Whilst the pagan form of sacrifice was mostly to appease the anger of the gods or to petition for favour, the system of offerings which begin to be outlined in this Parasha emphasise the ethical and religious value Jewish law places on the act of sacrifice. When a sin was committed in full awareness, Abaye stated that forgiveness for this type of sin could not be obtained by offering an animal as a sacrifice in G-d’s Temple, but by living by the Torah, by prayer and by good deeds.
R’ Yitzchak Arama identified two distinct aspects of the offerings: as expressions of gratitude or devotion, or as expressions of penitence. On one hand sacrifices could be brought in gratitude to G-d either for personal benefit, or on Chagim. On the other, sacrifices could be made to atone for a strictly limited number of sins: Chatat- the sins committed unknowingly through forgetfulness or error, Asham- certain types of sacrilege or false oath, or where there was uncertainty as to whether a sin was actually committed, Olah – sins of omission or thought alone.
Rambam explained that the sacrifices were a way for the people of Israel to make a transition to worship of G-d, from the Egyptian custom of offering animals as sacrifices in temples with idols. There was related to burning of incense. The Kohanim were to arrange the pieces of the animal on the wood that was on fire on the altar ,so that it would all go up in smoke and be a “satisfying aroma to G-d”.
R’ Eliezer Ashkenazi said that in addition to G-d being pleased that man had acted according to his will, the expression indicated the inadequacy of the sacrifice. A pleasing aroma hints at the possibility of good deeds to come in the future. If he does not improve his behaviour , he will be open to the complaint voiced by Isaiah “ to what purpose are your many sacrifices to Me?”. The person bringing the sacrifice is indicating an intention.
Ramban emphasised the importance of the word “korbun” which is based on the word “kurev”, “to come closer”. The expression “re-ach nichoach “ (satifying aroma) is related to “ruach” so Ramban argued that sacrifice would promote the uniting of earthly and heavenly elements. By offering sacrifices on the altar, man elevates his animal soul so that it can temporarily rejoin its spiritual source, so Ramban argued that the ritual served to elevate all of man’s sensual instincts to the level of holiness , with the result that the sacrifices would bring man closer to G-d.
The meal offering was the only voluntary offering, the person bringing it was known as “nefesh”, “soul”. Rashi explained that G-d looks on a poor man’s offering as if he has brought his very soul.
Sacrifices had been known before this time, in the days of Cain and Abel, Noach and Abraham. With the destruction of the second Temple, sacrifices ended to be replaced by individual and communal prayer. Attention to the details of prayer services mirrors the attention to detail in this Parasha.
The Haftorah is from Isaiah. He addressed the Jews deported to Babylon after the first destruction of Jerusalem. He deplored Israel’s neglect of all worship stating that Israel had been utterly neglectful of G-d . He states “do not forget Me, Israel”, “return to Me Israel”, “the Lord glorifies Himself in Israel”. These words are just as relevant today as they have been through the ages. The Jewish people have been constantly at risk of straying from the path, as indicated in the Parasha and need regular reminders as outlined in the Haftorah.