Vayikra: Imagining life without Leviticus
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Vayikra: Imagining life without Leviticus

Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

Over twenty years ago, my colleague Rabbi Barry Block gave a sermon entitled “The ‘Boring’ Parts of the Torah.” He wrote playfully, “Imagine scheduling your Bat Mitzvah, only later to learn that the portion is ‘boring.’ If a rabbi calls a Torah portion ‘boring,’ it must really be a yawn!… But the Torah is filled with intriguing stories and inspiring directives, many of them highly concentrated in just a few weekly portions. Why couldn’t we just spread those ‘good’ parts through the year, and skip the ‘boring’ parts of the Torah?…Out would go chapter upon chapter from Leviticus, all about animal sacrifice in the ancient Temple….”

By the end of Rabbi Block’s words, (which incidentally, address another parashah besides Vayikra) he argues that in many ways, concepts that are difficult for us to appreciate can still possess great beauty, and impart meaning into our contemporary lives. So how do we make sense of the text that is before us? What lessons might we able to glean from passages related to animal sacrifice and priestly rites? If Leviticus appears merely interested in bodily discharges and sinful behaviour, wouldn’t it be better to envision life without Leviticus?

Perhaps not. To visit any synagogue in our community this Shabbat, regardless of denomination, is to find each community reading and wrestling with the opening chapters of Leviticus. And there are gems scattered throughout the book of Leviticus. Chapter 19’s holiness code that teaches us how to respect one another and reminds us that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Chapter 23’s calendar of festivity and celebration, reminding us of the importance of sacred time. Chapter 25’s injunction to care for the world around us and the environment in which we live.

And there’s more. The journey to understand this text spans generations. We are not alone in our quest to understand these sacred words. The prophets, wondering if God actually required sacrificial offerings, tried to help the masses understand the true reasons behind their sacrifices – moments of transition and gratitude, atonement for error and poor judgment, developing a deeper connection with God. They thought that the very act of sacrifice should be used as a catalyst for seeking true forgiveness, for upholding the rights of the widow, the orphan, and the downtrodden, and for further and deeper personal introspection. Many rabbis, puzzled by the cultic language of Leviticus, sought interpretations suggesting the importance of prayer, and arguing that a Temple restored in Jerusalem would be a place symbolizing peace and redemption, and not necessarily a place of animal sacrifice.

Leviticus is beautiful for us because it provides a window into our people’s sacred past and it helps us to understand how our ancestors made sense of the world in which they lived. This text is often called Torat Kohanim, the laws for the priests, and we are commanded to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation dedicated to God. When a text appears unclear, or we don’t like the message it contains, we might need to look a little bit deeper, to see if there is another angle or another perspective with which we might address the subject. The prophets did this, the rabbis did this, and so too do we.

So much of Leviticus is focused upon the concept of ritual. Commentator Baruch Levine writes in the JPS Torah Commentary, “Something in the human soul responds to ritual, whether it be the formality of a traditional wedding or the rituals of a sporting event or a public meeting. There is something comforting about the familiar, the recognizable, the predictable. There is something deeply moving about performing a rite that is older than we are, one that goes back beyond the time of our parents and grandparents.”

In many regards, ritual is seen as comforting, sanctifying and necessary. We always hear how people enjoy attending Shabbat dinners, or feel better about their workweek after spending an hour singing in the synagogue and greeting one another, because the ritual of doing so is uplifting and rejuvenating. Most people rabbis work with want their wedding or their funeral to be “traditional,” “by the book,” because familiarity soothes the soul.

Each of the concepts of community, interpretation, ritual, and sacred questioning returns us to our sacred book of Leviticus. Interpreting the teachings of Leviticus leads us to recognize that prayer, charity, study, reflection, remembrance, timely celebration of our festivals, and gathering together as a community in times of joy and sadness can help each of us draw closer to one another, and in the process draw closer to God. At the end of the day, we simply cannot imagine life without Leviticus.

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