When I read all the gory details of the animal sacrifices in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, I have to work hard to imagine how all that slaughtering, butchering, and throwing blood around could bring anyone closer to God. I believe that when we kill our fellow mammals we should mourn, not celebrate; and I view the slaughter as something we need to atone for, not as a means of atonement. Thank God we switched to worship through prayer about 2,000 years ago!
It would be easy for me to dismiss the earlier technology as an artifact of an ancient culture. I could simply address the issues of the present day, and campaign for treating all mammals more humanely, killing them only out of practical necessity, and reforming our diets. But I have dedicated myself to Torah study, and that means I must search for deeper meaning in the text, even the descriptions of animal offerings.
When I reread this week’s Torah portion, Tzav (Command), I noticed that the three basic motivations for offering an animal at the altar correspond to three instructions for what to do with the animal’s skin.
Although the book of Leviticus/Vayikra classifies offerings with five different names, covering at least a dozen different situations, they boil down to three reasons for bringing an animal to the altar: to express individual gratitude or devotion to God; to atone for individual guilt; and to atone for the whole community and/or its religious leaders.
When a man brought an animal offering to express gratitude or devotion (in the Torah only men bring animals to the altar), after the butchery, burning, and feasting, he got to keep the animal’s skin, which had value because it could be tanned to make leather.
We learn in the Torah portion Tzav that when an individual brought an animal offering to be relieved of guilt over a lapse, a wicked thought, a sin of omission, or an unintentional wrong against God, the priest who performed the atonement got to keep the hide.
As for the priest who brings near a man’s rising-offering, the skin of the rising-offering that the man brought to the priest will become his. (Leviticus/Vayikra 7:8)
or = skin (either human or animal)
When a priest brought an animal offering to make atonement for himself or for the entire community, the skin was burned on the ash-heap outside the camp where the ashes from the altar were taken. Moses does this in this week’s Torah portion during the ordination of Aaron and his four sons as the first priests of the Israelites, so they can begin their new offices with a clean slate.
And the bull and its skin and its flesh and its intestinal contents he burned in the ash-heap outside the camp, as God had commanded Moses. (Leviticus 8:17)
The three ways of disposing of the slaughtered animal’s skin make sense on a practical level. Someone who wanted to draw closer to God out of a devotional impulse, or gratitude for good fortune, should be allowed to keep any part of the animal not used in the ritual. Why should he suffer any extra economic loss?
However, someone who was guilty of missing the mark in his relationship with God needed to experience a loss, to give up something in exchange for being freed of his guilt. The priest got the skin because his service enabled the guilty man’s atonement. (Priests were not paid salaries, or given land to farm, so they received compensation in the form of meat, skins, and bread from various offerings.)
If a priest erred in his holy service, or if the whole community missed the mark (because the priests did not guide them properly), then it makes practical sense that the priest should get no economic benefit from the sacrificial animal’s skin. Burning the hide adds dramatic impact to this most serious kind of ritual offering.
I can also see symbolic meaning in the three ways of handling the skins. In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, God clothes Adam and Eve in skins before sending them out into the world. Skin is like a garment. It separates and protects an individual from the rest of the world. And skin, like a garment, also signals the individual’s public identity and role in the world.
Perhaps the skin of an animal offering represents the skin of the man who brings it. The Torah mandates that the man who brings an animal to the altar must lean his hands on its head before it is slaughtered. This gesture apparently connects the human with the animal, so the offering counts as his.
When someone brought an offering of gratitude or devotion, he was already in a good standing with God; the offering expressed his feelings and brought him even closer to the divine. His public identity did not need to change. Therefore he could keep the animal skin.
When someone brought an offering out of guilt, he had stumbled in his service to God. In order to atone and return to good standing, he needed to recognize, in his heart, that his position in the community and his connection with God must not be taken for granted. I think he gave the animal skin to the officiating priest as an act of humility.
Why was the skin burned when a priest brought an offering to atone for his own guilt, or for the guilt of the whole community? The Torah requires burning the skin outside the camp when a priest is ordained, when a priest discovers that he or the whole community has committed a lapse in service to God, and once a year on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement for everyone.
The priests of the Israelites, like all religious leaders today, and everyone else who guides people on the level of their souls, have to be meticulous in their service. If they violate someone’s trust; if they treat other humans without respect; if they preach one thing and do another; if they become so enamored of their role, so dazzled by their own garments, that they fail to examine their inner selves; then their guilt is so great they must burn their animal skins. That means they must leave their sanctuary and leave the community where they did wrong, going “outside the camp”, and give up their public roles, their animal skins.
What if the animal offering atones for the whole community, like the goat offered to God on Yom Kippur? Modern Jews do not cast lots on goats on Yom Kippur, but we do spend the day praying. Our prayers for atonement are in the plural: we have become guilty, we have betrayed, we have robbed, we have slandered, and so on. No one is isolated; we are all responsible for one another. We share the good and the bad. We are our brothers’ keepers. And our membership in the human community is intrinsic to our connection with the divine.
Therefore, when we want to come closer to God, we must all abandon the garments of our public roles. Burn those animal skins, and let the smoke rise up to the heavens!