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Learning to Love Leviticus

  • Learning to Love Leviticus

    Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1−5:26
D'var Torah By: 

Genesis is easy to love: its soaring narratives, its rich poetics, the family dramas whose lessons are as old as they are new. Exodus tells the tales of the beginnings of our people. It retains much of the beauty of the Genesis narratives and it includes all the drama of our journey from slavery to freedom.

Very little "happens" in Leviticus. The whole book takes place in one month, the first month of the second year of the Exodus, and it all occurs at or around Mount Sinai. The few narrative elements are fragmentary and even these are usually provided simply for the explanation of some particular custom or law.

"A frequently encountered reaction to the book is the desire to get on to the book of Numbers-which at least has some intriguing narratives such as Moses' sin and punishment, the faint-heartedness of the spies, and Balaam's reversed prophecies" (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses [New York: Schocken Books Inc., 1990], p. 498).

In other words, if it serves no other purpose, Leviticus makes Numbers seem interesting!

Leviticus is, by all accounts, "an acquired taste" filled as she is with complex laws of purity and sacrifice. Leviticus is an ode to rite and ritual in an age when tradition itself is often ignored and even denigrated. And yet, for the careful eye and the willing heart there is much to be learned within her pages.

Leviticus has been called the heart of the Torah because of its placement at the center of the text and for its central locale, which is set at Sinai. But on a deeper level, Leviticus is truly the heart of the Torah because her central message is the search for holiness, which is at the heart of our desire to read the Torah and to live a life that is guided by its teachings.

Learning to love Leviticus has been, for me, a lifetime in the making, but join me on this journey for these next few weeks and together we may find some holiness waiting around the corner for us to share.

Logic and Analogic

One of the keys to loving Leviticus is to accept her on her own terms; to read the text as it was intended to be read and not through the filter of our own modern eyes.

The great anthropologist, Mary Douglas (Leviticus as Literature, [Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999], pp. 20-21), argues that Levitical thinking is "analogical" as opposed to the analytical Western model of thought. Analogical thinking is not a more primitive analysis of the world in which we live, but something wholly apart from it. Leviticus presents a reality conceived by a system of connections and disconnections, what fits and what is unfit.

It is a complex concept, but at its core, what Douglas means by analogical thinking is quite simple. Imagine a young child who asks, with tear stained cheeks, why her grandmother had to die. In the logical world in which we have been raised, an appropriate answer to her question might be: "Well, sweetheart . . . Bubbie had pneumonia, an infection in her lungs. This made it very difficult for her to breathe and you know how important breathing is. The doctors gave her medicine to try to make her better, but it didn't help and so she passed on." This is a logical answer, in the sense that it explains what happened in rational terms. But, at times such as these, I think we can recognize that neither the question asked nor the answer given truly addresses the reality of what has happened in their lives.

An analogical response to the same question might begin: "Everybody dies. It says in the prayer book: 'all that lives must die' (Gates of Prayer for Weekdays and at a House of Mourning [New York: CCAR, 1992], p. 37). I remember when my bubbie died, I felt sad too." And then family stories might be told and shared until, with no recourse to logic or reason, the hurt has begun to heal in some small way. While such a response may not explain the phenomenon in a rational sense, it sets it in a context that provides comfort and order and justice. It addresses the real questions beneath the question. "Did I do something wrong? If I had loved her more would she still be here? How is it fair that someone we love can no longer be with us?" By placing our loss in a context, by understanding our lives as a part of something greater than ourselves, we find answers that satisfy more than facts or proofs.

This is the "logic" of Leviticus. To understand our world, we must find our place within it. To understand our lives, we must see them as part of a greater whole. To understand our relationship with God, we must understand, somewhat, the nature of God's holiness and how to bring holiness into our own lives as well.

Vayikra: A Beginning

While these ancient texts of ritual cleanliness, animal sacrifice, priestly rite, dietary laws, and disease may obscure these basic truths from our modern eyes, still in all, there are lessons buried beneath them that can speak to us as well.

The opening word of Leviticus that gives the book and this first parashah its name is vayikra, which means, "and [God] called." God calls us from the pages of Leviticus. God calls us to holiness, to a life of meaning, to a path of harmony. God calls us to a sense of connectedness to a world within ourselves, within our families, and within all life upon this planet. Learning to love Leviticus is a lesson in learning to listen to God's call.

Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport is co-senior rabbi with his wife Rabbi Gaylia R. Rooks at The Temple, Congregation Adath Israel Brith Sholom, in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his Ph.D. from Washington University in 1988 and has taught Bible and Jewish thought for two decades at Bellarmine University in Lousiville.

Still Waiting to Hear God's Call
Davar Acher By: 
Richard A. Siegel

Rabbi Rapport ends his d'var Torah by noting the title of thebook and the parashah are taken from the opening word, vayikra, " and [God] called," which he interprets to mean that "God calls us to holiness, to a life of meaning, to a path of harmony."

This is a valiant attempt to redeem Leviticus for the modern reader. But I can't help thinking that if the central message is the search for holiness, surely it could have been delivered more poetically, more invitingly, more . . . spiritually. Should not God's call to us to find holiness in life be rendered in words flowing with holiness and piercing immediacy themselves?

The parashah does begin with promise, for a manual supposedly devoted to the spiritual ascendance of the soul: "And God called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: 'Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them . . .' " What are these words to be? Will they be tender and gentle, soothing the feverish soul that feels lost in the world? Will they be powerful, lifting in their force the psychic burdens that stoop our shoulders? Will they be provocative, charging our minds with thoughts that lead to the cessation of thought? Will they be seductive, grabbing us by the heart and hurtling us into transcendence?

No! None of the above. The very next words in the text, which are to reveal the purpose of our calling, are instead stultifying and prosaic-like the first line of a recipe-and obsessed with irrelevant minutia. "When any of you presents an offering of cattle to God, you shall choose your offering from the herd or the flock . . ." We can seek deeper meanings in this, but we cannot really believe that a spiritual seeker who picks up this book will easily find wisdom in it.

Richard A. Siegel is director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, California.

Reference Materials: 

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