One of the most puzzling elements of Jewish Tradition is the institution of sacrificial rites in the Temple. Although the Temple serves many purposes, sacrifices lie at the very heart of its mission. There are profound differences of opinion among the early and later commentators regarding how to understand the meaning of sacrifices. Are they really an integral part of Judaism, or simply a compromise to human weakness and something to be gradually abandoned? (1)
Even more perplexing is the Torah's demand that these sacrifices be rei'ach nichoach LaShem (normally translated as ‘a pleasant aroma to the Lord’). Commentators are troubled by this strange phrase, especially since it is repeated over and over throughout the biblical chapters related to sacrifices. What could such an expression mean? Since when does the Lord need to be approached with perfumes so as to make our requests favorable to Him? Such simplistic interpretations turn Judaism into a type of superstitious tradition not much different from pagan cults.
This question becomes even more pertinent when we realize that the expression rei'ach nichoach LaShem is indeed central to the sacrifices and therefore to the very essence of the Temple.
The definitive explanation of this unusual expression was given by Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi (1513-1586) in his work Ma'asei Hashem (The Works of God): (2)
"The phrase 'a pleasant aroma to the Lord' does not reflect the absolute quality of the sacrifices; on the contrary, it conveys a possible flaw in their nature. In case the worshiper imagines that he indeed has achieved atonement for his sin by just offering a sacrifice, the Torah tells him that this is far from true. The sacrifice is only 'a pleasant aroma,' a foretaste of what is yet to come. If the worshiper does not repent, the Almighty will then say (Yeshayahu 1:11): 'For what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?' The concept of aroma is attributed to the Almighty because of its metaphoric connotation. Just as a pleasant aroma coming from afar bears witness to something good in the offing, so every time the Torah uses the phrase 'a pleasant aroma' in connection with the sacrifices, [the meaning is that] it should be to the Almighty as a foretaste of the good deeds that the worshiper is planning to perform. It is called a 'pleasant aroma' because anything that can be detected by the senses before it actually reaches the person is called a smell, as is written in the Book of Iyov (39.25): 'He smells war from afar,' which implies that he sensed the battle even before he actually reached it. Every human being who wants to bring a sacrifice must know that it should be done for the purpose of reconciling with God. Consequently, the sacrifice is to be brought as a foretaste of good deeds that are yet to come."
It is in this light that we have to understand the purpose of the Temple. The Temple service is not the ultimate form of worship that Judaism dreams about; it is only the beginning, a foretaste of what still needs to come. Its purpose is to function, through metaphoric rites, as a medium through which people are stimulated to take their first steps toward an inner transformation. The Temple is to be an educational institution. As such, it offers man the first step to perfection, but it is not the culmination. That must take place within the heart of man and can be evident in his deeds only outside the Temple court.
When the Temple's educational purpose is no longer understood, or is rejected, its existence is no longer of any value. For thousands of years, on the date of the destruction of the Temple, Jews have the custom of fasting to remind themselves that the first step to real spirituality and repentance is to renew their desire to create a foretaste.
It is not the culmination of repentance that needs to be achieved but its sincere commencement. This is what the Sages had in mind when they said, in the name of God, "Open for Me a gate of repentance the size of the eye of a needle, and I will open for you large gates in which infinite light will enter." (3) According to this, the Temple has no inherent value. It is only a means to something that no physical object can contain. On Tish'a B'Av, we do not mourn the loss of the Temple but rather the loss of its message, which we no longer seem to grasp.
Whether or not the Temple will be re-built is not our concern, nor is it our dream. It is of little importance. What we dream of is the day when we will be able to transform ourselves and reconstruct the Temple's message within our hearts.
(1) For a discussion on these positions, see: Meshech Chochmah, the commentary of Rabbi Meir Simcha Hacohen of Dvinsk, Introduction to Vayikra. See, also, the many writings on this topic by the venerable philosopher and mystic, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook z”l; and Nathan Lopes Cardozo, “On Silence, Sacrifices and the Golden Calf,” Between Silence and Speech: Essays on Jewish Thought (Northvale, NJ, and London: Jason Aronson, Inc. 1995) pp. 4-12.
(2) See also: Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, Haketav Vehakabalah, Vayikra 1:5.
(3) Shir Hashirim Rabbah 5:3.