You might have missed reading last week’s parasha, Vayikra, and are wondering what you’ve missed. You don’t have to worry. In this week’s parashah, Tzav, the laws of sacrifice are completely repeated. Not again! Since our tradition maintains that nothing in the Torah is redundant and that there are no excess, unneeded words, we wonder why two consecutive parashas cover virtually the same material. The same five sacrifices are described. There is a minor difference in the order that these offerings are discussed. One reason for the repetition is that the instructions in Vayikra are given to the people of Israel, while in Tzav the directions are given for the kohanim.

At the time of the birth of Judaism, all cultures had temples and all religions were practiced through sacrifices of one kind or another.  This was the religious reality, the cultural background with which Judaism had to contend.

When Judaism arrived, it introduced a revolution in many areas such as the dignity of man, human freedom, and ethical monotheism. For the Jews, there were laws and regulations to follow which would shape the new way of life that God was introducing into the world. Certain ideas were unique to this new religion. Do not mix milk and meat or keep Shabbat, for example. These could be mentioned very briefly in the Torah because there was no danger that any of the contemporary religions would defile these ideas because only the Jews were practicing them. But if God merely told the Israelites to build the temple and to bring sacrifices, they could have simply followed the contemporary pagan way of their neighbors. Instead, God had to spell it out. To prevent possible mingling from other cultures and the infiltration of pagan ideas into the sanctum of the monotheistic mindset, the Torah had to define the spiritual tools to the most miniscule detail. Nothing was left to interpretation. And so, the detail in which the sacrifices are described was vital in ensuring a uniquely Jewish way of serving God.

The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban.  Korban also means “to draw one near.”  The korbanot bring the Jewish people together and build solidarity between us and our God as well as with each other. Certain korbanot are brought purely for the purpose of communicating with God and becoming closer to him. Others are brought for the purpose of expressing thanks, love, or gratitude to God. Others are used to cleanse a person of ritual impurity. And some are brought for the purpose of atonement.

The Torah, rather than creating the institution of sacrifice, carefully limited the practice, permitting it only in certain places, at certain times, in certain manners, by certain people, for certain purposes. This is why there were no sacrifices after the destruction of the second Temple.

Given how central the sacrifices were to the religious life in Israel in Temple times, how did Judaism survive without them?

The short answer is that the prophets, the sages, and the Jewish thinkers of the middle ages realized that sacrifices were symbolic enactments of mind and heart and that they could be expressed in other ways as well. We can encounter the will of God by Torah study, engage in the service of God by prayer, make financial sacrifices by charity, create sacred fellowship by hospitality and so on.

Maimonides argued that sacrifices were an early form of worship given to the Jewish people so that they could learn how to serve God without feeling different from all the idolatrous people surrounding them. Slowly the people learned that that prayer is a better means of attaining nearness to God.  Maimonides emphasizes that the superiority of prayer is that it can be offered everywhere and by every person.

What about sacrifice in modern society?  We love what we are willing to make sacrifices for.  This is true in many aspects of life. A happily married couple is constantly making sacrifices for one another. Parents make huge sacrifices for their children. People are drawn to a calling – to heal the sick, or care for the poor, or fight for justice for the weak against the strong – often sacrificing remunerative careers for the sake of their ideals. In strong communities, people make sacrifices for one another when someone is in distress or needs help. Sacrifice is the superglue of relationships. It bonds us to one another.

That is why, in the biblical age, sacrifices were so important – not as they were in other faiths but precisely because at the beating heart of Judaism is love. In other faiths, the driving motive behind sacrifice was fear: fear of the anger and power of the gods.  In Judaism, it was love

Lose the concept of sacrifice within a society, and sooner or later marriage falters, parenthood declines, and society slowly ages and dies.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that the Jews have not abandoned the past. We still refer constantly to the sacrifices in prayers. But Jews did not cling to the past. Nor did they take refuge in irrationality. Rebecca Costa, in writing about civilizations that did not survive, said:  “What is remarkable about the Jews and Judaism is that they did not focus obsessively on sacrifices, like the failed civilization of the Mayans. Instead they focused on finding substitutes for sacrifice. One was acts of kindness They thought through the future and created institutions like the synagogue, a house of study, that could be built anywhere and sustain Jewish identity even in the most adverse conditions.

Rabbi Sacks Concludes:  Surely there is a lesson for the Jewish people today: plan generations ahead. Contemplate worst-case scenarios. What saved the Jewish people was their ability, despite their deep and abiding faith, never to let go of rational thought, and despite their loyalty to the past, to keep planning for the future