Introduction to the Book of Vayikra -- by Gus Scheer
March 11, 2003
This week we began the reading of Vayikra, the third book of the Torah. In Hebrew, it was originally called Sefer Torat HaKohanim, The Book of Instruction of the Priests. In Latin and in English it is called Leviticus, the Levitical, or Priestly, book, because it deals primarily with matters that relate to the Priests. Interestingly, the Levites per se are barely mentioned in Leviticus, but, of course, the Priests are a subset of the Levites, and hence the name Leviticus.
Vayikra is a departure from the grand, epic narrative of the other books of the Torah. A substantial part of it presents rules and recipes for sacrifices, and describes conditions of ritual defilement and purification. It contains more mitzvot than any of the other books of the Torah, but most of these mitzvot have not been functional since the destruction of the Second Temple nearly two thousand years ago. Consequently, many people regard Vayikra as a somewhat boring, somewhat non-relevant part of the Torah.
As it turns out, Vayikra is read in late winter/spring - prime bar and bat mitzvah season - and is probably dreaded by students and families who fear being assigned perhaps its most noted section: the diagnosis, treatment and ritual purification for a skin disease usually mistranslated as "leprosy."
And yet, this same book of Vayikra contains some of the most beautiful, soaring prose, some of the highest ideals and ethical statements, and some of the most well known quotations in all of Torah:
It is in Vayikra that we read "k’doshim tihyu ki kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem" "you shall be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy." This is addressed, not to the Priests, not to the leaders, but to "kol adat b’nei Yisrael" to "all the congregation of the children of Israel." God commands us, as a people, to live holy and sanctified lives, and this commandment is followed by a set of ethical rules which includes a restatement of the ten commandments with such additional commandments as "do not insult the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind" and "v’ahavtah l’rei’acha k’mocha," a statement which has morphed into what has become known as the Golden Rule, often attributed to Jesus by Christians who ignore the fact that "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" was first written in Vayikra.
And then, in the section on the Jubilee, is written "ukratem d’ror ba’aretz, l’chol yoshvehah" "proclaim release, proclaim liberty in the land, to all its inhabitants."
So in fact, there is actually quite a wealth of meaningful and inspirational material in this supposedly non-relevant, didactic book of Vayikra!
Considered as a whole, the book of Vayikra presents two major messages to me:
The first is that ritual is important: Ritual helps us to establish a connection to God. Ritual helps us to mark significant events in the life cycle. Ritual helps us to take everyday actions and make them special, holy – as when we make a motzi over bread before eating.
For our ancestors, ritual generally involved burning animals, grains, oil and spices on an altar. For us, ritual generally involves prayer. However, in spite of this great difference in the nature of the rituals, at some level there is an analogy between the specific recipe for a rei’ach nicho’ach, a sweet savor, of a sacrifice to God, and the proper nusach for the Chatzi Kaddish before the Musaf service on Shabbat morning: it is our need for ritual - with rules, order, consistency and tradition - to help us make our connection to God.
The second message of Vayikra for me is that there is a connection between ritual and ethical behavior. Ritual helps us establish a connection to God. But that connection is significant and meaningful in large measure only to the extent that it motivates and inspires us to live up to the high ethical standards that God sets for us in the Torah. "Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy." We establish a connection with God and then we try to emulate God, as we have been commanded to do.
So as we read the book of Vayikra over the coming weeks, let us all keep in mind the importance of ritual, and the connection between ritual and ethical behavior, that we may all fulfill the mitzvah "k’doshim tihyu" – to live holy, sanctified, spiritual lives.