This week’s Torah Reading is all about the various types of animal sacrifice, but the Haftarah,
from Isaiah, puts the focus on who or what we are sacrificing to.
It’s well known our Talmudic rabbis posited that post-Temple prayer substitutes for sacrifice.
This seems odd. After all, the meaning of sacrifice is to willingly forfeit something of value to a
cause, whereas prayer boils down to offering merely words. Sacrifice at its core is an expense.
“Words,” the saying goes, “are cheap.”
The Haftarah, from chapter 44 in Isaiah, illustrates an inherent problem in confusing prayer with
sacrifice. A person harvests a tree. The wood provides fuel for heat and cooking, while the
person reserves a portion of it from which to carve an idol for worship. The thing from which
benefit has been taken is sacrificed to as if benefit may be given in return. Isaiah asks, does this
person not realize that the source of derived benefit and the object of worship are both merely
the same potential pile of ashes? Rather, the prophet admonishes, let us direct our prayer
toward that which inspires the entire forest to sing. (Isa. 44:23) We may feel an irrepressible
need to “give back,” but the ultimate source of benefit gives to us without receiving. All we can
do is say “Thank you.”
Drawing upon verses elsewhere in Isaiah, Rabbi Elazar concludes, “Prayer is greater than
sacrifice,” for God has no need of these offerings. (Ber. 32b) Words of prayer are different. For
God, acknowledgment is the finest response. (Rashi)