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Turning Torah

  • Turning Torah

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


The Eternal One called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Eternal: You shall choose your offering from the herd or from the flock. If your offering is a burnt offering from the herd, you shall make your offering a male without blemish. You shall bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before the Eternal. (Leviticus 1:1-3)


Few people I know embrace Sefer Vayikra , the book we call Leviticus, as their favorite book of the Torah. Vayikra challenges us in that the majority of its content deals with either the ancient sacrificial system or various laws concerning ritual impurity. While perhaps historically or sociologically interesting, many of us simply dismiss much of the book as irrelevant to our modern sensibilities.

As we open Leviticus this week with Parashat Vayikra , please join me in exercise of a methodology taught in Pirke Avot (5:22): "Ben Bag Bag used to say, "Turn it [the Torah], and turn it, for everything is in it . . . ." While we have replaced sacrificial worship with worship through prayer, a respectful turning of Vayikra can yet yield sophisticated instruction for us today. While not advocating a return to sacrifice, I find in its study a basis for helping us frame life.

A clearer understanding of Leviticus might lie in a look ahead to chapter 19, where verse 2 reads, K'doshim tih'yu, ki kadosh ani Adonai Eloheichem. The standard translation of this phrase is "You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy." While this verse is often cited as a charge for us to demonstrate the meaning of our having been created in God's image, still we ask, what is holiness? K'dushah, "holiness," might be seen as a maximizing of potential: making the best of self, moment, or situation; a fleeting experience or achievement of what the messianic promise may hold. Thus this verse beckons us, beings created in the image of the Divine, to maximize our potential, as God, our template, is the maximum of all potential.

With this goal of becoming k'doshim in mind, we return to our parashah and its detailed descriptions of the ins and outs of animal sacrifice. The Hebrew shoresh (verbal root) used for sacrifice is kuf-reish-bet. The meaning of this root is inextricably bound to the act or concept of drawing near, thus yielding an understanding that somehow the sacrifices might be involved with our drawing near to God. While the English word "sacrifice" immediately suggests giving up, or losing something, the Hebrew word korban, absent of English thinking, should draw us to thoughts of nearness. Thus, whether we speak of olah, "burnt offering," minchah, "grain offering," zevach, "feast offering," chatat, "sin offering," or any of the korbanot, "sacrifices," the challenge is to look beyond the details of performance and discover hints as to how, when, and why we might draw ourselves closer to God.

When we look at the rituals of sacrifice we are at risk of losing sight of the goal as we focus on the tool. Rituals are not intended to be ends unto themselves, but, rather, tools to be used in the attainment of goals. The common denominator of all ritual practice should be the quest for k'dushah. Ironically it was this very notion that led the founders of the Reform Movement in America to their rejection of much of the ancient ritual. In the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, "all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress" were dismissed with the conclusion that "they fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation." For me, the challenge of Ben Bag Bag is to keep turning in quest of that elevation.

At the foot of Sinai, as we prepare to receive the gift of Torah, we are told, in Exodus 19:5-6, that if we will embrace the tenets of Torah then we will be to God a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation." The Torah is both guide and goad in our quest to attain the heights of Leviticus 19. This week's sidrah, Vayikra, calls out to us to find ways each day to draw nearer to God. Accepting the challenge to learn from the details of the sacrificial cult, rather than simply dismissing them as ancient, irrelevant practices, may in and of itself bring us closer to k'dushah.

For example, one detail found in our parashah tells us that the animal brought for sacrifice needs be tamim , usually translated in this context as "without blemish." Yet the same adjective, tamim, is used in Genesis 6:9 to describe Noah. In that context we usually translate it as "blameless" or "pure." When God tells Avram in Genesis 17:1, "Walk in My ways and be blameless," again the Hebrew is tamim. Prophetic and Rabbinic tradition are both rife with understanding the need for us to strive to come blameless before God. Being reminded of this by ritual we may be reminded that all human behavior and interaction should reflect holiness. Pausing to mine the raw ore of details may yield many refined teachings.

Our sidrah this week, in fact all of Leviticus, offers us the challenge and opportunity to turn from dismissal of distant primitivism to seek out and embrace timeless and sublimely elevating teachings embedded within the text. Such efforts can reinvest us with the will to draw ourselves, our community, our nation, and our world closer to God, closer to being the partners of God who, created in the image of God, perfect the world within the frame of God's sovereignty.


  • Sefer Va-Yikra, the Book of Leviticus, is at the center of the Torah, not only spatially, but also spiritually. More than any other single book, Va-Yikra sets the tone and establishes the central themes of biblical and rabbinic Judaism throughout the ages.

The central focus of Va-Yikra is on establishing a sacred community, "a nation of priests," whose daily deeds perfect the world under God's rule. By establishing an ideal community, Va-Yikra recognizes that deeds speak far more eloquently than words, that living in a holy community can provide a sense of God's presence far more pervasive than more ethereal approaches. (Bradley Shavit Artson, The Bedside Torah [Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2001], p. 168)

  • Our mothers suggest: In a very real sense, the ancient Israelite system of sacrifice served the same function that psychotherapy serves today: Those of us plagued by feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, depression, and other "sins" harmful to our souls seek out women and men specially trained in the art of expiation, who for a sacrificial fee help us to surrender these burdens to God (or a Higher Power) and reach a new psychic balance. We too must still right the wrongs we have committed-but we no longer need to drag behind us, like a fatted ox or sheep, unintentional or imaginary sins. These we can turn over to God. (Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam: A Women's Commentary on the Torah [New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1996], p. 153)


  1. What are the offerings and deeds that you present to God?
  2. Are your offerings or deeds tamim?
  3. How do our Jewish rituals help us create holy community? How might we develop other rituals to help achieve that goal?

Norman Koch is the rabbi at Temple Sholom, New Milford, Connecticut.

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