People have a lot of problems with Sefer Vayikra, and I must admit that I do as well. I have, in R' Orlefsky's classic phrase (I think it's him, anyway), a severe case of Mishkanophobia- my eyes glaze over at the first mention of dimensions and all the korbanot start to sound the same after a couple of verses. But there is one objection that people have that I really have never understood- the aversion to sacrifices as an idea. These usually come in two flavors- those who think that anything that involves animal death is primitive and barbaric, and those who think that the whole thing is ritualistic and primitive and barbaric and reflects pagan values, and so forth. For the former, I have little sympathy, being of the firm opinion that animals are here for a reason, and I don't see why we oughtn't use them. They aren't people, after all, and sweet as they may be, one doesn't get the impression that they have souls, and so I have no real qualms about killing them for a good cause. Or for a moderately good cause, which includes my own nourishment. I don't endorse killing animals for fun, but only because I think that it's likely to make someone into a bit of a sick and twisted person. But in general, can't say I have objections to killing animals.
I have a little more sympathy for those who think that the whole sacrifice thing is primitive, mostly because Rambam basically agrees, saying, yeah it's barbaric and pagan, but then, so were Bnei Yisrael when the Torah was given and they had to have something to channel all of those pagan inclinations. But I can't say that this is the view that I've ever held. While I definitely can see the pagan leanings in sacrifices, I think that once something is a mitzva, there's no point explaining away why it is one. It's almost like a discussion we had in English this week, where our teacher argued that it's possible for a poem to have levels or meanings or depths that the author did not know about or intend, because it simply becomes its own artistic entity. I'm not sure if I buy the argument re: poems, but in terms of mitzvot, I think it wise to look at the mitzva qua mitzva instead of the origins or explanations thereof.
And, qua mitzva, korbanot are incredibly powerful. Korbanot aren't really pagan, because they're not really about G-d. They're about you.
This is a korban: buying a sheep in a crowded Jerusalem marketplace that swims with other pilgrims, whose voices meld into a chattering cacophony like a counterpart to the distant Levite chorus. The sheep costs more than you can afford, but you buy it anyway, pull it after you through the alleyways. Climbing up a hill to the shining building that belongs to G-d. A long line that slowly advances, solemn with common purpose. The air smells faintly of roasting meat, and strongly of incense, and the Temple gleams white and gold over your heads. Now the crowd is quiet, in awe of the time and place, so that the choir rings out clearly, and everywhere there are priests, running from place to place. You come forward at last, lean your hands against your sheep's head. You press down with all of your strength, pushing your sins out of you and on to its head. And then you watch it die, in a sudden, brutal slice, and the blood flows out into basins, and then is splashed around the altar. And then your sheep, your guilt, your sacrifice is burnt away, leaving only thick dark smoke that spirals upwards to touch the face of G-d.
The point isn't whether guilt is transferred onto an animal, or whether G-d wants a sheep to mollify Him after you have offended Him. The point is that you take something hard earned and give it to G-d. The point is that you can feel that your sin has been burned away, atoned for, so that you can begin again. That you feel that the animal is you, being slaughtered for your sins, bleeding at your feet. That your sinfulness is displaced so that you can strike against it and destroy it and burn it up to G-d. We think that because we are modern, we can have the feelings without the rituals, but rituals are more powerful than anything in the world.
"We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges" Rituals shape our consciousness, our feelings. "After the actions, the heart is drawn," to quote the Sefer HaChinuch, and, done correctly, a ritual creates a mood. Often, this requires an active suspension of disbelief, an effort on the part of the modern consciousness. We are so distant from sacrifices that kaparot makes no sense to us, so far removed from feudal ceremony that the steps and bows of shemona esreh seem entirely empty. Sometimes, I think it's worthwhile to read fantasy books just so as to be able to have a picture to conjure up in your head when you bow for Modim (a teacher in seminary insisted on translating Modim as 'we pledge fealty' and the mood really works, even if the translation is iffier.) The point is, sacrifices are a ritual, and like all other rituals, the meaning is derived from the pageantry, from the emotion, from the unsophisticated, unintellectual ceremony. And I don't think that this is something that we grow up out of as we become modern, but merely something that we forget.