The animal sacrifices in the Temple atoned for the inadvertent sins of those who offered them. This prompts a question: To bring such offerings is a divine commandment. How does fulfilling one commandment atone for transgressing another? If your student failed to do his homework but was respectful during class, would that make up for his missed homework? Of course not. He is required to do both, and the lack of one isn’t filled by the other.

Father and Son

In truth, the analogy of the student doesn’t capture the power of an offering. Let’s take a different example: Suppose your son failed to do his chores, andIt’s not the coffee that matters, but the gesture you were upset with him. Then, the next morning, he offered you a cup of coffee saying, “I know you like coffee in the morning, so I made you some.” Now you are delighted. You melt within because your son touched your heart.

It’s not the coffee that touches you; it’s that he did something he knew would give you pleasure. In fact, if the coffee he made were bitter, you would be no less pleased. It’s not the coffee that matters, but the gesture.

The Torah describes the offerings as a “pleasing fragrance to G‑d.”1 Jewish thought interprets the pleasing fragrance as a reference to G‑d’s being pleased when His will is fulfilled.2 It is like the pleasure we take from having our wish granted; it is not what we were given that brings pleasure, but that we desired something and it was provided. Every mitzvah is an expression of G‑d’s will, yet the Torah specifically refers to sacrifices as delightful.

Now, although the analogy of the contrite son is more accurate than that of the student, it still does not give a complete picture. In fact, G‑d commands us to bring sacrifices, but that does not diminish His pleasure in them. Perhaps that’s because the karbanot touch the very essence of our relationship with Him.


Imagine a Jew who fulfills the mitzvahs but forgets that they bring G‑d pleasure. Empty and devoid of purpose, such practice quickly loses its appeal. It is no surprise when we lose interest in the ritual and begin to neglect it. To make it exciting again we must simply focus on its meaning and purpose. We must remember that our observance gives G‑d pleasure and unites us with His supernal will.

In Temple times, we reconnected with the meaning of rituals through sacrifices. Offering a sacrifice was a difficult, costly, and sometimes messy process. Yet one of the most visible miracles in the Temple was the constant fire on the great altar that consumed the sacrifices. Could more proof be required that G‑d took pleasure in our offerings? Offering a sacrifice was a potent reminder that mitzvahs are not just meaningless hoops that G‑d requires us to jump through.

G‑d desires a relationship with us, and we have the power to please Him. He is delighted when He speaks and we do His bidding. It is also true that the mitzvahs do us good, and that G‑d, in His infinite wisdom, gave commands that benefit those who fulfill them.

Why the Offering?

The animal sacrifices made us reflect on G‑d’s will, but they also brought us to reflect on ourselves.

The difference between humans and animals is that animals cannot act against their natures. The frog can only do what a frog does; a dog is intensely loyal, but only because loyalty is in its nature. The animal never knows the joy of reaching beyond itself.

Animals cannot act against their natures

Humans can reach beyond themselves. True, we are inherently selfish, but we can overcome our animalistic tendencies and act in someone else’s best interest. And when we do, we discover a pleasure greater than any self-indulgence.

Now, because He desires a relationship with us, G‑d has chosen to have “needs,” needs that only we are capable of fulfilling. A whole list of these self-imposed needs can be found in the Torah. And when we sin, we selfishly ignore G‑d’s interests in favor of our own.

When we offered a sacrifice and watched the animal raised up on the altar, we stopped and reflected on our own animal-like behavior. We acknowledged that we had allowed our selfish side to take us too far, and neglected the greatest thrill in life—providing for another. And not just any “other,” but G‑d Himself, the creator of heaven and earth.

How could we not stop and marvel over the incredible fact that we, in our limited capacity, can make a difference to a perfect G‑d? Why would He need little, finite old me? That is a question we will never answer, but so it is. We neglected a mitzvah because it didn’t work for us—it wasn’t serving our needs—but we forgot that it was not about our needs: it was about G‑d’s needs.

We could not help regretting our selfish choices and resolving to return to serving G‑d. He wants a relationship with us, and because He does, we resolve to embrace Him. And G‑d was pleased the way you are when your son brings you coffee, because you wanted it, and your son provided it. 3