Religions throughout the world are comprised of myriad rules, rites, and acts of devotion, leading many to focus primarily on the mediums of religion rather than its message.

The Hebrew word for religious worship, avodah, however, has less to do with outward forms of devotion than it does with a person’s inner work of character development.

The word avodah is etymologically associated with the word ibud, to stretch, as in stretching leather.1 Accordingly, avodah refers to the work of “stretching” oneself in order to overcome one’s natural self-serving instincts by refining their character and developing their spiritual potential.

In the words of Maimonides2 : “Most of the Torah’s laws are but ‘counsel given from He Who is of great counsel’ to improve one’s character and make one’s conduct upright.”

In other words, G‑d is not only interested in what we do but also, and primarily, in who we are and can become.

The Torah3 instructs us to walk in G‑d’s ways. The Sages4 interpret this to mean, “Just as [G‑d] is called ‘compassionate,’ so must you be compassionate; just as the Holy One, blessed be He, is called ‘gracious,’ so must you be gracious; just as [G‑d] is called ‘righteous,’ so must you be righteous; just as [G‑d] is called ‘holy,’ so must you be holy.”

This teaching imparts a radical shift in religious thinking: The way to become more G‑dly is not through spiritual detachment and isolation; rather, it is through deep engagement and concern for the well-being of humanity and the world.

To become more G‑dly, one must become more humane.

In Judaism, the word avodah is used in a general sense to connote our fulfillment of the mitzvot as described in the Torah and interpreted by the Sages. In this sense, all of our religious actions and obligations are considered our avodah, our “work,” or Divine service.

Biblically and liturgically, the term avodah primarily refers to the offering of animal sacrifices in the Holy Temple. This central ritual was indeed a fundamental pillar of religious practice during the Temple era, and it is within this context that the tensions between outer behavior and inner transformation come into particularly sharp relief.

The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban, which comes from the word kiruv, to draw close,5 communicating the essential point that the sacrifices were not performed for G‑d’s sake—as if G‑d were in need of our gifts—but for ours.6

This “drawing close” occurred in two essential ways. First, by taking a valuable asset, in this case one’s animal, and donating it to the Temple service, one expressed their devotion to G‑d. Additionally, the ritual of animal sacrifice served as a visceral meditation on mortality and life’s purpose, because it brought the person into close contact with the fragile and transient nature of physical existence.

From the Chasidic point of view, the avodah of animal sacrifices is particularly emblematic of the internal impact that all forms of Jewish religious practice are intended to have on one’s personality and character.

Commenting on the verse,7 A person who will offer from [among] you a sacrifice to the L‑rd...of the domesticated animal, of the cattle, and of the sheep...” R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi8 highlights the similarities between certain human and animal characteristics. For example, some people are born with a temperament that is thick-skinned, stubborn, and domineering like an ox. They have a natural propensity to be controlling and are determined to always be right. Others are meek and conformist like sheep, lacking resolve or the ability to think for themselves when it is called for. Yet others are brazen and impudent, as the Hebrew word for goat, eiz, connotes. The psycho-spiritual application of Biblical animal sacrifice is thus interpreted as a reference to the inner work of refining whichever animal traits and tendencies one naturally possesses and sublimating them in the service of one’s moral and spiritual development.9

However, as mentioned, there is always the danger of losing the internally transformative perspective and focusing solely on the ritual’s form rather than its substance.

In fact, the prophets would condemn those who offered sacrifices as a kind of bribe or peace offering to G‑d in the hope that He would absolve them despite their evil ways. As King David declares10 : You do not desire sacrifice [for if You did], I would bring it; You do not want a burnt-offering. The sacrifice to G‑d is a broken [repentant] spirit; G‑d does not despise a broken and crushed heart.11

R. Jonathan Sacks expounds12 upon the prophets’ numerous rebukes against vain sacrifices:

“They were not criticizing the institution of sacrifices. They were criticizing something as real now as it was in their time. What distressed them to the core of their being was the idea that you could serve G‑d and at the same time act disdainfully, cruelly, unjustly, insensitively, or callously towards other people. ‘So long as I am in G‑d’s good graces, that is all that matters.’ That is the thought that made the prophets incandescent with indignation. If you think that, they seem to say, then you haven’t understood either G‑d or Torah.

“...Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah all witnessed societies in which people were punctilious in bringing their offerings to the Temple, but in which there was bribery, corruption, perversion of justice, abuse of power, and the exploitation of the powerless by the powerful. The prophets saw in this a profound and dangerous contradiction.

“...G‑d cannot be bribed or appeased...any specific wrongs righted by sacrifice do not excuse other wrongs. Intention and mindset were thus absolutely essential in the sacrificial system; they were in fact the rubric of its spiritual success or failure.”

Judaism advances the spiritually radical perspective that the aim of religion is not only to worship G‑d, but also to refine and elevate the inner character of each worshipper in the process.

Without such inner transformation, the outward motions and mechanisms of any religion—no matter how lofty its stated ideals—can become mere empty shells, and even potential idols that usurp the ultimate goal of their enactment.

From a mystical point of view, the paradigm outlined above sheds light on a theological conundrum that has plagued Kabbalists for centuries: Why would a pure and perfectly righteous soul be uprooted from its spiritual home and thrust into a world of Divine concealment, where it will be forced to face the bodily temptations of greed, lust, desire, anger, jealousy, etc.?

In answer to this question, the mystics teach13 that the very purpose of the soul’s descent into this world is to wrestle14 with and refine our earthly impulses and egoic character flaws, thereby Divinizing the body and wider world.

From this perspective, a life of true spiritual success is measured not only by the Torah one has learned or the rituals they have performed, but by the inner moral and characterological progress one makes during their time on this earth.15

According to Judaism, this is the essence of avodah.

It Happened Once

R. Mordechai of Neschiz had longed for a tallit katan (a small tallit, worn under or over one’s clothing) made out of wool from the Holy Land.

When he finally procured the wool, he commissioned one of his students to fashion it into a tallit.

Unfortunately, in cutting out the opening, the young man folded the cloth one time too many, resulting in two holes instead of one.

With trepidation, he informed R. Mordechai that he had ruined the tallit katan that R. Mordechai had wanted for so long.

R. Mordechai calmly told him not to worry.

“But I ruined your tallit,” cried the man.

“It isn’t ruined,” replied R. Mordechai. “One hole is for me to put my head through, and the other is a test to see if I will lose my temper.”

The Big Idea

The aim of religion is not only to worship G‑d, but to refine and elevate the inner character of the worshipper.