Vayikra: Learning to love Leviticus

Vayikra: Learning to love Leviticus

Congregation Beth Sholom, Teaneck, Conservative

This Shabbat we begin reading the book of Leviticus, Vayikra. For many modern readers, Leviticus is a difficult book to relate to because its main subject matter is ritual animal sacrifice and ritual purity and impurity. What do these two ideas have to with our modern sensibilities and understandings? Many of us probably answer that question with a resounding “Nothing” and walk away from Leviticus. I am asking you to please give Leviticus another chance, and I will give you a few reasons why you should.

Number one, think about the placement of Leviticus and how it connects to the rest of the books of the Torah. Genesis and Exodus are filled with great stories-—stories about families and individuals, stories about the birth of the Jewish people, our exodus from Egypt, and our receiving the Law from God. Numbers is the story of a nation in rebellion, a nation trying to understand its own identity and place in the world. Deuteronomy is the story of a leader (Moses) who needs to come to terms with his people growing up and maturing, and with the fact that they will move on to the next stage of their development without his physical presence.

And what about Leviticus? Leviticus is none of these things, and yet, without Leviticus, none of the rest of those books and stories would be possible. If the other four books tell us where we’ve been and where we’re going, Leviticus tells us how to get from here to there. There is one concept that connects all of the disparate sections of Leviticus, and it is the concept of kedushah, holiness: how we can aspire to holiness, what rituals we should do to help us on that journey, and how the different members of the community can assist us as we pursue this worthy goal. Leviticus is located directly in the middle of the Torah and that is no coincidence. As foreign as it might be to our ears, the lessons it has to teach us help connect us to our past and our future, and give us a path forward.

Reason number two: We learn priceless religious concepts in the book of Leviticus. Although the modern temperament tends to discount prescribed ritual in place of spontaneous religious expression, there is something powerful in the human psyche that pushes us to “do the right thing” at certain moments in our lives. Leviticus teaches us about the power of ritual and the importance of having a tradition to rely on at moments of despair or ecstasy. As former Chancellor Schorsch of JTS wrote, “Ritual is a way of giving voice to ultimate values.” We learn that lesson in Leviticus.

Leviticus also teaches us the following phrase, one of the most important in the entire Torah for my religious life: “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). This phrase, found at the beginning of Parashat Kedoshim, teaches us that Judaism demands of us a standard of moral and ethical behavior, a deep understanding of right and wrong — not because we should fear punishment or because we might get caught, but simply because some behaviors are not appropriate for beings made in the image of God. They are wrong. Full stop.

It is not terrible for us to be challenged by some of the ideas found in Leviticus, including animal sacrifice and the concepts of ritual purity and impurity. As long ago as the era of the Prophets, Jews were challenging the morality of the sacrificial system, and wondering where too much attention was placed on the ritual and not enough attention on the moral character of people. And as for ritual purity and impurity, I believe that a surface level reading of these restrictions and rules does not do them justice, and reveals just a small bit of what the laws were meant for in ancient Israelite society, and what they could mean for us today.

Taken as a whole, the book of Leviticus presents us with a challenge. Do we read texts from our tradition that might be multi-layered and nuanced, texts that might take time for us to decipher and relate to our understanding of the world? Or, do we play it safe and only read the parts of the Torah that we can easily relate to such as the family drama in Genesis and the exodus from Egypt?

The book of Leviticus opens with the word “Vayikra,” which is traditionally written in Torah scrolls with a small aleph as its final letter. The most common rabbinic understanding of the small aleph is that when Moses wrote the Torah, he did not want anyone to think that God was actually bothering to meet with him on purpose, so he made a small aleph, hoping to change the opening phrase from “The Lord called to Moses” to “The Lord happened upon Moses” (trust me, it works in Hebrew). The rabbis see this small aleph as evidence of Moses’ humility, his desire to not be the center of attention. 

But what if the small aleph is there to remind us that we all have the opportunity to answer the call of our tradition but only some of us bother to pick up the phone? What if God calls us (metaphorically speaking) and we simply don’t answer because we can’t be bothered? Don’t let the small aleph represent you taking a step back. Please-—take a step forward. I know you won’t be disappointed. 

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