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Ten Things We Can Learn from Leviticus: D'var Torah by Rabbi Richard Hirsh

29/05/2017 12:24:28 PM


We are nearing the end of the annual reading of the Sefer VaYikra, the Book of Leviticus. Of the five books of the Torah, the one that most often agitates, aggravates or annoys liberal Jews is Leviticus. The archaic content, the priestly perspectives, the elaborate attention to the ancient system of sacrifices, and the regulations about ritual purity and impurity makes Leviticus a considerable challenge for teachers, preachers, and b’nei mitzva students seeking to extract contemporary meaning from some of the most obscure, archaic and complex religious writings of ancient Israel.

But I think Leviticus gets a bad rap. Scratch the surface and you will find the concerns addressed in the third book of the Torah are often universal human concerns that remain relevant. So this morning I want to try and redeem Leviticus by suggesting that we can learn contemporary lessons from this provocative text.

As you know, each book of the Torah is divided into parashiot, weekly lectionary readings. And as it turns out, the Book of Leviticus just happens to be divided into (…wait for it….) ten weekly portions. I imagine you can anticipate where this is going…So yes, this morning I want to share with you: “Ten Things We Can Learn From Leviticus.”


  1. VaYikra

I expect many of you know the old joke about the first Jewish astronaut. Upon his return from orbit, he was peppered with questions:  “so what was it like to be the first Jew to orbit the earth?” “To tell the truth,” he replied, “it was little tedious – I mean, what can I say:  shacharit, mincha, maariv…shacharit, mincha, maariv....shacharit, mincha, maariv…”

I imagine being part of the priestly civil service in charge of offering the daily schedule of sacrifices was not unlike being that first Jewish astronaut: burnt offerings, meal offerings, gratitude offerings, sin offerings, atonement offerings… burnt offerings, meal offerings, gratitude offerings, sin offerings, atonement offerings; olah, mincha, shelamim, chatat, asham;  olah, mincha, shelamim, chatat, asham...  I mean, how much spiritual energy can you put into or get out of the repetitive round of routine ritual after a few years?

But as in the days of the Temple, for the person who has brought that specific sacrifice/ korban, it was not one-more-in-a-series; it was the one-and-only. For the family celebrating a Bat or Bar Mitzvah, for the couple called up for an aufruf prior to their wedding, for the family making its first appearance in shul following a death, for the convert who counts for the minyan for the first time, it is a singular here-and-now moment. 

What may be routine to some is unique to others. Leviticus teaches us to appreciate both the comforting resonance of the familiar and the energizing effect of the unique.


  1. Tzav

The second Torah portion of Leviticus is called Tzav, and records the inaugural consecration of Moses’ brother Aaron as the first Kohen Gadol, the first High Priest, and the coordinate consecration of his sons.

In a procedure which fortunately is not emulated in modern ceremonies of rabbinic ordination, some blood from the dedicatory sacrifice is placed on “the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the large toe of his right foot.” (Lev. 8:23) The ritual understandably strikes us as archaic, perhaps primitive, and has the resonance of something supernatural or superstitious.

But the placement of the blood of consecration at the extremities of the body is surely not accidental. Think of the places where we are most vulnerable to being hurt, and to hurting others: through unkind speech that reaches the ear, through unkind acts that come from our hand, from stepping in front of or away from another person who has something to say or needs something from us.

It is not only the Kohen Gadol who needs to be careful at the extremities, at the places where “our space” and “the space of another” intersect and overlap. Leviticus teaches each of us to be cautious, caring and careful in our interactions with others.


  1. Shimini

As someone whose son is named Nadav, I can’t say that I am enamored of third Torah portion of Leviticus, where Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, are incinerated at the entrance to the Mishkan for reasons that remain elusive. Recent scholarship on ideas of sanctity in Leviticus help to place this narrative in a context where it becomes comprehensible, even if in contemporary terms it may not be comfortable.

Contemporary scholars Baruch Levine and Jacob Milgrom have demonstrated in their extensive commentaries on Leviticus that the priestly writers are obsessed with “dividing, setting apart [and erecting] barriers to access.” (R. Alter) Access needs to be authorized, and a hierarchy of holiness must be maintained. In Leviticus, the boundaries around what is sacred and holy are not metaphorical, they are tangible. For the writer of this story, Nadav and Avihu tripped that wire and broke that boundary.

