Drawing close to holiness

This week’s Torah portion is Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1-5:26.

This week, we begin the book of Vayikra. Its English title, Leviticus, comes from its Greek name, which was based on the fact that much of the book concerns rituals performed by the Levites.

Since this the third of the five books, it traditionally was the first book taught to children because of its central position. My high school students have a great deal of difficulty making sense of these details, which is not surprising since few adults can understand Leviticus in contemporary terms.

Here is one way in which we might.

A central concern for the Israelites was how to communicate with God. Vayikra provides the details for a system of sacrifices to make this connection. But what was the purpose of this communication? The goal, Leviticus tells us again and again, is that we are “to be holy, for I Adonai Your God am holy.” In other words, the sacrificial rites are intended to teach and to reach holiness.
There is something within us which responds to ritual, even if the rites described here may seem repugnant to modern sensibilities. But the Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban, which comes from a Hebrew root meaning to draw close. Our challenge today is how to draw close to God through prayer and contemplation, in order to be holy.

After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, Vayikra remained an important area of study, both because of a wish for the temple’s restoration and for the moral truths which could be deduced from its text. The traditional liturgy prays for that restoration; others see in the prayer a daily reminder of our ancient ritual life and its intent of drawing closer to God.

One ritual included in this week’s reading is found in Leviticus 4:22: “When a chieftain incurs guilt by doing unwittingly any of the things which by the commandment of Adonai his God ought not to be done, and he realizes his guilt … he shall bring as his offering a male goat without blemish.”

The construction of this verse is interesting. Usually, we expect to read “if an individual sins.” Here the text assumes that a ruler (or leader) will sin. Why?

The Italian commentator Sforno explains that since the powerful are usually under close scrutiny, they are more likely to be observed sinning. Another interpretation is that a leader is likely to sin because of the temptations of high office. A third suggestion is that leaders make so many decisions that it is almost impossible to avoid harming the innocent.

The verse includes a three-step process: a leader sins, recognizes the guilt and atones. The Talmud considers us fortunate when a leader atones for the good example it sets. We struggle daily to admit errors to ourselves. How much harder it is to admit our errors to others.

Today, we observe leaders of our government and other institutions who refuse to admit error. Our tradition asks leaders to recognize their errors, take responsibility for them and seek forgiveness for them. Isn’t that also a wonderful goal for us all?

Questions for discussion

Are the rituals described in Vayikra relevant today? How?
Some seek to restore the sacrificial system in a rebuilt temple. What do you think about that?
How does our traditional ethical understanding of these rituals affect our actions today? n

Gary D. Simms is a faculty member of Shoresh Hebrew High School, and a former executive director of Reform, Orthodox and Conservative congregations in the Washington area.

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