Here is this week’s D’var Torah:
I Need Your Sacrifices After All
This week’s parashah contains God’s instructions to Moshe concerning Aaron’s entrance into the holy shrine of the Temple to achieve atonement. The Torah describes in great detail how the high priest is to cast lots upon two goats—one marked for God, and one marked for Azazel—and sacrifice a bull as a sin offering to atone for himself and his household. He must then scoop a pile of glowing coals from the altar, along with two handfuls of incense, and bring them behind the curtain on the fire burning before God, raising a cloud of smoke. He sprinkles blood over the curtain covering the ark, and applies blood to each of the four corners of the altar, before sprinkling the rest of the blood with his finger seven times to atone for the sins of the people.
These rituals, familiar to us from the Avodah service chanted during Musaf on Yom Kippur, became the basis for the Talmudic tractate Yoma—Aramaic for “the day”—which consists primarily of a step-by-step description of the activities of the high priest in the Temple on Yom Kippur. Seven of the eight chapters in tractate Yoma are focused on this ritual activity, and as such, they ostensibly have nothing to do with Yom Kippur as we observe it in a Temple-less world. But the rabbinic discussion of Temple worship suggests that the principles and ideals underlying ritual sacrifice are in fact the basis for the type of religious worship that God demands of us today, not just on Yom Kippur but on every day of the year.
It is not just the high priest’s actions that must be performed in strict accordance with a pre-ordained script; his thoughts and intentions, too, must be perfectly aligned with the requirements of the day. The rabbis teach that if the priest merely plans to perform certain sacrificial actions incorrectly—even if he in fact does everything right—the sacrifice is declared invalid as if those forbidden acts were actually performed. For instance, if he scoops handfuls of incense from the altar while intending to burn it after the appropriate time for burning, this thought invalidates the sacrificial rite (Yoma 48a). This emphasis on correct thought as well as correct action applies not just to the high priest on Yom Kippur, but to every priest offering a sacrifice in the Temple. A sacrifice becomes disqualified if the priest merely plans to consume the meat outside of the Temple precinct, or if he plans to consume it after the designated time for eating that particular sacrifice. Even if the priest actually eats the sacrifice in the right time and place, an improper intention at the time of slaughtering renders the sacrifice invalid.
This notion of sacrifice as perfect action may seem just as archaic as sprinkling blood and casting lots for goats. In our modern world we tend to more closely associate devotion with purity of heart than with strict adherence to a pre-ordained script. Devotion is more closely associated with purity of heart than with strict adherence to a pre-ordained script. But as the rabbis understood, living a life of Torah and mitzvot is also about subsuming one’s own priorities and preferences to the will of God—“Make His will into your will,” as Rabban Gamliel teaches in Pirkei Avot (1:4). We are charged to privilege what God demands of us over whatever it is we might want to do at any particular moment. To give just one example: A halakhic Jew does not wake up and do whatever she feels like doing; a halakhic Jew wakes up and davens.
Perhaps we might think of the perfect adherence to God’s will as a model for devotion and attentiveness in all aspects of our lives. Can we be as wholly present for the person sitting before us on a low stool at a shiva house as the high priest was present and focused on carrying the incense into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur? Can we be as steadfastly committed to eradicating poverty as the priest was focused on clearing off the ashes from the altar? God does not need our sacrifices, as the biblical prophets eloquently and repeatedly insist. But God’s world stands much to gain from the intense devotion that sacrificial worship entailed, and as such, the actions of the high priest in our parashah are a paradigm for us all.