Following a series of Parshiyot that describe the construction of the Mishkan, Parashat VaYikra begins the discussion of Korbanot, sacrifices. Rambam and Ramban have a noteworthy Machloket as to the main reason for, and nature of, Korbanot.
Rambam explains in his Moreh Nevuchim (in his Mishneh Torah, however, he adopts a dramatically different approach) that Hashem understands that separating Bnei Yisrael completely from the practices of the rest of the world is exceedingly difficult for Bnei Yisrael to handle, and since the way the nations of the world serve their gods is by sacrificing animals, Hashem makes the transition to serving Him easier; He allows Bnei Yisrael to serve with sacrifices specifically directed to Him. Rambam compares prohibiting Bnei Yisrael from bringing sacrifices to Hashem to prohibiting them from praying to Hashem, fasting on His behalf, or asking Him for help.
The proof, Rambam says, is that Hashem realizes in Parashat BeShalach that if Bnei Yisrael leave Egypt, “Derech Eretz Pelishtim…Pen Yinachem HaAm Birotam Milchama VeShavu Mitzraima,” “The way of the Pelishtim… they would reconsider when they witness a war and go back to Egypt” (Shemot 13:17). Hashem knows that Bnei Yisrael want to be like the rest of the nations, and to draw them away from idolatry, Hashem allows practices similar to those of the rest of the world. Rambam further explains that Korbanot do not contain an inherent value but are rather just a way to appease Bnei Yisrael. This is indicated in Shemuel I, as the Pasuk states, “HaChefetz LaHashem BeOlot UZvachim Kishmoa BeKol Hashem,” “Is Hashem as happy with Olot and Zevachim as He is with obedience to his voice?” (Shemuel I 15:22), as well as in Yeshayah, which states, “Lama Li Rov Zivcheichem, Yomar Hashem,” “‘Why do I need your numerous sacrifices?’ says Hashem,” (Yeshayah 1:11).
Ramban vigorously disagrees, as he asserts that it would be foolish to claim that the point of Korbanot is to “counter the wicked people of the world.” The Torah itself says that Hashem accepts Hevel and Noach’s Korbanot. Hevel and Noach lived in an era in which Bnei Yisrael as a nation did not exist and would thus not be influenced by idolatry. Instead, Ramban claims that the purpose of Korbanot is to show Hashem that we deserve the slaughtering and the burning of the sacrifices. Essentially, the Korbanot replace the punishments that we deserve for our sins.
The Meshech Chochmah explains that in actuality, no Machloket between Rambam and Ramban exists. Rambam discusses sacrificing an animal on a Bamah, a private altar. Such an action, outside the framework of the Beit HaMikdash, leaves little meaning beyond simply replicating our neighbor’s conduct within an acceptable framework, which one might loosely parallel to explanations of the concept of Aishet Yifat Toar, taking an attractive woman on the battlefield. Ramban, however, discusses sacrificing an animal in the Mishkan or Beit HaMikdash, which Rambam concurs, has a ‘soothing smell’. In this case, the sacrifices no longer connect to those of the pagans; they embrace an independent significance in our relationship with Hashem. Indeed, this differentiation would seem to explain why today we may not sacrifice without a Beit HaMikdash: since the Yetzer Hara for idolatry no longer exists as it did when Bnei Yisrael wished to imitate their pagan neighbors, there is no reason to sacrifice animals.
This distinction can offer a valuable message about the impact of location. Two actions, done exactly the same but in two variant circumstances and atmospheres, can express entirely divergent messages.