Following the fateful story of the Garden of Eden, “Hashem, God, made for Adam and his wife, leather garments, and he clothed them.” What is the significance of the material?
The Tzofnas Paneach explains that leather is one of the only new materials upon which we do not make a Shehecheyanu blessing prior to wearing. The reason is that an animal had to die in order to create the garment. And, as King David declares, “God is merciful over all his creations.” Since Adam and Eve were unclothed and therefore unfit to recite a blessing, leather was the only option!
But why would we kill animals altogether? If doing so implies a lack of mercy, then should we not simply desist from killing them for our benefit?
תַנְיָא: ״מִכֶּם״ — וְלֹא כּוּלְּכֶם, פְּרָט לַמּוּמָר. ״מִכֶּם״ — בָּכֶם חִלַּקְתִּי, וְלֹא בָּאוּמּוֹת. ו״מִן הַבְּהֵמָה״ — לְהָבִיא בְּנֵי אָדָם הַדּוֹמִין לִבְהֵמָה. מִכָּאן אָמְרוּ: מְקַבְּלִין קׇרְבָּנוֹת מִפּוֹשְׁעֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּדֵי שֶׁיַּחְזְרוּ בִּתְשׁוּבָה.
“Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When any man of you brings an offering to the Lord, you shall bring your offering of the cattle, of the herd, or of the flock” (Leviticus 1:2). “Of you,” i.e., some of you, but not all of you may bring an offering – to the exclusion of an apostate. “Of you” additionally serves to emphasize that among you, the children of Israel, I distinguish (between those who observe the Torah and are fit to bring an offering, and those who are not fit), but not among the nations (i.e., in regard to the other nations, all people may offer sacrifices). “Of the cattle” is expounded as follows: To include people who are like animals. From here the Sages stated: We accept voluntary sacrifices from Jewish transgressors, in order to enable them to repent.
At first blush, to say that sinners are like animals seems a little harsh. But the truth is that we are all initially like animals. From a physical perspective, we are little more than further evolved mammals. What distinguishes us from the animal kingdom are our souls. Human beings are imbued with a divine spirit than allows to act in a heavenly manner.
According to chasidic philosophy, each of us has two souls: a Godly soul and an animal soul. These two souls should not be thought of as good vs. evil. Certainly the Godly soul is good. But the animal soul is not evil, it is merely animalistic. It is driven by natural impulses: the desire to eat, drink, sleep, and procreate. None of these desires are inherently problematic. On the contrary, when channeled properly, these drives may be divine and pure.
The Arvei Nachal (Vayikra) interprets the Gemara on a kabbalistic level. According to the Arizal, certain sinners are reincarnated as animals. The “people who appear as animals” doesn’t refer to those offering the sacrifices, but to the animals themselves. They might appear to be animals, but in fact, they’re reincarnated human beings. The Arizal teaches that it’s extremely painful to come back as an animal. But the soul’s atonement is effected when the animal is sacrificed upon the holy altar.
According to this understanding, it is merciful to kill these animals, thus saving and elevating these lost souls. In fact, every time we utilize the lower forms of creation for our spiritual service, we elevate them and transform them from the physical domain to the spiritual realm. Undoubtedly, picking an apple from a tree entails cutting it off from its source of life. And all the more so, slaughtering an animal. But when we make a bracha over that apple or steak, and eat it with the intentionality of utilizing the strength to serve Hashem, we elevate those mundane creations.
Does that mean that there was no pain incurred in that elevation process? Of course the separation of each of those creations from their sources of life was painful. That’s why we do not recite a shehecheyanu over the leather jacket, and in that regard, obviously, the animal’s pain is undoubtedly greater than the apple’s, hence the distinction. Nevertheless, like most things of value in life, a little pain is necessary to achieve growth.
Nahmanides suggests that when we offer a sacrifice, we should imagine that we are being offered up on the altar. Judaism does not believe in human sacrifice or substitution of animals for human beings. Perhaps the Ramban is teaching that the sinner is standing alongside the altar because their animalistic soul that has expressed itself in stronger ways than their Godly soul and brought them to resemble animals. Unless they mend their ways, they might end up like that reincarnated individual. Those thoughts and that imagery should motivate the individual to redirect their lives for the better.
Knowing that every creation we encounter is waiting to be elevated by human beings compels us to be mindful of every interaction in life. Certainly, in the absence of the Holy Temple, we don’t have sacrifices. But if this chicken drumstick is a lost soul awaiting elevation and repair, it’s scary to think that we might ruin their chances by gluttonously and mindlessly devouring the delicious piece.
We need to think carefully about every creation of the Almighty’s that we are utilizing. All it takes is a second’s thought about consuming the item for the right reasons. May you devote your life to elevating the world and helping every creature reach its full potential!