If you own a car, you need a gas station. But if all you have is a bicycle, then you don’t need a gas station, right?” the rabbi reasoned.
“Of course, true,” I conceded.
“Well, then,” he concluded, “if you don’t have a temple, why in the world would you need a sacrifice?”
His argument sounded almost logical. Certainly Scripturally-prescribed sacrifice needs to be observed at the Scripturally-ordained Temple. Without one, you can’t have the other. Nevertheless, the problem is not properly stated, and the analogy fails. The gas station exists for the sake of the car, not the car for the sake of the gas station. The car needs what the gas station provides. The sacrifices were not commanded for the sake of the Temple; rather the Temple was provided for the sake of the sacrifices.
There’s another problem involved in the cessation of the sacrifices: if, as Moses taught, God established the sacrifices, how can his plan be so arbitrarily cast aside? Was God caught off guard when Titus and the Roman legions marched into Jerusalem in 70 A.D.? Was God sleeping when the Holy City was razed to the ground?
Although at times clouded, the significance of the destruction of the Temple has not been lost to our people. Tisha Be-Ab, the ninth of Ab, is an annual fast day in the Jewish calendar, set aside to remember that event. It is a time of mourning and fasting. On that day, Orthodox Jewish people wear the white kitel as a burial shroud, a reminder of the destruction of the Beth HaMikdash, the Holy Temple.
Even at the happiest of times, this tragedy is brought to mind. At Jewish weddings, the groom breaks a wine glass, symbolizing the destruction of the Temple, so that even in joy, we remember the sorrow of that day.
What then? Do we mourn the destruction of an edifice made of wood, stone and metal? No. We Jews mourn the destruction of what the Temple represented and the loss of the plan that God gave through Moses by which we were to receive atonement.
Certainly time and history have affected our culture and religious heritage. Our Jewish religious observances today are based on a wealth of tradition that has developed over many years. Yes, tradition and practices evolve. But does fundamental truth concerning God’s nature change? Does the historical event of the destruction of the Temple change our need as a people-a need that was met at that Temple? I think not, for the psalmist writes, “Forever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven” (Psalm 119:89).
History can change our traditions, but it can never change God’s truth. What eternal truth, then, did the Temple sacrifice teach-a truth that remains even though the Temple does not?
The sacrifices commanded by God taught us that there are consequences for sin that must be faced and dealt with. There is a price to be paid for our wrongdoing; and God does, indeed, hold us accountable. It is all too easy for us today to ignore this truth, but our forefathers could not ignore it because the sacrificial system was a constant reminder of it.
The sacrifices also reminded us of God’s goodness, for he allowed the possibility of a substitute to take our punishment. This has been called the “exchange of life” principle. Although the penalty of sin is death, and although this sin or spiritual death is self-inflicted, God in his goodness, through the sacrificial system allowed the life of the animal to substitute for the life of the worshiper—an exchange of life.
Since God is holy and sin separates us from him, the sacrifices also teach us that God does not want us to be separated from him. He spent much time instructing Moses how Israel could live in a right relationship to him.
If the Torah (Law of Moses) is true, and if it is also true that God’s Word and God’s truth do not change, then what provision for forgiveness does God make for us who no longer have a temple or a sacrifice? Some of our people maintain that sacrifice is outdated, an uncivilized religious practice. Others, although they feel uncomfortable with the idea of sacrifice, are even more uncomfortable with the implication that Moses our teacher was uncivilized. Rather than deal with the dilemma this poses, some would choose to ignore the problem and hope that it goes away or solves itself—like the solution of the bicycle and the gas station. Still others may find hope through the words of the prophet:
But it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: if his soul shall consider it a recompense for guilt, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied…he shall bear their iniquities…he hath laid open his soul unto death, and was numbered with transgressors; and he took off the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:10-12, Masoretic Text)*
No, God was not caught off guard by the destruction of the Temple; and yes, God’s truth is unchangeable. There is still a penalty for sin. God is still holy, and he still wants us to know him. By his goodness, substitution is still provided. The substitute is the Messiah himself—Yeshua, who in his death was rendered a guilt offering—a sacrifice.
Our prophets were quick to point out that faith and a proper heart attitude were necessary in order for God to accept the sacrifices. When this attitude was not present, God would not accept the sacrifices (Isaiah 1:11-17). This is true today, as well. The sacrifice has been made, but it is up to the individual to believe and appropriate it.
Although the Temple is gone, we do need a sacrifice today. There is only one sacrifice, made once for all. The only thing missing is the faith necessary on the part of the worshiper. Will you believe?
*Hebrew Publishing Company, New York