Please help me to understand. If the foundation for G‑d’s forgiveness and atonement was initially the sacrifice on the altar in either the Tabernacle or later the Temple, how does one now find forgiveness and atonement, since the Temple and physical sacrifices no longer exist?
You ask an excellent question. Are we at a loss with regards to our ability to attain forgiveness from G‑d due to the loss of our Temple?
I’d first like to point out that this question isn’t specific to sacrifices. There are many mitzvot that we cannot perform today because of our exiled state. (See Nowadays, how many of the Torah’s commandments are still in force?) Among the other mitzvot we cannot observe today are pilgrimage to the Temple for the festivals, many tithes, any many laws associated with ritual purity and impurity.
While we are deprived of these many mitzvot, G‑d gave us alternative ways to realize the benefits that these mitzvot afforded us (albeit not in their most ideal form—otherwise we could always have always made do with the alternatives). Let us use sacrifices and atonements as an example:
Some have claimed that atonement can be attained only through blood sacrifice.
This cannot be the case. After all, one of the offerings brought by a sinner was the korban minchah, which was made up of flour. We also find in the Torah that both incense and monetary donations served to atone for the people. It should be noted that nowhere in the Torah is it stated that atonement can be found only through sacrifice, never mind blood sacrifice.
In Temple times, an important part of atonement was normally a sacrifice brought to the Temple. But where does that leave us today, with no Temple and no possibility to sacrifice? Let us look to the Torah for a precedent.
In the book of Jonah, the people of Nineveh had sinned and G‑d was going to punish them. When Jonah showed them the error of their ways, they fasted and prayed, and were forgiven. The same thing happened in the book of Esther. Living in Persia between the first and second Temples, they fasted, regretted their sins and were forgiven. These historical examples clearly show that when there is no Temple, sincere teshuvah (repentance) is all that G‑d demands.
In fact, this was always part of the system. King Solomon himself, in his speech dedicating the first Holy Temple, already anticipates the possibility of Israel being denied access to the holy place:
If they sin against You—for there is no man who does not sin—then You will be angry with them and deliver them to the enemy, and their captors will carry them away captive to the land of the enemy, far or near. When they bethink themselves in the land where they were carried captive, and repent, and make supplication to You in the land of their captors, saying, “We have sinned and have done perversely, we have committed wickedness”; when they return to You with all their heart and with all their soul, in the land of their enemies who led them away captive, and pray to You toward their land, which You gave to their fathers, to the city that You have chosen, and the house which I have built for Your Name—then You shall hear their prayer and their supplication in heaven, Your dwelling place, and uphold their cause.”
Here is a thought on contemporary (sacrificeless) atonement:
Our sages tell us that the world stands on three pillars: Torah, avodah (literally, “work” or “service”) and gemilut chassadim (kindness and charity). We can approach this particular issue from the perspective of any one of these pillars.
Torah: The Talmud says that one who delves into the laws of sacrifices is considered as if he has actually offered a sacrifice. By studying the laws and their meanings, we achieve the atonement and closeness to G‑d that a sacrifice accomplishes.
Avodah: We replace the sacrificial “service of G‑d” with prayer, the service of the heart articulated in words. In the words of the prophet Hosea: “We will render the prayers of our lips in place of the sacrifices of bullocks.” As such, the three daily prayers are in place of the daily “services” and sacrifices that were performed in the Temple. On Shabbat we add the Musaf prayer, since an additional sacrifice was offered in the Temple every Shabbat. Another avenue to fill the void.
Gemilut Chassadim: Giving charity, giving of oneself, is also considered to be a method of finding atonement. One who gives his hard-earned money to charity is, in a sense, truly giving of himself—sacrificing himself for the greater good. This might be the ultimate form of sacrifice, as he is really giving something of himself—money that could have been spent for his personal benefit and gain.
After all is said and done, though, your question should really remain a question. We should ask this question of G‑d every day, asking Him when He will return to us the Temple in Jerusalem, so that we will once and for all truly be able to fill this void with the real McCoy.
I hope this helps.
All the best,
Rabbi Shmuel Kogan,