This week we begin Sefer Vayikra ("The Book of Leviticus") in our lectionary cycle. I wrote the following dvar torah back in 2004 when I was rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Plattsburgh, New York.
The cycle of weekly Torah portions begins and ends on Simchat Torah in the fall, but it doesn’t necessarily match up with the cycle of Jewish holidays on the calendar. So, for instance, tonight – with Passover less than two weeks away, and many of us already busy cleaning our houses of chametz [NOTE: THIS YEAR (2014) PASSOVER DOES NOT START UNTIL THE EVENING OF APRIL 14], we’ve already finished the Torah’s account of the Exodus some weeks ago. Now we are ready to start a new book of the Torah --- Sefer Vayikra/ The Book of Leviticus – which has an entirely different focus.
Still, as a way of getting ourselves into the text of this sometimes difficult biblical book, I’d like first to go back to the Passover story in the Sefer Shemot/ the Book of Exodus for a moment. We all remember God’s famous demand relayed by Moses to Pharoah, “Let my people go”. But that’s actually only the first half of the sentence. Does anyone remember the rest of it?
There are a few variations in different parts of Sefer Shemot, but basically the full idea is, as expressed in Ex. 8:16 --- is “Shalach [et] ami v’ya’avduni” /“Let my people go that they may serve me” (See also, e.g., Ex. 4:23, 7:16).
And so, one way of thinking about Sefer Vayikra/ the Book of Leviticus is that it attempts to answer the second part of the challenge “Let my people go that they may serve me”. Leviticus, beginning with this week’s parasha, talks about how to serve God.
The first thing to note is that “avodat hashem”/ “service to God” comprises both ritual and ethical observances. The first seven chapters of Leviticus focus on ritual service – which in biblical times centered on grain offerings and animal sacrifices, and which in subsequent eras and to this day centers on prayer. Indeed, the same Hebrew word, “avodah” refers both to the sacrificial rites of the ancient Temples, and the prayer services of the post-biblical synagogue.
Later chapters of Leviticus have a mixture of ethical precepts like loving your neighbor as yourself, and honesty in commerce --- and ritual precepts like the dietary laws of kashrut and the traditional practices of family purity.
But Judaism teaches that both the ritual and the ethical precepts have the same purpose – the purpose of acknowledging God as the source of all life and the master of all the world.
The Jewish people include thelogically orthodox folks who believe that the Torah is an accurate account of God’s will for humanity --- and theologically liberal folks who believe that the Torah is the record of the Jewish people’s necessarily imperfect human efforts to find ultimate meaning. And of course, we can and do fall everywhere in between on that spectrum as well.
And the particular synagogue we belong do doesn’t necessarily determine where in the theological spectrum each of us falls.
No matter where on the theological spectrum we find ourselves, it’s a challenge to relate to the detailed descriptions of the rituals of grain offerings and animal sacrifices in these first weekly portions of the Book of Leviticus. For example, the Orthodox Rabbi Yisroel Ciner writes that “For most people with a western upbringing, the karbonos [sacrifices] are an issue that is difficult to relate to. For many they bring back bad memories of late night horror movies.” (www.torah.org/learning/parsha-insights/5757/vayikra.html)
Similarly, Reform Rabbi Norman Lipson writes in this week’s “Torat Chayim/Living Torah” article from the U.R.J. website, “For anyone who has ever read or studied Torah, approaching Leviticus […] often fills one with a desire to skip whole sections it in search of ostensibly more religious or meaningful verses that hopefully manage to shine through the often tediously redundant narration, with its graphic detail of numerous sacrifices and how and why they would be performed.” (accessible at www.urj.org/learning).
One important way of understanding the sacrifices is to place them in a historical context. No less a giant of traditional Judaism than Maimonides took that approach in his “Guide of the Perplexed”, written some eight centuries ago. Here’s a taste of his approach:
“[A] sudden transition from one opposite to another is impossible … [A]t that time the way of life generally accepted and customary in the whole world and the universal service upon which we were brought up consisted in offering various species of living beings in the temples in which images were set up, in worshipping the latter, and in burning incense before them … [God’s] wisdom, may [God] be exalted, and [God’s] gracious ruse … did not require that [God] give us a Law prescribing the rejection, abandonment, and abolition of all these kinds of worship. For one could not then conceive the acceptance of [such a Law], considering [human] nature, which always likes that to which it is accustomed. At that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon the people to worship God, would say: ‘God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, [or] to fast, [or] to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.” (Guide III:32, translation by Shlomo Pines, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1963, pp. 525-526).
Maimonides then goes on to explain how the point of the sacrifices was not really that God needs to be fed or that God enjoys the smell – obviously Judaism does not contemplate the concept of a God who is so limited by human weaknesses and drives. Rather, as the Talmud states in a quote that Maimonides cites in the Guide of the Perplexed – “The Torah is written in the language of human beings.” (Baba Metzia 31b) (Guide I: 26). Rather, Maimonides argues, since these were the natural modes of behavior at the time of the Torah, the best way to establish monotheism in the world would be to modify and redirect these existing practices towards the one Eternal God.
We no longer worship God through grain offerings and animal sacrifices as described in the Torah. But we still seek to find ways to express gratitude to God for our blessings. We still seek to find ways to reconnect with God when we feel that God is hidden from us. And we still seek to find ways to relate to our fellow human beings that acknowledge the divine spark within each of us.
The closing chapters of Exodus talk about the building of the Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting. Leviticus opens with the statement: “Adonai called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting”.
In a classic midrash from Vayikra Rabbah, the sages imagine God saying to God’s self – “All of this glory Moses did for me and I am inside and he is outside?! [So God] called him that he might enter within.”
And so does God call each of us. Boi v’shalom. Enter in peace.
(c) Rabbi David Steinberg 5774/2014