We have made significant progress in the modern period in lowering the boundaries around what is sacred and holy in Jewish tradition. We have moved certain previously priestly prerogatives into the public realm, and made available to all what once was only allowed to descendants of Aaron who are Kohanim. Perhaps the most obvious example is what our Reconstructionist prayerbook calls “Birkat HaShalom” – “Benediction of Peace” – which in Orthodox and Conservative synagogues is still known as “Birkat Kohanim” or “The Benediction of the Priests.”

The caveat is that in lowering the boundaries to what is holy we run the risk of eradicating the distinction between the holy and the everyday, and compressing the sacred into the secular. In our eagerness to remove barriers to access, we need to be equally diligent about preserving a sense of the sacred.  Leviticus teaches us that there are some things, some moments, and some places that are holy, sacred, special and unique.


  1. Tazria

The fourth of the ten Torah portions of Leviticus is Tazria, also known as “the one about leprosy.”  O.K. – so it’s not the story of creation, or Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, or the Burning Bush. There is still a lot of interesting, if complex, material embedded in this peculiar description of eruptions on the skin, on clothes, and on the walls of a house. I even once had a Bat Mitzvah student who came up with a D’var Torah for this portion called “Fun with Fungus.”

Living in community always involves trying to maintain the balance between meeting the needs of the group and meeting the needs of individuals.  While it often seems that the Torah is being unkind in isolating the person who may have tzara-at, the intention is to protect the community, especially when there is uncertainty about whether a condition is contagious.

Today we rarely encounter medical concerns that would make a person a possible source of bodily contagion in the congregation. But the reality remains that one person can, unintentionally or intentionally, infect the spiritual life of a community by disrupting the balance between the needs of individuals and the needs of the community to which they belong. Leviticus teaches us the importance of identifying a contaminant before it can spread, and of isolating disruptive behavior that can threaten the spiritual health of the community.


  1. Metzora

The next Torah portion, metzora, continues the discussion of contagions. Both of these Torah portions, tazria and metzora, bring us into the ancient discussion of ritual impurity and purity, what the Bible calls tumah and tahara. Out of context, these terms can sound jarring and judgmental, as well as callous and even cruel. In the context of Leviticus, however, they primarily deal with who can and who cannot come into contact with the portable sanctuary or, later on, the Temple in Jerusalem. These regulations are less about isolating an individual than preserving the sanctity of holy space, and by extension, of God, who is presumed to be present within the Mishkan or the Temple.

In all cases of tumah/impurity of persons, the descriptions in Leviticus always conclude with rituals of purification, re-admittance and re-integration into the community. Put differently, tumah or ritual impurity is meant to be a transient state, not a permanent condition of perpetual isolation.

Inclusion rather than exclusion is the norm, the default, the desired state of being. Leviticus teaches us to find ways to bring people back in, rather than to look for reasons to keep them out.


  1. Aharei Mot

The sixth Torah portion of Leviticus is also the passage we read on Yom Kippur morning, and it deals with the rituals for purifying the ancient sanctuary, specifically from corpse impurity, and more generally from the accumulated impurities, tangible, ethical and spiritual, that have accumulated and attached themselves to the sacred space.

This is the Torah portion that discusses the ritual of the two goats, one of which is dedicated to God, and one onto which the High Priest transfers the sins of the Israelite community. That goat is taken to the edge of the wilderness and let loose.

Traditional as well as contemporary commentators are embarrassed by the seemingly magical nature of this ritual, and the almost automatic efficacy with which sins are dispatched. Like us, they are more comfortable with the replacement rituals of apology, atonement, prayer and fasting that require an active effort on our part.

What connects our Yom Kippur to this archaic version in Leviticus is a universal human problem: What do we do once we have said or done something that we wish we had not said or done, and we cannot undo it or take it back?

Where we have caused harm and hurt, we can try to heal. Where we have disappointed ourselves by the ways in which we have behaved, we can challenge ourselves to avoid those behaviors. Leviticus teaches us that what we cannot undo we must instead strive to transform.


  1. Kedoshim

The next Torah portion begins with these words: “You shall be holy, for I, God [YHVH] am holy.” (Lev 19:1). When at the Burning Bush Moses asks God for God’s name, the reply he receives is Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, meaning “Wait and see what I become next.” If, as Genesis teaches, each human is created btzelem Elohim, as a reflection and refraction of the Godliness that permeates all of existence, than to be holy as God is holy means we also must “wait and see what we become next.” Leviticus teaches us that holiness is a daily challenge and a life-long pursuit, not a status confirmed and to be taken for granted. 


