Vayikra: Challenging Your Animal
Two Jewish mothers met for coffee.
“Well, Mildred,” asked one. “How are your son and daughter doing?”
“To tell you the truth,” answered the second, “my Daniel has married a real good-for-nothing. She doesn’t get out of bed until eleven. She’s out all day spending his money on Heaven knows what and when he gets home exhausted, does she have a nice hot dinner for him? Psha!
“She makes him take her out to dinner at an expensive restaurant.”
“Ah! Layla has married a saint. He brings her breakfast in bed, he gives her enough money to buy all she needs, and in the evening he takes her out to dinner at a beautiful restaurant.”
One of the enigmatic things about the Bible is, no doubt, its obsession with animal sacrifices, which are described at length in this week’s Torah portion Vayikra and in many others to follow in the book of Leviticus.
While not getting into the widely debated issue of the morality behind animal slaughtering, the question remains: Why does the Bible, the divine blueprint for living, find it necessary to devote hundreds of its verses to the laws of animal sacrifices?
At one time, a group of Jews suggested deleting major parts of the book of Leviticus from a newly edited Bible. The plan never materialized, and but it reminds me of the anecdote about the Polish Jew who published Julius Caesar in a Yiddish translation. On the title page he wrote: “Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare; Translated and improved by Sender Krakovitz.”
The moment we attempt to “embellish” the Bible by deleting the parts we find distasteful, we can’t be surprised if our children or grandchildren delete the entire book from their lives. If I can dismiss the book of Leviticus because I find it gruesome, why should my child not reject the other four books of the Bible since he finds them to be irrelevant or uncomfortable?
But the question persists — how do the many laws of animal sacrifices described in the Torah serve as a road map for our personal journeys in life?
Know Thy Animal
We have noted numerous times that every law and episode recorded in the Torah may be appreciated not only from a physical and concrete point of view, but also from a metaphysical perspective.
The detailed laws of animal sacrifices are no exception. Physically, they don’t relate to us in our present age, but on a psychological and spiritual level, these laws relate to us a timeless message for human challenge and growth. Deleting them from the Bible is an amputation of a vital, indispensable component of the spiritual opportunities life offers us.
Every human being possesses an animal-consciousness within him or her. This dimension of our identity, constituting our regularly experienced sense of self, is self-oriented and self-absorbed. Its exclusive quest in life is self-preservation and gratification. It’s one question, repeated before every encounter and before every endeavor, is “What is in this for me?”
In stark contrast to this conspicuous layer of self lays a deeper dimension of identity, a G-dly consciousness, a yearning to transcend the self and to connect with ultimate truth and reality. It is a layer of self that allows us to love altruistically and to seek higher, idealistic goals in life.
This inherent dichotomy in the human structure gives rise to the perpetual struggle existing in the human psyche: the conflict between self-centeredness and self-transcendence, the tussle between frivolousness and immorality and genuine meaning and spirituality.
The Mission of Life
According to the Kabbalah, the G-dly consciousness was born into this world and tucked into an animal consciousness and body with the sole purpose of refining this inner animal identity and elevating it to the plane of the spirit.
Each soul was given a “custom-made” animal consciousness as its special pupil for the years they will be spending together on earth. The Divine soul is charged with the mission of educating and sublimating the animal self, of actualizing its deepest, yet latent, potentials. It is called upon to take a rock and turn it into a diamond.
When the G-dly soul fails to perform its task of cultivating and educating its animal-student, the animal self can become a dangerous force. To be sure, the animal self is not inherently evil, merely selfish. Yet in its never-ending quest for self-preservation and self-enhancement, it can turn into a monster, demolishing itself and other people in its beastly urge for self-assertion and gratification. What was a little once-upon-a-time cute animal existing in our heart may turn into an undomesticated wild beast that is coarse, profane and destructive.
This is why the Bible is so obsessed with animal offerings. After all, our chief task in life is to challenge our own inner animal, every day anew, bringing it one step closer to our higher, deeper self, and to the G-dly space within us.
The Four-Step Program
But how does one achieve this difficult goal?
That’s the reason for the many nuanced laws concerning animal offerings throughout the Bible. It is no easy task to refine your animal, and different people struggle with different types of animals. Therefore, the Torah devotes hundreds of verses to the subject, guiding human beings on their path to confront and deal with the various forms of animals existing in their psyche.
Generally, the Bible states that all animal offerings required the following four steps. First, you had to verbally declare that you are dedicating this animal to become an offering. Second, the animal was slaughtered by cutting both its esophagus and trachea (food pipe and windpipe). Third, its blood was sprinkled on the walls of the altar situated in the Holy Temple. Finally, parts of the animal fat were removed and burned in a flame on top of the altar.
What do these rituals represent in man’s psychological work on his animal self?
The first step in dealing with the animal in you is the determination and commitment to change the status quo of your life and to challenge your animal identity.
In the next stage, you must take the bull by its horns and exert full control over its very life and identity. To really refine your animal, you have to show it who’s boss. No ifs, ands or buts. If you let your animal continue living its own life, there is no hope for genuine refinement and reorientation.
Particularly, you must challenge the way your animal eats and drinks, symbolized by the cutting of the food pipe, and the type of oxygen it inhales, symbolized by the windpipe; you have to change both the atmosphere which surrounds it and the type of information being fed to it.
In the third step, you take the blood of your animal and sprinkle it on an altar. This signifies the fact that you ought never to destroy the fervor and passion of your animal self. Rather, you must take it and sanctify it to G-d, reorienting it toward lofty and spiritual goals.
Finally, you take its fat and burn in on top of the altar. Fat represents indulgence and pleasure seeking. As you begin the process of animal sublimation, you will discover how the same “fatty” enjoyment you experienced previously in your animalistic patterns can now be experienced in living a life of meaning.
So for those of us who struggle with such animal-like aspects as laziness, anger, self-centeredness, addiction, depression, apathy and dishonesty, the laws of animal offerings provide a written plan for corralling those impulses, breaking their wildness and converting them to a G-dly use. By doing so, we take our animal personality and bring it closer to the higher truth.
(This essay is based on an 1812 discourse by Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi and a 1953 letter by the Lubavitcher Rebbe)