Sacrifice and self-sacrifice

This week’s Torah portion is named after Pinchas whose zealous act retracted God’s anger and atoned for the Jewish people’s sins of promiscuity. The final passages of parashat Pinchas relate to the different types of animal sacrifices that we are commanded to bring to the Temple. It is well known that the name given to a Torah portion, in some way, reflects upon the essence of all that is included within it. How then is Pinchas and his zealotry connected with the sacrifices?

The most obvious connection that we find between the two is that, like Pinchas’ action, the sacrifices in the Temple also atone for our sins. Another, more profound connection is that Pinchas’ zealotry was itself an example of sacrifice—self-sacrifice—placing him in a position where he might have paid with his life for protecting the Almighty’s honor.

The Zohar explains that as a mitzvah, a Divine commandment, bringing a sacrifice is unique because the fundamental intention of the individual offering the sacrifice should be that he or she is prepared to sacrifice himself to God. The Zohar’s point of view stresses that whereas the physical objects with which we perform other mitzvot (for example, the hide used to make tefilin, or a Torah scroll) are important in and of themselves, when it comes to sacrifices, the entire purpose of the physical object being brought as a sacrifice is to provide a vessel, an instrument, with which to awaken one’s own feelings of self-sacrifice. So every individual who brings a sacrifice should incorporate Pinchas’ sense of self-sacrifice at some level in order for the sacrifice to have an effect Above.

The Zohar further teaches that the angels alone reap pleasure from the physical part of the sacrifice. However, what is happening in the soul of the person bringing the sacrifice manifests in the aroma of the sacrifice and it is enjoyed, as it were, by the Almighty Himself. The aroma reaching God is the fine fragrance of the individual’s willingness to sacrifice himself to God, as the verse states, “to sacrifice to Me.”[1] So, according to the Zohar, the critical aspect of a sacrifice is the heartfelt intention of the individual bringing the sacrifice, while the body of the animal is only a vessel for his or her inner intention.

The sacrifice also acts reciprocally on the individual bringing it by granting them the highest level of Divine service known as “complete service” [2] (עבודה תמה).   There are two general types of communal sacrifice: the daily sacrifices (תמידים) and the additional sacrifices offered up on Shabbat and festivals (מוספים). The initial letters of these two words spell out the word, “complete” (תם). Indeed, the sacrificial service is described as “complete service” (עבודה תמה), which Rashi on the Talmud explains to mean, “Service [of God] that has no other service after it.” By performing his act with total self-sacrifice, Pinchas achieved the highest level of complete and earnest service of the Almighty and was thus deserving of the Divine blessing, “I hereby give him My covenant of peace.”[3]

[1] Numbers 28:2.

[2] Yoma 24a, b, etc.

[3] Numbers 25:11.

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