To modern man the notion of s seems at best
archaic and surely not something whose return we yearn for.
Yet Jews recite an additional prayer service on Shabbat,
Rosh Chodesh and Yom Tov whose major theme is a prayer that
we should return to Jerusalem, rebuild the temple and offer sacrifices. While the meaning and purpose
of sacrifices is much analysed and debated in Jewish thought,
it is clear that Jewish life, especially the festivals,
are incomplete without the pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem
and the bringing of the requisite sacrifices. We may have
matza for pesach but in Temple times it was the Pascal lamb
which was the focal point of the seder. Even Maimonides
who suggests that the origins of sacrifices are due to historical
needs, namely the wish to wean people from the idolatrous
practices of the ancients, codifies the laws of sacrifices,
laws which we hope will be applicable soon.
In reality sacrifices are really just a means to an end. They are meant to bring us closer to G-d by sensitising us to the needs of man. They are not a rote exercise that somehow absolves us from sin. This is why time and time again the prophets rallied against sacrifices, telling the Jewish people that G-d does not desire their sacrifices so long as their inter-personal relationships were found wanting. It is ethical behaviour which G-d seeks and no amount of sacrifice can substitute for that.
Judaism demands that sacrifices be brought only at the temple. There was no such thing as a private altar. In fact sacrifices outside of the Beit Hamikdash carried the penalty of Karet, excision, a penalty which is reserved for the most serious violations of Jewish law such as immorality, eating chametz on pesach, the desecration of Shabbat or failing to perform a brit milah. Sacrifices are therefore connected to the building of community. The temple only existed and sacrifices were only brought so long as there was communal harmony. Communal discord was the catalyst that caused sacrifices to cease.
Everything in this world was created in order to serve G-d. While man was given the right to use animals for human needs, we must be careful to ensure that human needs are subservient to the will of G-d. Eating is a basic animalistic act which can easily defile us. Judaism attempts to elevate the eating of food from a base need to a performance of a mitzva. Our table is compared to an altar. We, like the Kohanim in the Beit Hamikdash, must wash our hands before we eat a meal. Prior to eating we recite a beracha and afterwards birchat hamazon. Our table gives us an opportunity to welcome guests and strangers into our home. Even the gathering and preparation of food required us to think of others by sharing our blessings. Terumah, maaser, leket, shicecah, Peah, challah (various tithes) were all ways to combine eating with sensitivity towards others. Jewish law even demanded that we feed our animals before we sit down to eat ourselves. Food is transformed into a medium in which we can serve G-d. When one brings a sacrifice one is elevating the eating of food to a means of serving G-d. Our eating becomes associated with the Temple. Those few korbanot which were not eaten teach us that ultimately everything does belong to G-d.
"When G-d expands your borders ...and your natural desire to eat meat asserts itself you may eat as you wish. Since the place chosen by G-d to be dedicated to his name is far you need only slaughter your cattle and small animals that G-d will have given you in the manner that I have prescribed" (Deuteronomy 13:20-21). The ideal setting for eating meat is at the "place chosen by G-d". It is only due to inconvenience that would be caused that the Torah allowed us to eat meat without bringing a sacrifice. The aura of Jerusalem, its inherent holiness, the presence of people dedicating their lives to teaching Torah, the guidance of the Sanhedrin (Supreme court), the presence of other Jews all served to give our eating a sense of purpose. Yes we do yearn for the return of sacrifices. We yearn for the aura of holiness, for the coming together of the Jewish people, for developing our sensitivity towards others, for the realization that everything in life is meant to service to G-d. We await the day when the sincerity necessary for the bringing of sacrifices will be the norm. May it be speedily in our day. Shabbat Shalom!