Why I Love Leviticus
Why I Love Leviticus
Vayikra, Leviticus, is my favorite book in the Torah. Its first portion, also called Vayikra, appears to deal mainly with the priestly cult and laws of sacrifice. But our discussion will show, this describes the portion and successive ones only at the most basic, p'shat, or "simple" level. As an introduction to all the upcoming portions of Leviticus, let's look at six crucial lessons I believe are in the third book of our Torah.
Lesson 1: It's all about communication. The Book of Leviticus starts with the word Vayikra, "and [God] called." God calls out to a human being, an extraordinary and challenging concept right at the first word. The text does not begin with the more common vay'dabeir, "[God] spoke" or vayomer, "[God] said," but rather "[God] called." Verse 2 goes on to instruct Moses to "Speak to the Israelite people and say to them . . . " using both the roots dalet-bet-reish and alef-mem-reish: "speak" and "say." All together, the first two verses use three kinds of communication: call (God to Moses); and speak and say (Moses to the Israelite people). One might think the Book of Leviticus is about sacrifices, leprosy, and menstruation. While it does deal with those subjects, the core of the book is about communication.
And it makes us ask: Who calls us and how are we called? How do we know if we are ever "called" by God?
Lesson 2: Communication is all about closeness. The word for sacrifice, korban, comes from the root kuf-reish-bet, meaning "to bring near." A form of this word appears four times in the second verse and numerous times throughout the book. How do we achieve closeness with God without knowing our "sacrifices" are accepted? How do we achieve closeness to each other while still retaining our individuality and uniqueness? We "call out" to a person, we "call upon" a person, and we "call to" a person. Each way of relating to another human being is an attempt at closeness. We "call out" to gain attention, to be heard, to be recognized, to be found or to find. We "call upon" to build a community. We "call to" for a conversation that will help us understand one another better.
Those animal sacrifices we now find so yucky were actually attempting to call out to us, to call upon us, and to call to us.
Lesson 3: We needn't be afraid to address the Torah's insistence on the boundaries of purity and impurity, which are very misunderstood terms. Yes there are many "taboos" in Leviticus, most notably food and sex taboos. What the Torah deems as tamei, "impure" or tahor, "pure" are not actually attached to cleanliness. Anthropologists note that taboos are the system by which certain objects or persons are set aside as either sacred or accursed. Such objects or persons inspire both fear and respect. How can we understand boundaries today and a sacredness so holy it is taboo?
Lesson 4: The Book of Leviticus, while seemingly about the priesthood and priestly functions, also posits for the first time the democratization of holiness. It is not just the priests who offer sacrifices. All the people bring sacrifices — men and women, Jew and non-Jew — at times of anxiety, celebration, sorrow, sin, and also everyday normalcy. All this leads to the statement, "Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy!" K'doshim tih'yu (Leviticus 19:2, see also 20:26). Such a provocative statement in the ancient world — that laypeople as well as priests can attain holiness — will eventually lead to the total democratization of Judaism post-priesthood.
Lesson 5: The text offers a framework for one who has anxiety over his or her status with God to regain a sense of order — even closure: I have sinned, I will sin, but I will be forgiven! In today's world we shy away from the concept of sin. Yet Vayikra reminds us that we are fully human, and as such, flawed. In that humanity we will all stumble and fall. Leviticus offers us a formula for getting back up. While that formula may seem antiquated, we humans still seem to need ritualized ways to feel clean, forgiven, and able to start fresh. Yom Kippur proves that.
Lesson 6: Vayikra and the sacrifices tell us how our services should be: Dramatic. Emotive. Reactive. Tactile. The "sacrificial rites" were called avodah in Hebrew. The other meaning of the word avodah is "work." To sacrifice an animal was hard work — you had to schlep it to the priest and hear him sing over it, slaughter it, and offer it with all sorts of incense and other accoutrements. Today prayer is avodah shebalev, "sacrifices from the heart." But it's still hard work — inner hard work. You need to give all of yourself, like an offering wholly burnt up. Are you on fire in services? If you take Vayikra as your model, you will be.
The Book of Leviticus calls us: Vayikra. The rest is commentary — let's go study it.
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is the founding Rabbi of City Shul, downtown Toronto' s new Reform congregation. Before that, for twenty years, she was the director of Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning. She is the author/editor of four books on women and Judaism (published by Jewish Lights Publishing).
I share Rabbi Goldstein's love of Leviticus for the reasons she states and for one more: the blood and guts. Truthfully, I am repulsed by the gory descriptions of flayed animals, but I know they're good for us.
The disgust of 21st century readers confronted with animal insides is a measure of just how far away we are from the truth of our corporeal existence. With each passing generation, we become ever-more abstracted from our physical selves. The hard labor of daily living — from procurement and preparation of food to provision and protection of shelter — is increasingly outsourced. Unless we are field laborers or slaughterhouse workers, we have only an attenuated relationship to the soil and to the creatures many of us consume. Unless we work in medicine or perhaps are ill, we have limited awareness of the insides of our own bodies and their raw vulnerability. It is possible to live our days not entirely aware that we are physical beings, for in many ways we have transcended the body.
But we are still creatures of the earth, and in Judaism, this reality is not to be rejected or avoided. Rather, Judaism understands our physicality to be essential to our relationship with God. The Psalmist writes (Psalm 103:1), "Bless YHVH, all my soul, and all of my insides bless [God's] holy name." Ibn Ezra writes of this verse that it means that our bodies themselves are instruments of praise, not just our souls (see Abraham ibn Ezra on Psalm 103:1). The root of the word for "insides" or "entrails," kuf-reish-vet, is the same as the root for the word "sacrifices" that Rabbi Goldstein points out also means "to draw near" to God. The Levitical sacrifices, as substitutes for our own bodies, represent a yearning to give ourselves over, body and soul, to serve God. May our study of Leviticus lead us to this integration and to this yearning.
Rabbi Rachel Timoner is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY.
Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1–5:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 757–778; Revised Edition, pp. 658–681;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 569–592
Haftarah, Esther 7:1–10; 8:15–17 / I Samuel 15:2–34
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,649−1,650; Revised Edition, pp. 1,453−1,454
The Haftarah Commentary, pp. 546−556