In other words, although G-d was not at all interested in sacrifices He conceded to the needs of the people understanding where they were at. However, this concession is nonetheless with an eye towards the future when the ideal Temple worship will be prayer.
Over time the Temple services will evolve and ultimately animal sacrifices will be nullified. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) elaborates that when the Temple is reinstated, there will be a period of time when we will no longer be slaughtering animals for consumption or pleasure, and eventually we will only bring meal offerings. But even the meal offering will be nullified until finally the Temple will be strictly a house of prayer.
In other words, when we reach the point when we no longer need the sacrificial service, we will be on a high enough spiritual level to experience “giving ourselves completely to G-d” through prayer alone. We will put our entire souls into our words of prayer – recite them soulfully — and thus no longer need sacrifices to experience G-d’s absolute oneness and our oneness with G-d.
The sacrifices that gave expression to our burning desire to bond with G-d were offerings of thanksgiving. However, many of the sacrifices were sin offerings directed at reigniting for us our lost passion for G-d to achieve atonement and restore at-one-ment. How does this work?
When we sin, we violate our loving bond with G-d and abuse G-d’s greatest gift to us—life. In fact we are out right ingrates. Let’s say that I give my son a ball, with the one condition that he does not play with it in the house. The next thing he does is bounce it around the house, and it breaks my computer, a lamp and a window. It is understandable for a child to break something by accident, but for my son to break something with the gift I gave him? In essence a transgression is this type of blatant violation of love, disrespect and complete ungrateful behavior. And this is really what we need to atone for.
For example, G-d gives us the power to speak, and we use it to gossip and slander. He gives us the ability to see, and yet we use it to look at obscenities. He gives us the ability to hear, and yet we are not attentive to His will and rather listen to our petty egos. He gives us the ability to taste, and yet we taste forbidden fruits. He gives us the ability to touch, and yet we reach for things that do not belong to us.
All sins are rooted in the foolish thought that this is my life and these are my powers and I can do with them as I please. When we realize our mistake and understand that we have abused G-d’s gifts, we would naturally seek ways to counteract our ungracious attitudes and overcome our embarrassment. We would want to demonstrate to G-d and ourselves, in the most dramatic and radical way, that that our life and all our life skills really belong only to G-d. Everything we thought we own we really owe to G-d. We want to show that all life is His. We should kill ourselves, forfeit life and restore it to it’s rightful owner. But of course, G-d does not want us to die. Instead, He gives us animal sacrifice as a way to express our burning desire to acknowledge that life and all life powers are His which He lovingly shares with us under the condition that we use them properly. And when we would do the sacrifice we would experience ourselves as if we are the sacrifice; offering and returning our entire self to G-d.
The sacrifices, however, did more than help us psychologically atone for our sins. They demonstrated how flimsy and transient the physical truly is. Because we gave our flesh too much attention and substance we deluded ourselves and concluded that we exist independent and separate of G-d. This illusion, however, quickly went up in smoke by the flames of the altar.
A friend of mine felt she a deeper understanding of the Temple sacrifices from her experiences in India, where she witnessed people doing actual sacrifices. Before they offered a sacrifice, they put their own head on the chopping block, imagining that they were the animal. After the animal was sacrificed, they took its blood and smeared it on themselves. The sacrificial service in the Temple was an effort to experience becoming the sacrifice and removing the person’s feeling of alienation and separation from G-d.
Consider why, when we love someone, we want to squeeze the person as hard as we can. Or why we hear parents say of their children, “Isn’t he delicious? I could just eat him!” We do and say these things because we can’t handle the separation and distance; we feel that our body is getting in the way of our desire to be one with them.
Through animal sacrifice we tear down the conceptual walls we created out of our body and physical desires; we burn the flesh that falsely suggested we exist separate of G-d and act independent of His will. The sacrifice reminded us that our body is not a barrier that sets us apart from G-d. It is really only a smoke screen that hides our eternal love and bond.