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Leviticus: Is It Just a Dry Book Filled With Laws?

March 22, 2012 By:
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell
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VAYIKRA, Leviticus 1:1-5:26
 
This week, we begin a new book of the Torah. Leviticus is the third of the five books of the Chumash.
 
    In some ways, it is like a middle child, seemingly overshadowed by both "older" and "younger" siblings, and often misunderstood. Following Genesis and Exodus, the books that narrate our people's story from Creation to Redemption to Revelation at Sinai, we might wonder, what now?
 
Our people have been enslaved and freed, and despite our own lack of faith, we've been given the gift of Torah to guide us into the future.
 
The book of Numbers, which follows Leviticus, continues our wilderness journey, and Deuteronomy serves as a book-long summation and clarification of the entire Pentateuch. Leviticus seems to be a dry book of laws, regulating how individuals should eat, conduct rituals, and behave with others.
 
A recent book,  The Secret Power of Middle Children , argues that those who are born between may possess strengths and resources that may not be immediately apparent. So it is with the Book of Leviticus.
 
The specific directions that characterize the entire book of Leviticus are introduced in this first portion: "And God called Moses and spoke to him."
 
What follows are clear and deliberate instructions for maintaining and, when necessary, restoring order between the people and their God.
 
This portion, and the nine portions of Leviticus that follow it, "aim to shape the Israelites into a holy people and to safeguard the purity that it considers essential for contact with the holy," according to Tamara Cohn Eskenazi in The Torah: A Women's Commentary.
 
The exquisite attention to detail that distinguishes Leviticus reminds each of us of the challenges and the rewards of deliberating, and then ordering the details of our own lives.
 
While the specifics enumerated in this portion may seem remote or arcane to the modern reader, the message of these chapters is timeless: For most individuals, guidelines are essential to help us order our days and our choices.
 
The final verses of this chapter deal with asham, understood here as an offering of reparation to repair a wrong and compensate those who have been harmed.
 
These laws remind us of the Ten Commandments, where crimes committed by one individual against another are considered crimes against God.
 
Professor Eskenazi teaches that this assertion, which is expanded in the prophetic writings, was "radical for its own time": Being created in God's image mandates respectful treatment of every other human being.
 
Vayikra, the middle book of the Torah, reminds readers of every generation that the essential challenge of being human is to treat every one of God's creatures with dignity, kindness and respect.
 
When we look into the eyes of each individual we encounter and see God, we have gained insight not only into this portion, but into the entire book of Leviticus, the middle -- and essential -- book of the Torah. Vayikra's specific guidelines lead us towards the creation and maintenance of a just, orderly and compassionate society. 
 
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: slelwell.@urj.org.

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