This Shabbat we begin our reading of Sefer Vayikra, and a major part of the book concerns itself with the laws of korbanot (sacrifices).
As the Torah explains, the primary function of the korbanot was to enable people to draw close to G-d and to achieve atonement from G-d. As such, when the Second Beit Hamikdash (Temple) was destroyed in 70ce, there was a sense of despair since it seemed as if divine closeness and atonement was no longer available.
However, as we see in the following story found in Ch.4 of Avot D’Rabbi Natan, the Rabbis realized that a further route existed for us to maintain that same level of closeness and achieve that same level of atonement:
‘One time, [after the destruction of the Second Beit Hamikdash], Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai was coming out of Jerusalem with Rabbi Yehoshua following after him. When they saw the Beit Hamikdash in ruins, Rabbi Yehoshua said, ‘Woe to us for this house that lies in ruins is the place where the sins of Israel used to come for atonement.’ [Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai] said to him, ‘My son, do not be distressed. We have another mode of atonement, which is like [atonement through sacrifice], and what is that? It is Gemilut Chasadim (deeds of loving-kindness), for so it is said, “I desire chesed (loving-kindness) and not sacrifice” (Hoshea 6:6)’.
So, despite the absence of the Temple, this story teaches us that chesed can fulfil the same goal. And where did Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai learn this idea? From a verse in Tehillim stating that ‘the world is built by loving-kindness’ (Tehillim 89:3), from which the Rabbis derived that the world was initially created solely on the trait of chesed (loving-kindness). Thus, in the absence of sacrifices, we return to the initial order of creation through chesed.
In fact, as Avot D’Rabbi Natan continues to explain, this lesson is also evident from the life of Daniel who was exiled to Babylon after the destruction of the First Beit Hamikdash. Despite his inability to offer sacrifices in Babylon, we are told that Daniel was able to maintain a closeness to G-d through the performance of gemilut chasadim (deeds of loving-kindness) such as providing for needy brides, accompanying the dead to their burial, providing money to the poor and praying (for the needs of others).
But how are these comparable? Surely a sacrifice is a gift to G-d, while chesed is a gift of time, effort or money to another? To this, Rav Soloveitchik responds as follows:
‘God is worshipped not only by offering sacrifice, prayer, and frustration, but also be practicing a moral social life. This is achieved by displaying kindness to one’s fellow man, extending help to the need, and treating one’s subordinates decently…The commandments of chesed cannot be separated from those of faith. There is no chesed without faith. Nor should faith and piety be separated from chesed… In Judaism, everything can be sacred. Not only the sacrificial service in the Holy Temple, but also the office and all places where chesed is practiced.’ (The Rav, pp. 196-197)
So as we begin our reading of Sefer Vayikra and the process of learning about the sacrifices, let us remember that while we mourn for the Beit Hamikdash, there is still a form of sacrifice that we can offer; the sacrifice we make to help and improve the lives of others.