Joel Cohen's Question:
Animal sacrifice is hard enough to understand. When we see it displayed in contemporary times, as practiced, for example, by the Santeria religion, it seems inhumane, and at least arguably barbaric. One can understand that animal sacrifice was intended as a substitute for the punishment of death for the Israelite who violated G‑d's sacred commands—i.e. "the animal's blood for our blood." Essentially, the blood from the sacrificial animals would remind the people of their vulnerability, and how G‑d chose to spare them through animal sacrifice.
But the blood-letting ceremony on the altar seems particularly bizarre. For example, in the instance of the Sin Offering, the young bull was sacrificed and the priest would sprinkle from the blood seven times "before G‑d" toward the Curtain, he would then put some blood on the horns of the altar, and the remaining blood he would pour on its base. But nothing says that the individual offering the sacrifice (presumably, in substitution for his own body) would be situated nearby so that the experience of the blood-letting would infuse his personal consciousness.
Maybe, just maybe, animal sacrifice was merely a ritual intended to satisfy G‑d Himself, and had nothing to do with the consciousness of the offeror, other than the monetary sacrifice he made in purchasing the animal whose carcass, kidneys, fat, diaphragm and liver, etc. – each identified individually – would go up in smoke.
Gentlemen, please help me to understand why this practice should sound like a good thing to me (and, presumably, the many others who might see it as I do). Yes, I know—G‑d instructed us to do it. But still...
Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:
Joel, this week you have jumped ahead of yourself. You have posed the question regarding why the offerer of the sacrifice does not stand by as the blood is being sprinkled. You sound as if you understand the process of the sprinkling of the blood in the first place. I would like to focus on the mitzvah of sprinkling the blood and then answer the question that you asked.
When the Torah describes the mitzvah to sprinkle the blood, it tells us that the blood must be sprinkled "around the altar." This was accomplished through the sprinkling on two opposite diagonal corners of the altar so that the blood would actually be found on all four sides of the altar.
But why does it matter how many sides of the altar have the blood? We have to imagine that the altar must have been a pretty messy place—did one more blood offering really make a difference?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that this detail of the blood sprinkling is essential in understanding the reason for the entire practice. We are obligated to sprinkle the blood, explains Rabbi Hirsch, because it represents the soul of the person who is offering the sacrifice. But, what is the relationship that the offering is trying to establish? According to Rabbi Hirsch, the sacrifice strengthens our relationship with G‑d. This relationship is one that encompasses everything that we do and is represented by the fact that the blood is sprinkled on the entire altar. The process of sacrifice is the process of giving our complete being to G‑d. How better to reflect that essence than by sprinkling the blood on the entire altar?
So, why is the sprinkling done by the priest? The Talmud explains that the process of sprinkling the blood was one of the most complex activities that took place in the Temple. It had to be done by the experts—having anyone else hanging around would only serve as a distraction to the process. So the priest sprinkled the blood for the offerer of the sacrifice but he was instructed to remain at a distance. Sometimes, we non-priests are most helpful from a distance!
Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:
Joel, you could not have said it better. No matter how many rational explanations we will provide for the mitzvot, some of the details will always be "out there."
Popular conception has it that after G‑d created a world, He decided to give us earthlings a moral code to follow. Thus, the Torah was born—somewhat as an afterthought. It's here to keep the world civilized and sprinkle some meaning into man's often chaotic life. Something like a self-help manual for humankind.
Now, such a manual is not a bad thing to have. But if that were the sum total of Torah, it would have very little to do with G‑d Himself. It might be part of the Creator-of-the-World job description, but – like if Einstein were to sew his pants – it has little do with G‑d's essential wisdom. Don't steal, don't hurt anyone, give charity—very nice, but this you call infinite wisdom?
And so, we are told that, "The Torah preceded the world by 2000 years" (Midrash Tehillim 90:4).
In other words, the Torah is not just G‑d's guidebook for man. It precedes man, precedes the world and all of existence. It's G‑d's own will and wisdom, that He, so to speak, relishes Himself. And He decided to share that with us.
That's why in every mitzvah there are some details that don't seem to fit with the rationale or meaningful experience that the general mitzvah is supposed to provide. It's a small reminder that the grasp of the human mind on G‑d's wisdom is both perfect and imperfect at once. Is it possible that the mind and will of the Creator could fit within the mind of the created?
(Truth be told, according to the Kabbalah, G‑d's will is beyond His own wisdom as well. But we'll leave that for another time…)
Nevertheless, I should point out that Maimonides writes (Laws of Temurah 4:13): "Although the chukim [statutes] of the Torah are [divine] edicts . . . it is proper to contemplate upon them, and find reason for whatever possible."
As such, even for those mitzvot – or details of mitzvot – which are essentially incomprehensible, we should attempt to find a reason or lesson. Hence Rabbi Mintz's answer above...