By Rabbi Maury Grebenau
An area which is as ubiquitous and is it esoteric is that of sacrifices. The Torah spends a great deal of time on karbanot but it is one of the areas of the Torah where most people feel the least connected. There are a number of approaches in the Rishonim in terms of the purpose and thrust of the korbanot and it is the school of the Ramban which I want to focus on today.
The approach of the Ramban is essentially that Korbanot are there to make us think.
Every action and specific law is supposed to help us to consider our behavior and our lives and change for the better. This approach is also echoed by the Sefer HaChinuch and others. The Seforno (Vayikra 1:2) comments that when the Torah says “כי יקריב מכם” literally it means “when one of you brings” but the deeper meaning is that “when we bring of ourselves.” This is the same philosophy, the essence of the Korban is our own thoughts and approach to it.
For example, the Chatas which is brought when one accidentally (but in a way which is preventable) violates specific laws, is meant to lead to awareness. We are t look back at our error ad figure out how to improve upon our vigilance against sin. An asham taluy is even more so, this korban is brought when one is not sure if they have committed one of these sins. The message here is that even to perhaps have sinned is not to be taken lightly and also needs soul searching and rectification. We need to be aware and imbue our life with purpose and meaning.
The concept of mindfulness had been the main research of Dr. Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University. She has written a best-selling book on the topic and has found that mindfulness increases health and enjoyment of life and opens us to new possibilities. In one study they asked people in an airport to do some arithmetic and then gave them a task to do which made them feel inept but half o them were given the title “boss” and half the title “assistant.” Finally, they were all asked to do arithmetic problems again. The group with the label of “assistant” did only half as well as they had before on similar problems. This phenomenon is called self-induced dependence and it is just one example of how not being mindful can cause us to be overly affected by our environment or even a simple label.
The Ramban understands Korbanot to be designed to increase mindfulness. They are supposed to slow us down and make us aware of our actions and their context, to increase our mindfulness as a recipe for a richer life. Today we do not have Korbanot but we know that Tefilla (prayer) is meant to be in their place. Tefilla is meant to be the same sort of centering to help us to be more mindful about our lives.
 See, for example, Rabbeinu Yonah (Pirkei Avot 1:2)
Originally appears on YUTorah