The issue of animal sacrifices has been a sensitive and controversial one for millennia. Why would an infinite, all-knowing, omnipotent G‑d wish for people to offer up animal sacrifices? It seems to be a pointless waste of resources and needless dispensing of life. Scripture makes it clear that faith, integrity, and devotion to the ways of the L‑rd are most prized. Piety, righteousness, and strict observance of the commandments are what characterize the life of a servant to the Almighty.

Great scholars throughout Jewish history have thereforeIt seems like a needless dispensing of life taken great pains to explain the relevance and importance of sacrifices. We are told that they serve as a symbol of our own inadequacy—in the offering we are symbolically offering up ourselves. We are also told that the offerings also represent our broader efforts to elevate the natural world and offer it up for a higher purpose. Some even argue that the sacrifices were a necessary route away from the pervasive idolatry of the times.

Without question, the topic is weighty and most deserving of attention. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Rashi, the foremost biblical commentator, is silent. While of course Rashi is not obligated to explain or give reasons for every commandment that appears in the Torah, animal sacrifices dominate much of the text of the Five Books of Moses and pose such an immense challenge to decency and common sense that it is unfathomable he would allow this huge topic to go unaddressed.

And that’s not all. The few observations Rashi does make about animal sacrifices only deepen our curiosity. The Torah often refers to sacrifices as “a pleasant aroma for the L‑rd.” Naturally, Rashi finds this phrase problematic. G‑d does not smell and is unlikely to find our offering to have a pleasing aroma. Moreover, as commentators have long observed, the smell of burning carcasses is hardly what one would describe as “a pleasant aroma!” Thus Rashi notes on more than one occasion that this phrase really means, “It gives Me satisfaction that I spoke and My will was fulfilled.” Let us ignore the uniquely passive wording for a moment and focus on the point: the pleasant aroma actually means that G‑d is pleased. And this is supposed to clear things up?

How so? We are left just as unclear as to what would be pleasing about a sacrifice. We know it is not the aroma, but what then? We are back to the beginning: what is the point and how could it possibly bring pleasure On High?

One final twist: Noah brought a sacrifice and the wording “a pleasant aroma” appears there too. Rashi says nothing there, and assumes it is clear that both Noah and G‑d were pleased. It would be hard to miss that impression as the tale there goes on to record G‑d’s promise never to bring a flood again. It seems Rashi sees absolutely no problem with the words “pleasant aroma,” so why are we hearing about it now in the Book of Leviticus?

These complex questions deserve a worthy resolution. The Rebbe, as usual, turns the whole matter on its head. “You are assuming,” says the Rebbe, “that there is a reason for sacrifices and that what we should be doing is searching for the most rewarding or convincing reason. What if the opposite is true? What if there is no reason whatsoever for animal sacrifices? What if that – the complete lack of any reason – is the whole point of sacrifices?” In short, what if we have to completely rethink the whole matter in order to get back to basics?

For thousands of years scholars have focused on finding an explanation, but the Rebbe calls in Rashi as an ally to argue that there is no explanation. The entire point of sacrifices is to do something for G‑d without the satisfaction of any reasonable justification, simply because He let it be known that this would be pleasing to Him.

This – says the Rebbe – is in fact exactly what RashiIf you find an answer, you have completely missed the point is saying with his explanation of “a pleasant aroma” – “It gives Me satisfaction that I spoke and My will was fulfilled.” It now seems blindingly obvious what Rashi is trying to say: bringing sacrifices indeed achieves nothing at all, in the sense that you will have trouble truly explaining how it is the best way to use animals. However, if you were to have found an answer, you will have completely missed the point. The point of sacrifices is that G‑d simply had us know that this is something he wants and, hey presto, it now becomes central to our lives and practice. Hence the passive tone in Rashi’s comment, as if to say the point is not that “I am demanding” it, but that “I have informed you that it would meet My wishes.”

There are plenty of commandments that do not come with explanations – they are called chukim (usually translated as “statutes”). While some suggest that these commandments, too, have explanations, they are just not revealed to us, Rashi states plainly that they have no explanation, period. So animal sacrifices are not the only practice in Judaism that lacks rational explanation, but there is one significant difference between animal sacrifice and everything else. The laws for which we have no reason do have a basic, obvious aim: to have us act in obedience to G‑d and to learn self-restraint in our choice-making. The specific act may not come with a reason, but everyone understands what the deal is. Animal sacrifices, in contrast, do not teach us obedience or restraint, they are purely an act of homage to G‑d. Yet we realize that He does need our sacrifices. This makes offering them a uniquely touching expression of our devotion to Him.

Please do not give me a reason for sacrifices, for the moment you do you have killed the whole idea. Sacrifices are in the manner of a husband saying to his wife, “Whatever you want, dear!” Your request may make no sense to me, but since it comes from you, it is now the most important thing in my world. Almighty G‑d, we have no idea why You asked for sacrifices, but now that you did, all we want to do is please You.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichot vol. 32, Vayikra I (pg. 1-6)