This week's reading, like last week's, delves into the details of the ritual sacrifices performed by the priests in the Tabernacle. These sacrifices can generally be divided into three types: olah, in which the sacrificed animal is burned entirely on the altar, reflecting a solemn commitment and deference to the divine; shlamim, which is mainly brought during personal celebrations and holidays, partly burned, and partly eaten by both the priests and the owner to express the joy of the occasion; and hatat, brought as an atonement for sin and partly burned and partly eaten by the priests but not by the owner.
The last category has always given me trouble. I understand the reason for bringing a sacrifice as an expiation of sin: sacrifice means giving up something personally dear—in the ancient world, animals were the core of one's personal wealth—in order to express submission to God and His moral code. But if the sin has hurt others, clearly such a sacrifice is not enough. Indeed, the Bible itself states explicitly that before bringing this kind of sacrifice, we have to correct the harm we've done, returning what we stole or fixing what we've broken. Since every sin is also an offense to God, the ensuing sacrifice then expresses the depth of our awareness that we are accountable to a ledger beyond that of our neighbors. Bringing a sacrifice expresses regret and the desire to clear oneself before God.
So far, so good. But why, just as we are solemnly repenting for our misdeeds, must we also watch the priests help themselves to the sacrifice? What does their enjoyment have to do with our atonement?
There is, of course, a pragmatic answer. Unlike the other Israelites, the priests do not own land, instead dedicating their careers to ritual service. Their sustenance thus depends entirely on the contributions of others, mainly in the form of tithes on agricultural produce and whatever portion of the sacrifices is set aside for them by the terms of God's law. So in this case, too, they get to eat in return for their labors.
But this doesn't go far enough. Rituals are about symbolism: in every whiff of incense, as in every golden breastplate, linen garment, and sacrificial grain or animal, we need to look for something more profound. "There is no happiness," the rabbis once said about the sacrifices, "without eating meat"—meat being a symbol, here as elsewhere, of joy. If the shlamim is eaten by the owner in celebration of personal or holiday joy, the question then becomes: what are the priests celebrating in eating the hatat?
The answer has to do with their specific role. So long as they are on the job, priests are permanent representatives of Israel's position vis-à-vis God, and of God's vis-à-vis Israel. The rituals performed by them help define and articulate the singular relationship between the Creator and His chosen people.
And atonement? It is the final step in the process of repentance, of an introspection that leads to correction and self-improvement. The moment is certainly a solemn one for the repenting sinner, for whom it would be distasteful, to say the least, to rejoice in his penitence. But it is a joyous moment for the priests, who can present the Israelites before God as having moved another notch up the ladder of goodness—and show God's joy at their return to Him.
And, so, let them eat. In the end, nothing makes God happier than the self-improvement of mankind.
David Hazony is author of The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, recently published by Scribner.
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