The Sacrifices, a Foretaste and the Eye of a Needle: One of the most puzzling dimensions of Jewish Tradition is the institution of the sacrificial rites in the Temple. Although there are many other purposes to the Temple, it cannot be denied that sacrifices stand at the very heart of the Temple service. Profound differences of opinion exist between the early and later commentators regarding how to understand the institution of sacrifices. (1)
Even more perplexing is the Torah’s demand that these sacrifices need to be “re’ach nichoach LaShem.” Normally these words are translated as “a pleasant aroma to the Lord.” Commentators are troubled by this strange phrase, especially since it is repeated over and over throughout the biblical chapters related to the sacrifices. What could such an expression mean? Since when does the Lord need to be approached with perfumes so as to make Him favorable to our requests? Such simplistic interpretations, we believe, turn Judaism into a kind of superstitious tradition not much different from pagan cults.
This question becomes even more pertinent when we realize that this expression is indeed central to the sacrifices and therefore to the very essence of the Temple.
There is little doubt that the definitive explanation of this unusual expression was stated by Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi (1513-86) in his work: “Ma’asei Hashem” (“The Works of God”) (2):
“The phrase ‘a pleasant aroma to the Lord’ does not reflect the absolute quality of the sacrifices, but, on the contrary, it conveys a possible flaw in their nature. In case the worshipper imagines that he indeed has achieved atonement for his sin by just offering a sacrifice, the Torah tells him that this is far from true. The sacrifice is only a ‘pleasant aroma’ which means: a foretaste for what is yet to come. If the worshipper does not repent, then the Almighty will say, ‘To what purpose are your sacrifices to Me?’ Isaiah (1.11) 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 offering, 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 which the worshipper is planning to perform. It is called a ‘pleasant aroma’ because anything which can be detected by the senses before it actually arrives at a person is called a smell, e.g., to be ‘in the air,’ as its says in the book of Iyov (39.25), “He smelled the 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 should know that this should be done so as to reconcile himself with God. Consequently the sacrifice is to be brought as a foretaste of good deeds which are still 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 about which Judaism dreams, but only its beginning, a foretaste of what still needs to come. Its purpose is to function, through metaphoric rites, as a medium in which people get stimulated to make their first steps towards an inner transformation. The Temple is to be an educational institution. In that sense, it offers man the first step in the right direction towards perfection but not its culmination. This, after all, has to take place within the heart of man and be evident in his deeds outside the Temple court.
When the Temple’s educational purpose is no longer understood or is rejected, its existence is no longer of any value. For thousands of years, on the date of the destruction of the Temple, Jews have the custom of fasting to remind themselves that the first step to real spirituality and repentance is to renew their desire to create a foretaste.
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 Me a gate of repentance the size of the eye of a needle, and I will open for you large gates in which infinite light will enter.” (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 5:3)
1) For a discussion of these positions, see: Rabbi Meir Simcha Hacohen of Dvinsk in his commentary, Meshech Chochmah, Introduction to Vayikra.
2) See also: Rabbi Yacov Zvi Mecklenburg, Haketav Vehakabalah, Vayikra, 1:5.