One of the offerings on display in this week's portion is a "transgression offering," or chatat in Hebrew. A chatat is brought when a person inadvertently commits a transgression worthy of the death penalty. For example, a man accidentally sleeps with his sister.
The obvious question one must ask, as with all cases of chatat, is how could one possibly do this by accident? Well, he could forget that something like this is not allowed. Or he could think that he is actually sleeping with someone else. But whatever way you cut it, the bottom line is that there is an incredible level of negligence over here. A person has to be seriously asleep in order to do something like this by accident. He must be living in his own little amoral dream world.
So the Torah gives something to bang him over the head. He takes a cow to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. He watches as it is killed, chopped up, and burnt to ashes on the altar. He sees very bluntly and vividly just how fragile life is. And hopefully the experience will shake him out of his moral apathy. Hopefully he will take to heart that the day is short, there is so much to accomplish in this world, and he can't afford to dream his way through life.
As with any Jewish ritual, it only works as well as the person experiencing it allows it. If he sleeps through his chatat, as he is doing through the rest of his life, it will have no effect on him whatsoever. Torah is not a magic formula - i.e. do the ritual and it has the spiritual effect. Torah merely puts a person in an environment in which he can wake up to the value of life should he choose to do so. But the choice always remains his.
As a final point, I've heard it said that the concept of offerings is a tad barbaric, maybe. But by the same token, slaughtering an animal and stuffing its meat down one's throat sounds no more civilized to me. Why is it okay to kill an animal in order to walk on its hide, but not okay to kill an animal in order to wake oneself up to the meaning of life? I know which one sounds more civilized to me.