“An offering made by fire, of a sweet smell to the Lord” Leviticus 1:9
For many people the sacrificial laws are particularly difficult to relate to and understand. This startling anthropomorphic verse is no exception. How can the Torah suggest that God smells the aroma of roasting meat, enjoys the sensation and, as a result, accepts the sacrifice?
Correcting the notion that God has physical attributes was the life work of a number of important medieval rabbis, most notably Maimonides. Ibn Ezra comments that suggesting that God smells the sacrifice is simply an allegorical way of signifying that God accepts the sacrifice and is pleased by the intention and actions of the one who offers it.
In general, sacrifices were brought to atone for various sins. But for Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi, a 16th-century commentator, the sacrifice is not about past behaviour but rather signifies the future actions of the one who offers it. This is what is being referred to by the term “sweet smell”.
Just as a pleasant aroma indicates from afar that an object is desirable, so too the sacrifice is a promise that the future actions of a person shall be better than the previous behaviour that required the sacrifice in the first place.
An essential aspect of repentance is the requirement to affirm that there will be no repeat of the sin or negative behaviour. But profound personal change is a long and difficult process and there are no short cuts.
As Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the leader of the Mussar (ethics) movement stated, “It is easier to learn the whole Talmud than to change one character trait”.
In Temple times the expense, commitment and devotion required by those bringing a sacrifice would have been a useful catalyst for effective personal change.