Our tradition seems to have a somewhat ambivalent view regarding sacrifices. The Torah devotes many chapters to describing—in great detail—the intricacies of the sacrificial laws. Most major events in the Bible occur within the context of sacrifices: Noach embarking from the ark, G-d’s covenant with Abraham, the binding of Isaac, the Exodus, the Revelation at Sinai. The Mishnah devotes many tractates to the intricacies of the sacrificial laws, discussing the types of animals, their age, how much oil and wine is to accompany the sacrifice, and when and where they can be eaten.
Yet the prophets seem to paint a very different picture, noting over and over again that G-d does not want our sacrifices, even suggesting that He hates them. The answer to this “contradiction” can be found in the last Mishnah in tractate Menachot. In explaining the Torah’s use of term “sweet savour” of the sacrifices of cattle, birds or flour, the Mishnah teaches “that whether one does more or less [it does not matter], provided he directs his heart towards heaven”.
It is the quality of the sacrifice, not its quantity, that matters. And the quality of a sacrifice is a function of our thoughts. While we tend to judge others by their outward appearance, “G-d desires our heart” (Sanhedrin 106b).
Amongst the types of sacrifices is an “oleh veyored”, a sacrifice that goes up or down depending on the wealth of the individual. Thus, a poor person is allowed to offer a bird or even flour instead of cattle. The Sefer HaChinuch, the great medieval analysis of the 613 mitzvoth, notes that if a poor person were to bring cattle, his sacrifice would be rendered invalid. G-d does not need our animals, and the extra cash outlay would be much better spent on charity.
The possible disconnect between action and intent is a theme running through our tradition. To cite one example, “One may give his father pheasants as food, yet [this] drives him from the world; whereas another may make him grind in a mill, and [this] brings him to the World to Come” (Kiddushin 31a). Our attitude towards our parents matters much more than our financial support of them. Interestingly, the Talmud rules that any expenses borne in honouring one’s parents are to be paid by the parents themselves (Kiddushin 32a).
The notion that intent is more important than action would seem to apply only to mitzvoth between man and G-d. It is in this realm where our actions are for our benefit, helping us to grow and become more religiously sensitive. Our actions don’t really affect G-d. But vis à vis our fellow man, does it really matter what we feel inside? As long as we help others, what difference does our attitude really make?
While there is much merit to that argument, even here, less can be more. In delineating the eight levels of charity, the Rambam positions those who give less charity, but with a full heart, above those we give more grudgingly, despite the poor actually having less to give.
Yet at same time, the Sefer HaChinuch, in discussing the many laws of Pesach, notes that “actions mold character”. If we want to develop our hearts, our hands, and even our mouths, we must work hard. It is on Pesach that we seem to focus on quantity. No other holiday requires as much preparation, and no other night is as elaborate as that of the seder. We must eat and we must talk—a lot. “Whoever tells the story at greater length is to be praised”.
The Egyptian experience was to mold us into a sensitive, caring people. We must at every turn remember that we were strangers in Egypt, and must ensure all have dignity, freedom and independence. It is not enough to think that; we must act upon it. The seder is meant to be the link between noble thoughts and concrete actions. When we succeed, we will merit spending “Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem”.