Last week I was at the bat mitzvah of my niece Adara and my brother read from a drasha my father ע״ה gave in 1985. My father pointed out that after the exiciting narratives of בראשית and שמות, ויקרא is boring and seems pointless. We don’t have sacrifices any more.
But really we do. The point of קרבנות is not to slaughter animals, but to become closer, קרב, to ה׳. The grammar of the pasuk emphasizes this: it should say אדם מכם כי יקריב, not אדם כי יקריב מכם. Taking it literally, the offering has to come מכם; we offer ourselves. As the Kli Yakar says,
The ritual is important, but it is the meaning, the כוונה, that matters.
Part of that meaning is inherent in the phrase, אדם כי יקריב. Rashi presents it this way:
There’s a subtle point question here: why does Rashi explain כי יקריב before אדם?
The Kli Yakar (who has a very long essay on this parasha, and is the basis of much of what I will talk about) answers that אדם has a specific halachic meaning:
But that can’t be the meaning here
But then Rashi’s answer, מה אדם הראשון לא הקריב מן הגזל, שהכל היה שלו, אף אתם לא תקריבו מן הגזל requires explanation. אדם הראשון never offered any sacrifices; that was the innovation of his son קין:
So the Kli Yakar says that both קין and הבל‘s sacrifices were imperfect (why הבל’s was accepted is not our subject now). Neither should be the model for our sacrifices:
Rather, it is אדם's sacrifice that determines what we are meant to do. This is even brought down להלכה:
But where does this sacrifice come from? It’s not in the Torah. It’s only aggadic, which means that we have to take it seriously but not literally.
What’s the symbolism of קרן אחת היתה לו במצחו and קרניו קודמין לפרסותיו?
The Kli Yakar explains the single “horn” (the Maharsha [חידושי אגדות, חולין ס,א] points out that הקרן נאמר בכ״מ על עיקר הדבר):
We know we can’t do a מצוה by doing an עבירה, but for a קרבן theft is specifically called out because that undermines the entire purpose of a קרבן. A sacrifice is only meaningful if it comes from ourselves. Donating other people’s money isn’t צדקה; praying because other people made you isn’t תפלה.
And the horns coming before the hooves?
I don’t know if Adam literally brought a sacrifice. But my understanding of the midrashim is that our קרבנות must be like the hypothetical קרבן of Adam. The עקר of a קרבן is the thought, the intent. It has to come first, before the physical action. ה׳ doesn’t need our slaughtered oxen; we need to offer it. And today, when we do not have animal sacrifices, our תפילות must be the same way: a single קרן of כוונה that precedes and informs the physical action.