The theme of Parshat Tzav is korbanot, the animal sacrifices brought in the Tabernacle and, later, in the Temple.
The Rambam, in his "Guide to the Perplexed," writes, "The purpose of sacrifices being incorporated into the Divine service of the Jewish people was to accommodate the transition of the people going from the extreme falsehood of idol worship to the extreme truth of worshipping one true God. The Jewish people had been steeped in an idolatrous culture and could only free themselves from it by utilizing the same form of animal sacrifice that they were accustomed to. Now, through strict rules and regiments, they could direct it toward the service of God."
Unfortunately, this statement has been grossly misunderstood. The Rambam never meant to imply that korbanot were a temporary means of service, whose practice would be abandoned as soon as the Jewish people were weaned from their idolatrous ways. Noah and his sons offered korbanot after the flood; Avraham offered various sacrifices. Neither of them needed to be weaned from idolatry.
Although the concept of animal sacrifices seems foreign, almost antithetical to our notion of serving God, korbanot were offered in the Temple on a daily basis. The detailed rituals of sacrifices played an essential role in the celebration of each holiday, and various sacrifices were offered to mark significant events in the lives of people.
Korbanot obviously played a major role in our service to God. How are we to understand that role?
The ultimate way to serve God and come closer to Him is through prayer and Torah study, for those methods involve one's heart and one's intellect.
At the same time, we are created with physical drives, and we are therefore driven to relate to God in a physical, tangible way. Offering a korban (from the word karov, to come close) is a hands-on project.
But this very human need is not given free rein; rather, the offering of sacrifices is governed by strict regulations, in order that we tangibly relate to God in a true, proper way.
Furthermore, korbanot address the human emotion of guilt. After a person sins, it is natural to feel guilty about having done wrong, having failed to live up to expected standards of behavior.
Instead of allowing a person to wallow in guilt, to feel disappointed and disillusioned and to succumb to a sense of hopelessness, the Torah requires the sinner to bring a sacrifice. One must purchase a living animal, bring it to the Temple, confess the sin, express a firm resolve never to repeat it and then offer the sacrifice upon the altar.
These steps allow for the individual to express natural guilt in a constructive manner and for one to perfect and improve one's character instead of being paralyzed by guilt.
Even in today's times, in absence of korbanot, the Torah continues to challenge us to use our yetzer hatov, or good inclination, to sublimate our yetzer hara, or evil inclination, and always channel them to achieve a higher purpose, to relate to God in a way that allows us to grow, improve and attain psychological and intellectual perfection.
Steven Weil is rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.