So this time round, as I search for meaning in a portion of the Torah that is dedicated to the rituals of sacrifice, such as sprinkling blood on an alter, I'm fortunate to have come across two modern thinkers from the Orthodox camp, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Yehshayahu Leibowitz, who seem to be aware of the tension between the central role of sacrifices in Torah-Judaism and their problematic nature in the contemporary world.
First Rabbi Jonathan Sacks - who talks about the replacement of sacrifices in Rabbinic Judaism with prayer being possible because the sacrifices themselves symbolized psychological processes, and therefore when they became impossible due to exile, were able to be replaced. How?
The short answer is that overwhelmingly the prophets, the sages, and the Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages realised that sacrifices were symbolic enactments of processes of mind, heart and deed that could be expressed in other ways as well. We can encounter the will of God by Torah study, engage in the service of God by prayer, make financial sacrifice by charity, create sacred fellowship by hospitality and so on.
So despite the massive attention to sacrificial rituals that the Torah gives, the actions described merely channel deeper feelings that existed, and I might add, possibly still exist. Perhaps it is the task of the student to seek these emotions, and ask whether they exist in him or her?
Yishayahu Leibowitz points to a fascinating Talmudic commentary on the language used in Leviticus 3 37
זֹאת הַתּוֹרָה, לָעֹלָה לַמִּנְחָה, וְלַחַטָּאת, וְלָאָשָׁם; וְלַמִּלּוּאִים--וּלְזֶבַח, הַשְּׁלָמִים
Loosely translated as
This is the law of the burnt-offering, of the meal-offering, and of the sin-offering, and of the guilt-offering, and of the consecration-offering, and of the sacrifice of peace-offerings;
The question asked by Rava here is why does each sacrifice type have to be preceded by the Hebrew letter "lammed" "לָ" which means "of the..." ? Surely it would have been enough to simply state the sacrifices themselves, without adding the "lammed" "לָ" a total of six times!
He answers that the Torah is using a word play with its supposedly extraneous use of the "lammed" "לָ". Since "לָ" is also the first letter of the word לֹא, which means "no", it is placed there to teach us that anyone who studies the Torah doesn't need a burnt offering, doesn't need a meal offering, doesn't need a sin offering and doesn't need a guilt offering.
Astounding really. Or maybe not. But one thing is clearer for me now anyway: a set of seemingly irrelevant and problematic rituals has become, dare I say, intriguing. I hope to explore.