Parshat Vayikra discusses at length the sacrifices that were offered in the Mishkan and Beit Hamikdash. Regarding certain kinds of sin offerings, the Torah tells us that only the blood and fat of the bull are offered. The rest of it is carried outside the camp and burned (Vayikra 4:3-12).
The Gemara (Berachot 17a) tells us of an interesting practice adopted by Rav Sheishet. On fast days, he would include the following special prayer in his Shemoneh Esrei:
“Master of the Universe! You know that when the Temple stood, a person who sinned would bring a sacrifice. Although only the fats and blood would be offered on the altar, the person would be granted atonement. Now I have fasted, and my fat and my blood have diminished. May it be Your Will that the lessening of my fat and my blood should be considered as if I offered them on the altar, and my offering was accepted.”
Based on what we know from the Torah’s instructions regarding sin offerings, Rav Kook points out that Rav Sheishet’s prayer raises two interesting questions. First, why is it so important to bring the blood and fat of the bull? In fact, we are specifically told to dispose of all the other parts! What is so special about blood and fat? Also, if what Rav Sheishet said in his prayer is accurate and fasting accomplishes the same atonement as a sacrifice, why bring the sacrifices? If we could simply designate some fast time each day to let our fat and blood “diminish,” why do we not?
The answer to our first question is simple. Rav Kook explains that blood and fat are symbolic of the two types of sin and the atonements for them. A blood sin is the type caused by a need, such as hunger, thirst or poverty. Such needs could lead a person to murder or steal. For these “bloodier” and more severe sins, the bull’s blood brings atonement for the sinner. The fats, on the other hand, atone for indulgent “fatty” sins, sins caused by an overindulgent or luxurious lifestyle. Thus, it is clear that the blood and fat are crucial to the atonement process, thereby taking center stage in the procedure of the sin offering.
The second question is somewhat trickier. What do sacrifices have that fasting does not? When a person brings a sin offering, the Ramban explains, he is supposed to bear in mind that the bull is being slaughtered in his (the sinner’s) place. Hashem, in His infinite mercy, devised a method of atonement in which the killing of animals is substituted for the killing of people, even if they deserve to feel His punishing wrath. It is this thought that “it should have been me” that will purify the sinner’s mind and rid him of any negative qualities that may be lurking around his conscience. However, a fast does not work in quite the same way. A fast may shut down a person’s unruly side, but it also shuts down his good side. During a fast, people may not have the energy to misbehave, but are also usually too drained to concentrate on doing Mitzvot or learning Torah. Therefore, we bring the sin offering because it allows us to tune out only our negative side, whereas fasting would sap all of our energies.
This is why Rav Sheishet prayed that the diminishing of his “blood and fat” should serve as atonement. It was his hope to achieve the offering-effect during his fast, but only to have his negative energies diminished. He desired to maintain his positive energy, without the unfortunate side effects of fasting.
This Dvar Torah was written in memory of my dear grandmother, Rachel Esther bat Moshe A”H, who always kept her positive energy up. Even as she became progressively less active, she maintained her vitality and cheer. It is one thing to take life one day at a time, or “Yom Yom,” but it is another feat – one that she accomplished – to do so “Besever Panim Yafot,” with a smile and a positive attitude.