Three students, distracted from their studies, were caught staring out the window. The first student apologized for being mesmerized by a beautiful bird. The second was intrigued by the flight of the bird. And the third wondered, “If that bird died in flight and fell on a fence, to whom would it belong?” The rabbi praised the last student, “At last! Someone who understands Judaism!”
Is Judaism preoccupied with trivia? Or with life – full and real, detail by detail? I remember when I first read Leviticus and was puzzled by its obsession with ancient ritual. Sacrifices? Intricate instructions for the recipes of sin, guilt, and thanksgiving offerings? Certainly, later on in Leviticus there was more “relevant” material: dietary laws, the ethical code, festival observances. But first we had to wade through burnt offerings, blood splattering, leprosy, and sexual improprieties.
Why does our tradition emphasize that one begins learning Torah with Leviticus? What about the great stories in Genesis as a more logical starting place? Shouldn’t we learn about the lives of our matriarchs and patriarchs as we develop our own Jewish lives? Leviticus seems the epitome of complicated Judaism: unclear, questionably relevant, thick.
Just like life.
I love Leviticus. It is so real. It tracks our maturation parsha to parsha: from the opportunity for every flawed person to bring an unflawed offering to God, to creating sacred community, with ritual and ethics, in space and time. Like anything else with weight and import, Leviticus is complex, holding much beneath the surface, filled with insight and wisdom.
The first three words alone breathe intrigue. “Vayikra el Moshe” – “And He (God) called to Moses.” The last letter of vayikra is an alef, and interestingly, that alef is written smaller than the other letters. The fuller verse reads, “And He called to Moses, and God spoke to Moses….” Why doesn’t the text simply say, “And God spoke to Moses”? There are various interpretations.
Consider: The Torah’s words compose a giant puzzle, put together in a certain way. We examine individual pieces and discover further meaning. “Vayikra el Moshe” with that baby alef becomes “Vayakar a’ el Moshe” – the a’ standing for that smaller alef. The standard translation, “And He called to Moses” shifts because of that small alef into “And God was precious to Moses.” The text then reads: “And (because) God was precious to Moses, so God spoke to him….” Moses could hear God because he felt drawn toward and open to God. God was precious to him.
Is God precious to us? How do we demonstrate that?
Who is dear to us? Certainly we hear the voices of our children – except when we’re too immersed in our own work. Our spouses are precious, and we hear them, usually. But the truth is that we hear what is precious to us at the moment. We are not well disciplined at listening – hence our core prayer is the Shema: Listen, Israel! Pay attention! If we did, we wouldn’t have to remind ourselves twice daily.
Which voices are indeed precious? The voice of the stranger weeping? In the refugee camps of Darfur? The homeless of Paterson or Hackensack? Or do we only hear the voices of our own family, in our own homes and synagogues, in Israel? Is the stranger’s voice of pain as precious and important as our own?
God teaches, “You cannot truly love Me until you love your fellow human being.” To be loved is to be precious. Even for the stranger and, perhaps, especially for the stranger.
Leviticus elevates our purpose beyond self and family and even peoplehood. It teaches that we need more than stories to open our hearts and ears. We need specific guidance: the rituals and ethics that will transform us into a kingdom of priests, a people that serves the world and God. This is the power of Leviticus. It is, in this sense, the most precious book of the Torah because of its capacity to draw us closer to God – even as it makes us dearer to one another.