  1. Emor

In parashat Emor, we read of the command to bring pure olive oil to the sanctuary for the menorah, “for kindling lamps regularly” –  “l’halot ner tamid.” (Lev 24:2)  As Bible scholar Nahum Sarna has noted, we lack certainty about the nature of the light of the Menorah in the Mishkan. (to Ex. 27:20): “...tamid may mean ‘with unfailing regularity’ [continual] or it may mean ‘uninterruptedly [continuous].

The question is how the menorah burned—was it kindled at nightfall and extinguished at daybreak, with precision and regularity, day in and day out, reliably and continually—or did it burn continuously, in the sense of never being extinguished?  It appears that it was only the fire on the altar of sacrifices that was kept burning at all times, continuously, while the menorah was used continually for overnight illumination and extinguished in the morning.

It is hard to be “on” all the time. We need a reliable and regular routine of pausing, of resting, of setting aside the tasks that come at us as well as those we initiate. Shabbat is one such opportunity, however it is that we choose to make that day special, different and distinct.

The alleged miracle of Hanukah notwithstanding, Leviticus teaches us that if something is allowed to burn without interruption, you can reasonably expect burnout.


  1. BeHar

Near the end of Leviticus, the short Torah portion BeHar (“…at the mountain…”) offers the rules for the sabbatical and Jubilee years. Every fifty years (yovel) property that has passed out of a family line is supposed to be restored.

The context of Leviticus is supposed to be Moses explaining the rules of this new religious tradition called “Torah” to the Israelites who recently escaped Egyptian slavery, and have not yet set foot in the Promised Land.

This makes these instructions about real estate even more peculiar. It is as if God is saying “just so you know, before we get there, if things get out of balance, and it appears that they will, and some people surrender their property and others acquire it because of economic and social inequality, you can count on a re-set and course correction – so don’t get too attached to anything, because, by the way, the whole land belongs to Me anyway, and you are just being allowed to live on it.”

No records have been discovered that suggest this massive transfer of property ever actually took place in ancient Israel, but the message remains meaningful: Don’t count on things staying the way they are.  Embrace the world but, as Rabbi Milton Steinberg so nicely put it, “hold it with open arms.” Leviticus teaches us to hold whatever we imagine is permanent lightly, and not tightly.


  1. Behukkotai

The final portion of Leviticus could have been called “well, I’ll be damned!” It is one of the Torah passages called tochecha, “rebuke,” and it lists a series of blessings that will follow from obedience to the rules of Leviticus, and a coordinate catalogue of curses that will follow on disobedience.

According to the revised Plaut Humash, “the public reading of these threatening passages caused great uneasiness to former generations. Ordinarily it is an honor to be called up to recite the Torah blessings…but people avoided the privilege of being called up on the Sabbaths when the curses were read from Leviticus and Deuteronomy.” (p. 873) The person reading these passages from the Torah reads then rapidly and sotto voce, in an undertone, to mitigate the misery of the message.

The implicit theology of these passages is only one among many theologies reflected in the Torah, yet it has achieved a popular currency way beyond its credibility. When someone says “See, God punished you…” or someone asks “What did I do to deserve this?” lurking in the background is the idea of a God who sternly surveys our behavior and is just waiting for the opportunity to extract punishment.

Such passages function poorly, and often cruelly, as imagined “explanations” for why bad things happen to good people. Of, for that matter, why good things happen to bad people.  Reconstructionists are not the only Jews, ancient as well as contemporary, who choose not to believe in such a system of reward and punishment, or in a conception of God that would give such a system supernatural sanction. 

But biblical voices that pronounce blessings and curses can still function meaningfully as motivations to live a moral life within ethical parameters. While the language of Leviticus is anachronistic, the message is contemporary: there are consequences to our actions. What we do affects us as well as others. How we behave leaves an imprint on existence. 

Leviticus teaches us that our actions are never isolated and individual; we are connected to others as they are to us, and that obligates us to consider the consequences of our behavior. Leviticus teaches us that while our actions may appear temporal and transient they are in fact durable; what we do with our time in this world leaves a permanent mark.

Leviticus ends in the archaic language of blessings and curses. But for Reconstructionist Judaism, God is not a supernatural Person waiting to punish us.  God is the name we give to what pushes, prods and persuades us to live our lives responsibly, morally, and meaningfully.

So translated into our time, we could then say: Leviticus ends not with blessings and curses but with the hope that we will live wisely, kindly, and compassionately, and that we will live in such a way that when we have left this world, others will say about us: zikhrono/zikhrona livrakha: his/her memory is a blessing.

Tue, 3 August 2021 25 Av 5781