By Rabbi Jon Cutler
The Book of Leviticus is my favorite book in the Torah. Its first parshah, also called Vayikra, deals with the priestly cult and laws of sacrifice.
The Book of Leviticus it is about communication. The opening section of the Book of Leviticus begins with the word Vayikra, “and [God] called.” God calls out to Moses, an amazing and inspiring concept with the first word. Every Torah portion begins with the more common vay’dabeir, “[God] spoke” or vayomer, “[God] said,” but Leviticus beings not with these two phrases but with “[God] called.”
Verse 2 goes on to instruct Moses to “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them …” using both the roots dalet-bet-reish and alef-mem-reish: “speak” and “say.” The first two verses use three kinds of communication: call (God to Moses); and speak and say (Moses to the Israelite people). It seems that the Book of Leviticus is about sacrifices, leprosy and blood. While it does deal with those subjects, the essence of the book is about communication.
And it makes us ask: Who calls us and how are we called? How do we know if we are ever “called” by God? The word for sacrifice, korban, comes from the root kuf-reish-bet, meaning “to bring close. Communication is all about closeness.” A form of this word appears four times in the second verse and numerous times throughout the book.
How do we achieve closeness with God without knowing our sacrifices are accepted? How do we achieve closeness to each other while still retaining our individuality? We call out to a person, we call upon a person and we call to a person.
Each way of relating to another human being is an attempt at closeness. We call out to gain attention, to be heard, to be recognized, to be found or to find. We call upon to build a community. We call to for a conversation that will help us understand one another better. The purpose of the animal sacrifices was to call out to us, to call upon us and to call to us.
The Torah’s insistence on the boundaries of purity and impurity are misunderstood. There are many taboos in Leviticus, most notably food and sex taboos. What the Torah deems as tamei, “impure,” or tahor, “pure,” are not actually attached to cleanliness. Anthropologists note that taboos are the system by which certain objects or persons are set aside as either sacred or accursed. Such objects or persons inspire both fear and respect. How can we understand boundaries today and a sacredness so holy it is taboo?
The Book of Leviticus, while seemingly about the priesthood and priestly functions, also suggests for the first time the democratization of holiness. It is not just the priests who offer sacrifices. All the people bring sacrifices — men and women, Jew and non-Jew — at times of anxiety, celebration, sorrow, sin and also everyday normalcy.
All this leads to the statement, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy!” K’doshim tih’yu (Leviticus 19:2, see also 20:26). Such a provocative statement in the ancient world — that laypeople as well as priests can attain holiness — will eventually lead to the total democratization of Judaism post-priesthood.
The text offers a framework for one who has anxiety over his or her status with God to regain a sense of order — even closure: I have sinned, I will sin, but I will be forgiven!
In today’s world, we shy away from the concept of sin. Yet Vayikra reminds us that we are fully human and, as such, flawed. In that humanity, we will all stumble and fall. Leviticus offers us a formula for getting back up. While that formula may seem antiquated, we humans still seem to need ritualized ways to feel clean, forgiven and able to start fresh. Yom Kippur proves that.
Vayikra and the sacrifices tell us how our services should be: Dramatic. Emotive. Reactive. Tactile. The “sacrificial rites” were called avodah in Hebrew. The other meaning of the word avodah is “work.” To sacrifice an animal was hard work — you had to schlep it to the priest and hear him sing over it, slaughter it, and offer it with all sorts of incense and other accoutrements. Today prayer is avodah shebalev, “sacrifices from the heart.” But it’s still hard work — inner hard work.
Rabbi Jon Cutler is the rabbi at Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County in Chester Springs. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.