Animal offerings aided the atonement process, as they drove home the point that really the person deserved to be slaughtered, but an animal was being used in his/her place. The offering also helped atonement in many mystical ways. But we should not mistake the animal offering for more than what it is. It was an aid to atonement; it did not cause atonement.
from the Ask the Rabbi column
One of the questions Christians sometimes have about Judaism is how religious Jews expect to make atonement for sins without the Temple. The traditional narrative goes that God allowed the Temple to be destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE because He had annulled the system of animal sacrifices, the system of Levitical priests, and all of the promises and commands about them that God previously said were eternal.
Christians tend to believe that God sent Jesus to replace the Temple sacrifices and to be our permanent, once in a lifetime atonement, as opposed to having to make an animal sacrifice every time a Jew committed a sin.
I can only believe Christians imagine that there was a perpetual line of Jews in front of the Temple waiting their turn to make a sacrifice. If that were the case, if every time a Jew committed a sin of any kind they had to make the journey to the Temple, they wouldn’t be able to go anyplace else.
In contrast, for a Christian, every time he or she sins, they can pray to God in Christ’s name where ever they are and whatever they’re doing, and it’s all good.
Well, that’s not how it worked.
First of all, not all sacrifices had to do with sin and even those that did were specifically for unintentional sins, that is, an act someone committed they didn’t know what a sin. When they discovered that they had sinned unintentionally, then they offered the appropriate sacrifices at the Temple.
That probably wasn’t all that common.
But the quote above speaks of the animal being a substitute for the person offering up the animal, that the person knew he or she should be the one to die instead. What about that?
The verse says: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit” (Psalms 51:19). This teaches us that a person who does teshuva is regarded as if he had ascended to Jerusalem, built the Temple, erected the Altar, and offered all the offerings upon it. (Midrash – Vayikra Rabba 7:2)
When a person transgresses a mitzvah in the Torah, he destroys some of his inner holiness. He cuts himself off from the Godliness that lies at the essence of his soul. When a person does teshuva — “spiritual return” — he renews and rebuilds the inner world that he has destroyed. On one level, he is rebuilding his personal “Temple” so that God’s presence (so to speak) will return there to dwell.
If we can understand not only the Psalmist David but the Rabbi correctly, it would seem that teshuvah, or sincere repentance is what draws us nearer to God on a spiritual level. That’s as true today as it was thousands of years ago when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, and further back still when the Mishkan or Tabernacle went with the Children of Israel through the wilderness.
So why make animal sacrifices at all if the true sacrifice is a broken spirit?
What inhabited the Tabernacle and later the Temple?
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.
–Exodus 40:34-35 (NASB)
It happened that when the priests came from the holy place, the cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.
–1 Kings 8:10-11
The Shekinah, often referred to in Christianity as the “Glory of God,” filled and inhabited the Most Holy Place in the Tabernacle and later Solomon’s Temple.
Prayer and true repentance brought any Jew, no matter where he or she was, spiritually closer to God. An animal sacrifice was required to allow the Jew to come nearer to where the Shekinah dwelt physically.
The Aish Rabbi doesn’t say that exactly, and I must admit the idea isn’t my own. I simply can’t remember where I learned it. If it was from anyone reading this, I’m not trying to rip you off, I really can’t recall the source of this information.
This year, Tisha B’Av or the Ninth day of the month of Av, the solemn commemoration of the many disasters that have befallen the Jewish people, begins this coming Saturday at sundown and continues through Sunday.
Jews all over the world will fast, and pray, and turn their hearts to God. I don’t mean to say that the Temple isn’t important, even vital to the lives of the Jewish people. Jews will weep over the destruction of the Temple on Tisha B’Av as well as for many other tragedies.
The Jewish people long for the coming of Messiah who will rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and restore the sacrifices and the Priesthood.
So am I saying that Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus Christ) is irrelevant to Jews, that they can pray to God and be forgiven of sins without acknowledging Yeshua?
For we non-Jews, our access to the God of Israel is the direct result of our faith in Yeshua and all he accomplished, but I don’t believe for a second that he replaced anything. We non-Jewish disciples of our Master require our Rav in order to benefit from any of the blessings of the New Covenant.
The advent of Messiah was the next logical extension of the all the promises of God to Israel we find in the Tanakh (Old Testament), and then to the rest of the world. Yeshua came the first time as the forerunner of how God would fulfill the New Covenant promises. That includes his being the forerunner of the total and permanent forgiveness of all Israel’s sins as it states in the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:34; Romans 11:27) When he comes again, it won’t be as a preview but the main event.
I can’t believe that God out of hand rejects all Jewish people who didn’t convert to Christianity and believe in the Goyishe King. That would include the vast majority of Jews who have lived and died over the past two thousand years. God would never abandon His people Israel this way, nor expect them to violate the Torah mitzvot for the sake of eating a baked ham on Easter.
I do believe that a Jew who acknowledges Yeshua as the sent Messiah, the Jewish King, Rav Yeshua, not to draw them away from Jewish praxis but to intensify it, crystallize it, bring that practice into sharper focus relative to the entry of the New Covenant into our world a bit at a time, is acknowledging Yeshua’s role as the mediator of that covenant, the living representation of the permanent forgiveness of sins, and the one who will rebuild the Temple at the end of these “birthpangs of Messiah” we currently experience.
Starting at sundown this Saturday, after the conclusion of Shabbat, there will be many tears shed by the Jewish people in their homes and their synagogues for all they have lost. But there will come a day when He shall wipe away every tear (Revelation 21:4) and return joy and fulfillment to His people Israel through Messiah.
And when God has restored Israel, then the nations will be healed as well.
Afterword: I’m fully aware that I’m no expert on the Temple or the sacrifices, and I wrote this blog post on the fly rather than doing a lot of research (as I probably should have), so if you find any errors I’ve made, let me know. Thanks.