One of the most puzzling elements of Jewish Tradition is the institution of the Temple and its sacrificial rites. Although the Temple serves many purposes, sacrifices lie at the very heart of its mission.
There are profound differences of opinion among the early and later commentators on how to view the Temple, how important it is, and whether it is really our ultimate goal to rebuild it as the pinnacle of our service to God. The same is true regarding the need for sacrifices. Are they an integral part of Judaism, or a deviation from real Judaism?
Ovadya Seforno, the great 16th-century Italian commentator, makes it abundantly clear that the need for the Tent of Meeting in the days of Moshe, and therefore the Temple in later days, is a compromise to human weakness. It resulted from the sin of the golden calf and its spiritual consequences, thus making it far from ideal.
It should not have been.
On the verse “And so shall you make it” (Shemot 25:9), relating to the construction of the Tent of Meeting, Seforno makes the following remarkable statement:
In order that I shall dwell among you to speak with you and to accept the prayers and service of Israel. This is not as it was before the sin of the golden calf where it was said: And in any place where I shall have My name mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you (Shemot 20:21).
For Seforno, the Tent of Meeting and the Temple are edifices that became necessary once the Israelites rebelled, became corrupt, and fell from their high spiritual level due to the sin of the golden calf (ad loc.). They now needed a physical and tangible place to symbolize God’s greatness. But had that transgression not taken place, God would never have commanded us to build a Tent of Meeting (or Temple).
A similar approach seems to be taken by Rashi (Shemot 38:21).
The truth is that the whole universe is God’s Temple.
Rambam in his famous Guide for the Perplexed (3:32) makes a similar comment concerning sacrifices:
It is impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other; human nature will not allow people to suddenly discontinue everything to which they have been accustomed. Now God sent Moshe to make the Israelites a kingdom of priests and a holy nation… The Israelites were commanded to devote themselves to His service. But the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up (in earlier days) consisted of sacrificing animals in temples containing images, bowing down to these images and burning incense before them. It was in accordance with the wisdom of God, as displayed in the whole creation, that He did not command us to give up and discontinue all these modes of worship; for to obey such a commandment would have been contrary to human nature. For this reason, God allowed these rituals to continue. He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings… and commanded us to serve Him in the same manner.
As in the case of Seforno, Rambam sees the sacrificial service as a compromise to human weakness.
The sacrifices are not an integral part of Judaism. They are a concession. The ultimate goal is to liberate Judaism from the sacrificial cult and wean the Israelites away from idol worship symbolized by these sacrifices. But since it could not be done overnight, God gave the Israelites some time to achieve that goal.
What then is the purpose of all our prayers to rebuild the Temple and be able to offer sacrifices? Have we by now not been weaned from idol worship, a Temple, and sacrifices?
Perhaps the answer to this is found in a profound statement made by Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi in his work Ma’asei Hashem (The Works of God), chapter 27. He draws our attention to a strange but repeated commandment in the Torah concerning the sacrifices: They must be brought as a “re’ach nichoach LaShem” normally translated as “a pleasant aroma to the Lord” (for example, Vayikra 1:9). This is a rather strange expression, as if God is in need of some aroma to please Him.
Here are his words:
The phrase ‘a pleasant aroma to the Lord’ does not reflect the absolute quality of the sacrifices; on the contrary, it conveys a possible flaw in their nature. In case the worshipers imagine that they indeed have achieved atonement for their sins by just offering a sacrifice, the Torah tells them that this is far from true. The sacrifice is only ‘a pleasant aroma,’ a foretaste of what is yet to come. If the worshiper does not repent, the Almighty will then say (Yeshayahu 1:11): ‘Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me?’ The concept of aroma is attributed to the Almighty because of its metaphoric connotation. Just as a pleasant aroma coming from afar bears witness to something good in the offing, so every time the Torah uses the phrase ‘a pleasant aroma’ in connection with the sacrifices, [the meaning is that] it should be to the Almighty as a foretaste of the good deeds that the worshiper is planning to perform. It is called a ‘pleasant aroma’ because anything that can be detected by the senses before it actually reaches the person is called a smell, as is written in the Book of Iyov (39:25): ‘He smells war from afar,’ which implies that he sensed the battle even before he actually reached it. Every human being who wants to bring a sacrifice must know that it should be done for the purpose of reconciling with God. Consequently, the sacrifice is to be brought as a foretaste of good deeds that are yet to come.
It is in this light that we have to understand the purpose of the Temple. The Temple service is not the ultimate form of worship that Judaism dreams about; it is only the beginning, a foretaste of what still needs to come. Its purpose is to function, through metaphoric rites, as a medium through which people are stimulated to take their first steps toward an inner transformation.
The Temple is to be an educational institution. As such, it offers a person the first step to perfection, but it is not the culmination. It is a departure, not an arrival. That must take place within the person’s heart and can be evident in their deeds only outside the Temple court.
Ultimately, the Temple and its sacrifices are not the goal of Judaism. They are foreign intruders and the result of a compromise to human weakness.
While it is not hard to see why a Temple may be necessary in the future, as a symbol and inspiration until we once again recognize that all of the universe is His Temple, it is hard to believe that there will be a need for sacrifices, now that we have left that world far behind and have outgrown it.
I suspect that the Sages asked us to pray for them, not as a request to again be able to offer them in the future, but as a reminder to us that we still have a long way to go toward becoming more spiritual and dedicated to the service of God, which is so beautifully expressed by Rabbi Ashkenazi’s understanding of “reach nichoach Lashem” as the foretaste of what is still to come.
For thousands of years, on the date of the destruction of the Temple, we Jews have had the custom of fasting to remind ourselves that the first step to real spirituality and repentance is to renew our desire to create this foretaste.
(Whether or not we need to continue doing this by reciting Eicha (Lamentations) and Kinot while sitting on the floor, or to do this very differently now that we have experienced the establishment of the State of Israel and the rebuilding of Yerushalayim in our days, is something I have discussed in another “Thoughts to Ponder” (504) and is the subject of much discussion in rabbinical circles.)
It is not the culmination of repentance that needs to be achieved but its sincere commencement. This is what the Sages had in mind when they said, in the name of God, “Open for Me a gate of repentance the size of the eye of a needle, and I will open for you large gates through which infinite light will enter”.
According to this, the Temple has no inherent value. It is only a means to something that no physical object can contain. On Tish’a B’Av, we do not mourn the loss of the Temple but rather the loss of its message, which we no longer seem to grasp.
Whether or not the Temple will be re-built is not our concern, nor is it our dream. It is of little importance. It is just a phase in an ongoing attempt to become better Jews. What we dream of is the day when we will be able to transform ourselves and reconstruct the Temple’s message within our hearts. At that moment, the physical Temple will be superfluous.
 See “Thoughts to Ponder” 536 where I elaborate on this subject.
 See the strong objections to this approach by Ramban on Vayikra 1:9. For a discussion on why Rambam seems to contradict himself in Hilchot Melachim 11:1, where he claims that the sacrifices are to be offered again in the messianic times, see my essay “On Silence, Sacrifices and the Golden Calf,” in Between Silence and Speech: Essays on Jewish Thought (Northvale, NJ, and London: Jason Aronson, Inc. 1995) pp. 4-12.
 For a discussion on the various explanations of sacrifices, see: Meshech Chochmah, the commentary of Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk, Introduction to Vayikra. See, also, the many writings on this topic by the venerable philosopher and mystic, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook z”l, as well as Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg’s Haketav Vehakabalah, Vayikra 1:5.
 Shir Hashirim Rabbah 5:3.