This past Shabbat we said, “Chazak, Chazak, Venitchazek” as we prayed for God to give us the strength to continue reading from the Torah. As we said it, I was feeling that I am going to miss Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus, as I do each year.
I am going to miss the chanting of the Shirat Hayam, the song of the crossing of the sea, and I am going to miss the rising drama that begins with the humble burning shrub and call to Moses and ends with a showdown with Pharaoh and the Israelites marching en masse into the wilderness. Passover is a reprieve in that we have an opportunity to re-experience the Exodus, retell the story, act it out, ask questions about it, sing about it, dress up in our bathrobe-ancient-Israelite costumes, and eat matzah and charoset for eight days. However, it is now time to make our exodus from Exodus and move into the world of Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus. We will find that although Leviticus appears to be a world apart from Exodus, there is a strong link from one to the other and much meaning and spirit to be gained in Leviticus’ 27 chapters.
There is a direct link from the end of Exodus to the beginning of Leviticus. The Ramban, Nachmanides (1194-1270), makes the connection in his introduction to Leviticus. He writes, “This book is the Torah of the Priests and Levites (Torat Cohanim ve’Levi’im)…There was one book about the exile and the redemption from it [Exodus], and it concluded with the Holy Tent and the presence of God that filled the Mishkan (Tabernacle) [and then] God mandated the sacrifices and how to serve in the Mishkan so that the sacrifices would atone for them and their sins would not cause the Shechniah (God’s presence) to depart.”
Ramban describes Leviticus as the manual for how we the people and the priests are to serve God with the Mishkan as the center and organizing point of that service. Ramban refers to Leviticus by its rabbinic name, “Torat Cohanim,” Torah of the priests, and it is the priests who were already identified in the Book of Exodus who will now be the focus of Leviticus. Baruch A. Levine, in his commentary to Leviticus, explains that the words Torat Cohanim mean “instructions for the priests,” but that they can also mean “‘instructions by the priests,’ that is, the rulings and teachings of the priests that are addressed to the Israelite people.” Levine quotes the prophet Jeremiah as one piece of evidence of the alternate understanding of the phrase Torat Cohanim, “For instruction (Torah) shall not fail from the priests…”(Jer. 18:18) We see that Leviticus will provide the priests with further knowledge about their duties, and it will provide the people with ways to express their faith in, and adherence to, God both through the sacrifices and the ethical principles such as “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Leave the corners (pe’ot) of your fields for the poor.” Leviticus, then, elaborates on and continues where Exodus left off.
Just as Genesis 1, regarding the world, and the Book of Exodus as a whole, regarding the nation of Israel, are stories of creation, Leviticus is also a beginning and a continuance of the two other creations. Children would traditionally begin their Jewish study with Leviticus based on the teaching, “Children are pure; therefore let them study laws of purity”(Lev. R. 7:3). We find in this book a significant amount of material regarding ritual purification. Leviticus is a continuance of the creation of the world since its focus is the Mishkan whose construction narrative is presented as a creation story in the style of Genesis 1. That narrative even includes reference to Shabbat, the completion of creation, and today our Shabbat prohibitions are all related back to labors performed in the construction of the Mishkan. The opening of Leviticus shows that it is connected to the Exodus and the creation of the nation of Israel by starting with a call to Moses who led them out of Egypt, “Vayikra el Moshe…” “God called to Moses….” In the second verse, God instructs Moses first to speak to all the children of Israel. Despite the reality that one of the primary emphases of the book will be the priest, the first message is for the entire people who have made the exodus to freedom and are now organized and ready to be God’s people.
Leviticus also follows from Exodus by answering the question: We went free, but to what end? Leviticus will help the Israelites, and us today, to be a holy people dedicated to God’s service. Freedom alone was not the goal of the Exodus. The goal was to give the Israelites freedom to be people of God, and one of the most important things a nation needs is a set of ritual practices and values that help to define its meaning, essence, and purpose. Leviticus is a book of rituals and procedures, and at its heart, nearly in the middle of the book, is the parasha Kedoshim and ethical material as in the ideas mentioned above. In this third book of the Torah, then, we read about many of the ways we are to maintain the covenant that God made with us at Mt. Sinai.
And so although I’m a bit wistful as the Book of Exodus ends and Leviticus begins, I think I’m ready now to hear God open this next holy book by calling out to Moses in a gentle voice as if to say, “Let’s continue the journey together…”