While we interpret Torat Kohanim through a modern lens or idealize(?) it as the classic form of ancient worship as was performed in the Holy Temple, we tend to lose sight of the pedigree of the sacrificial system. Animal sacrifice, albeit without the legal and ritual structure, was commonplace in the ancient world; Every generation of patriarchs had practiced it, as did most ancient cultures (with the notion that the human offerings were “feeding” one or more of the multiplicity of gods they worshiped). If G-d was aiming to create a new paradigm of prayer, wouldn’t it have made sense to devise some uniquely Jewish way of achieving closeness with the Divine other than just taking a common and misguided practice and complicating it with lots of rules, regulations, and symbolism? ChaZaL (our blessed sages) teach us that G-d’s initial intention was precisely that; to create a more spiritual system of worship which avoided the vernacular of animal sacrifice. Abravanel (Spain, 1437-1508) suggests that the episode of the Golden Calf taught G-d that Israel wasn’t ready for such an abstract form of worship. They required the structure of ritual to guide them to a spiritual connection with the Holy One. Beginning with the familiar, even though not part of the original plan, was an apt way to begin. Midrash Rabba even comments that it's “better that they bring their offerings to My table than bring them before idols.”
In a way, it seems like the Diaspora transition we have made to a completely liturgical and ritual form of worship may have been in the cards all along; we just weren’t ready for it the first time. Judaism has certainly evolved into a religion with a deeply symbolic, abstract, and personal tradition of approaching G-d. We cannot lose sight, however, of the fact that while we have unique, individual, and often complicated relationships with the Divine, it is still our shared traditions, so deeply rooted despite centuries of evolution, that give these relationships meaning. What we do, when we do it, what we say while we’re doing it, and, of course, what we don’t do, are still the ways we create, maintain, refresh, and build our spiritual dialog with G-d. Think of it this way: one must do the difficult, physical work of climbing the mountain in order to reach the summit. Only then can one look at the spectacular view, and breathlessly appreciate its beauty, while simultaneously feeling the satisfaction of having had the fortitude to have completed the task.
Shabbat Shalom!Rabbi/Hazzan David B. Sislen