Parashat VaYikra deals mainly with the laws of the Korbanot. The Rishonim struggle to find the reason for these seemingly cruel animal sacrifices. The Rambam in his Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Me’ilah 8:8) writes that the Mitzvah of Korbanot is a Chok, a Mitzvah whose purpose is unknown to us. The Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim (3:32), on the other hand, claims that the purpose of Korbanot is to get Bnei Yisrael used to refraining from Avodah Zarah. Animal sacrifices were a common idolatrous practice at that time, including among Bnei Yisrael, and Hashem understood that Bnei Yisrael would not be able to accept the drastic change from Avodah Zarah with Korbanot to Avodat Hashem without Korbanot. Therefore, He allowed them to continue their normal rituals of Korbanot as long as they were directed to Hashem, not to Avodah Zarah. Similarly, at the beginning of Parashat BeShalach, the Torah states that Hashem chose to avoid the direct route from Mitzrayim to Eretz Yisrael, as that would bring Bnei Yisrael into war with the Pelishtim, and He knew that they would not be able to accept the drastic change from a slave people to a people fighting for their own land. He therefore allowed a middle step, namely, wandering through the desert. Here too, the middle step between Avodah Zarah and Avodat Hashem seems to be the Korbanot, a method of Avodat Hashem that is similar to Avodah Zarah. How can this contradiction within the Rambam be explained?
Rav Shlomo Aviner, in his Sefer Tal Chermon, proposes a solution to this apparent inconsistency. He quotes the Maharit, who comments that it is natural for a person to want to serve a god. Rav Aviner explains that the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah regards the Mitzvah of Korbanot as a Chok because in our limited intelligence, we cannot understand why Korbanot would be an appropriate way to serve Hashem. However, in Moreh Nevuchim, the Rambam explains what the absence of Korbanot causes. We will still fulfill this drive to serve a god, but through Avodah Zarah, not Avodat Hashem. Thus, the Korbanot function to make sure that we don’t naturally transition back to Avodah Zarah. The power of this drive is so great that it overpowered even the compassion of parents upon their children, as evident in the worship of Molech, in which parents passed their children through a fire, and in Akeidat Yitzchak. This explains a story found in the Gemara (Yoma 69b). When the Anshei Kenesset HaGedolah prayed for the Yeitzer HaRa for Avodah Zarah to be destroyed, they saw it as “a lion leaving the Kodesh HaKodashim.” Why is the Yeitzer HaRa for Avodah Zarah found in the holiest place of Avodat Hashem? The answer is that the drive of the Yeitzer HaRa towards Avodah Zarah is the same drive that makes people determined to serve Hashem. When we lost this drive, we also lost our foundation of love for Hashem and enthusiasm to serve Him. Our job today is to regain that enthusiasm and thereby be Zocheh to use it in the best way, through the Korbanot.
Rav Aviner also points out that there are two types of Korbanot – desirable and repulsive Korbanot. Desirable Korbanot serve the correct purpose, using one’s drive towards service of a god to come closer to Hashem and to improve. On the other hand, repulsive Korbanot are Korbanot a person brings as a religious ritual to achieve forgiveness for his previous sins and allow him to continue sinning. These Korbanot certainly are not the ones we are commanded to bring, as Yirmiyahu clearly states, “Ki Lo Dibarti Et Avoteichem VeLo Tzivitim BeYom Hotzi’I Otam MeiEretz Mitzrayim Al Divrei Olah VaZavach,” “For I did not speak with your forefathers, nor did I command them, on the day I took them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt- or peace-offerings” (Yirmiyahu 7:22). Repulsive Korbanot act directly against the purpose of the Mitzvah of Korbanot. We bring Korbanot to keep us away from Avodah Zarah; repulsive Korbanot simply convince the sinner that he can continue to sin. Without keeping their purpose in perspective, Korbanot are meaningless.
Since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, Tefillah has been the substitute for Korbanot. While we may no longer have the same drive to serve a god, we have a need to depend on someone. Tefillah provides us the opportunity to choose Hashem. The problem of meaningless, routine Tefillah has replaced the problem of repulsive Korbanot. We must concentrate on Tefillah as an opportunity to attach ourselves to Hashem and His Mitzvot and as a commitment to improve our Avodat Hashem.