“He shall lean his hands on the head of the elavation-offering, that it be desired as an atonement for him” Leviticus 1:4
The contemporary mind often struggles with animal offerings that form a central part of Torah. Yet for the Ramban, they contain a critical secret and lesson relevant for all time.
Man is a complex being, part beast, part angelic. With a significant reptilian brain, we experience passions, lusts, impulses and drives that are common with any animal. Yet we also have a capacity for ethical evaluation, meaning and to act as partners with God in perfecting the world. Daily we struggle. The impulsive urge to retaliate, to succumb or to debase ourselves versus the desire for integrity, relationships and a life we can be proud of.
Millennia of suffering bear witness to the dangers of the beastly instincts with human brain-power. From genocide to domestic abuse, from societies at war to marriages torn to pieces. The inability to control the lurking beast within has terrorised the world.
Korban, sacrifice, is the Torah’s answer. A human who has sinned walks into the Temple with an animal, placing their hands on to the animal, literally fusing with it. It becomes the embodiment of the wild animal that rages within.
The human is not an observer but a full participant, experiencing the traumatic fate of the animal as if it were the death and elevation of huge part of their being. The goal is nothing short of life-transformation. Walking out of the Temple that day should be a new human being. One whose inner beast has been subdued, transformed and is now in the service of the higher life.
The offerings came to be abused, however. People treated them as magical atonement games. Animals were killed so humans could feel less guilty. The Prophets decried the hypocrisy, articulating divine protest at the animalistic inversion of the sacred. The destruction of the Temple ended our capacity to enact the Korban service. Given the state of man, that was a good thing.
But the book of Leviticus reminds us that Godliness is not beyond us. We lack the Temple and the capacity to dramatically enact an inner transformation; but every time we control the passions and lusts, we offer our own animal back to our Creator.