My teeth clench every year when I start to read the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.
The first two Torah portions, Vayikra (“And [God] Called”), and Tzav (“Command”) consist of rules for various kinds of offerings, or sacrifices, at the altar. The Torah refers to these offerings or sacrifices as a korbanim (קָרְבָּנִים) = things brought near.1 Since God now inhabits the tent-sanctuary behind the altar, at least part time,2 bringing something to the altar means bringing it close to God—i.e., presenting it to God as a gift.
Five of the six offeerings God requests in the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav include animals slaughtered on the spot.
The book of Leviticus opens when God calls to Moses from the new Tent of Meeting and begins giving instructions for korbanim:
“… you shall offer your offerings (korbanim) from the animals from the herd or the flock. If someone offers an olah from the [cattle] herd, he shall offer an unblemished male at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. He shall offer it out of his own desire in front of God. And he shall lean his hand on the head of the olah, and it will be accepted for him, to atone for him. And he shall slaughter the young bull in front of God. Then the descendants of Aaron, the priests, shall offer the blood and splash the blood against the altar all around … (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:2-5)
olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering. (From the root verb alah (עלה) = go up.) In an olah the entire slaughtered animal is burned up, so olah is often translated as “burnt offering” or even “holocaust offering”.
The same procedure applies to every animal offered at the altar: the donor leans his hand on the animal’s head, then slices its throat. A priest splashes its blood on the altar, then butchers it. For an olah, the entire animal is burned up on the altar; for other types of animal offerings, the priest waves around various pieces of the animal, then burns the fatty parts on the altar to make smoke rise up to God. The breast and right thigh are for the priest and his family to eat. The remaining meat is eaten by the donor and his guests.
This is difficult reading for someone who stopped eating mammals and birds 24 years ago because they are too much like human beings.3
The Torah’s instructions emphasize the affinity between livestock animals and humans be requiring the donor to lean or lay a hand on the animal’s head just before slaughtering it. This act transfers the donor’s identity to the animal, so that killing and offering it is the equivalent of sacrificing one’s own life to God.4
Live, healthy cows, sheep, and goats were valuable items among the ancient Israelites, suitable as bribes, gifts, or payments to chieftains and prophets. Dead animals were only good for hospitality, as part of a festive meal.
What use would God have for a dead animal?
In the book of Leviticus, the fatty parts of the animal offerings are burned up into smoke, which ascends to the heavens, and the scent of that smoke pleases God. The Torah does not specify whether an anthropomorphic God loves the smell of burning fat, or loves the smell that means humans are sacrificing valuable assets as gifts.
I can understand the desire to present God with a gift—out of sheer gratitude for our lives in the world, or out of a desire to return to harmony with the divine after we have strayed. But I am grateful that Jews have moved beyond killing animals at an altar.
So what we can give to God instead? The usual answer is that prayer has replaced animal offerings, and the passion of sincere prayer replaces the fire on the altar.
The first two Torah portions of Leviticus describe six types of fire-offerings. In Part 2 of this post I will suggest alternatives for each type. But first, let us look at fire-offerings in general.
One thing that all six types of offerings have in common is that part of the offering is placed on the altar fire, and it goes up in smoke. Even the minchah offering, which consists only of grain products, requires oil and frankincense on each item put on the altar.
When this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, describes the first type of offering, the olah or rising-offering, it establishes that fire-offerings make God relax.
…and the priest shall bring all of it and make it go up in smoke on the altar; it is an olah, an isheh of restful fragrance for God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:13)
isheh (אִשֵּׁה) = fire-offering; offering burned on the altar. (From the word eish (אֵשׁ) = fire.)
Yet fire often evokes the emotion of anger the Torah; Biblical Hebrew, like English, uses words meaning “burning” and “inflamed” to indicate rage, especially God’s rage. When the anthropomorphic God-character in the Torah gets a “hot nose”, a plague or another disaster kills thousands of Israelites, the innocent with the guilty.5
It is not the fire that that God finds restful, but the fragrance of the smoke.6
Today, some people claim that it is good to feel outrage at politicians, at authority figures who oppress the poor, and even at people who vote the “wrong” way, because outrage motivates people to take action. Yet political action is more effective, as well as more ethical, when it comes from compassion tempered by reason. Anger is an overwhelming emotion that carries us away, leading us to do things that our better selves regret later.
Anger is also a selfish emotion. When we say or think “How dare they!” the underlying assumption is that “they” are threatening our power. Both the child abuser and the rioter use what power they have to express an anger that does not respect other human beings.
Can we turn the fire of our natural selfish anger into smoke that rises up to the level of the divine?
To soothe an angry impulse we might make an isheh, a fire-offering, by praying, chanting, or meditating on our anger. (I find that walking while I do this helps to release the physical energy of anger.) If we are easily inflamed by controversies, or by the behaviors of other people, we might imagine offering our passionate anger on the altar to burn itself down. We might visualize the smoke rising into a clear, calm sky. After a while we might reach a state in which our original outrage is tempered both by rational considerations and by empathy for people who at first appeared to be enemies.
If we are anxious or afraid of the anger expressed by another person or group, we might sing prayers while imagining the majesty of God’s pillar of fire leading the way through the wilderness. Eventually we, too, can move forward into the unknown with courage and calm strength.
Next week I will look at the six types of fire-offerings described in the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, and how we might address the impulse behind each one today—without slaughtering animals.
(I published an earlier version of this essay in March 2014.)
- From the hifil form of the verb karav (קָרַב) = come near.
- Exodus 29:42-45. See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.
- When I posted my first version of this essay in 2014, it was 18 years.
- Samakh (סָמַךְ) = he leaned (or lay) a hand (or hands) on. When Moses lays his hands on Joshua, he transfers some of his authority and spirit to his successor as the leader of the Israelites (Numbers 27:18-23, Deuteronomy 34:9). When the Levites are ordained, the Israelites lay hands on them to make them the people’s substitutes for service in the sanctuary (Numbers 8:10). The word samakh is also used for the ritual before an animal sacrifice. The word smikha (סְמִיכָה), from the root samakh, refers to the ordination of rabbis and other Jewish religious functionaries to this day. See my post Tzav: Oil and Blood.
- For example, Exodus 32:10, Numbers 11:1-35, and Numbers 17:7-10.
- See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.