This Shabbat we’ll start with the reading of the third book of the Torah. The book has very different names in different traditions. Often we say the „third book of Moses“, or „Leviticus“, as most of its laws are connected to the temple service of the Levites and the Priests. Because of that, Rabbis used to call it „Torat Kohanim – The Teaching of the Priests“, as well.
Today in the Jewish world, it is common to refer to this book as „Vajikra – And he called“, according to its very first word in the Hebrew. It is not only a tradition to call the books of the Torah this way; it is our way to distinguish the weekly Torah portions, too.
The title „Vajikra“ for this book is even the better choice for another reason: The other names – Leviticus or Torat Kohanim – could be misleading, they could give the impression that it’s content is only dealing with a group of selected people like the Levites and the Kohanim.
But I would say, the opposite is the case, the book Vajikra is actually not only focusing on the priests and Levites: It refers to all of us.
There are a few major themes in the book, like forming a holy nation out of the Israelites, who had just fled from slavery, and dealing with purity in a ritual context. It is also about the concept of a world in divine harmony and order.
To maintain this order, the book Vajikra explains in detail, what someone should do, when a boundary has been violated.
This can be something affecting ourselves and our bodies, or boundaries in time and space; in other words, boundaries between the sacred and the profane, or between life and death. The book describes that anyone, who has violated God’s order and harmony, can also restore it, or even has an obligation to restore it. Rituals, including sacrifices, are supposed to help to repair these kinds of damages and heal injuries.
The ideal of the book Vajikra is that the body of a person as well as the sanctuary (Tabernacle) and the society itself, are own little sacred worlds themselves. Each world represents the great whole, and each world has an impact on what happens around it.
This means that purity and holiness are not only limited to the temple or the synagogue, it also includes our entire life, our bodies, our homes, our interactions with other humans and with nature. There are several facets in everything, profane and sacred ones alike.
For example: Because our bodies and our lives are holy, we find in the book Vajikra regulations on “food” (eg. Chapter 7 + 11), “relationships” (18 + 20) and “ethics” (19) in order to protect this holiness. The book contains not only instructions for the priests and the temple cult, but also, how we should interact with our neighbors and about sexuality. Even though priests may have a special role, the text makes clear that all Israelites are meant to be holy, because God is holy (19.2) and we are his people.
The first chapters of the book provide an overview and a detailed description of the most common offerings in biblical times. In biblical times, animal sacrifices were part of religious practice. Maimonides argued that this type of service had been commanded to the Israelites in the wilderness, so that they could learn to serve God without having the feeling of being different from all other nations. Very slowly, as Maimonides taught, the Israelites learned that it is not an animal sacrifice, which brings us closer to the Eternal, but prayers.
He, as many others, used the actual meaning of the Hebrew word for sacrifice: “Korban” – to come close – to underline this concept.
In chapter one, sentence two, we can read the following:
“When any of you presents an offering to the Eternal, bring as your offering an animal from either the herd or the flock.”
A Hasidic commentator explains this sentence as follows:
“If anyone of you wants to come near – KAROV – to God, he must bring an offering from Mikem – themselves -. And what is this sacrifice? It is the animal in us, which is part of us, capable of wickedness towards ourselves, others and God.” (Itturei Torah, IV, p10, 1998)
In other words: The ritual of animal sacrifices should be understood as well as a metaphor of our struggle as human beings – becoming more human, more ethical, towards ourselves, others and God.
One of the major themes of the book Vajikra is, as I said before, to form the Israelites, to form us Jews, to a sacred, a holy nation, that is an ethical nation, a kingdom of priests. When we read the text, we can discover – together with the teachings of our traditions – how we can draw meaning out of it for our lives, and how we can contribute to the healing, the repair of the world, Tikkun Olam, even though some of its chapters may appear very dry and sometimes unpleasant.
“Am Kadosh” – A holy nation – has often been misunderstood. It is not an elevation above other people, our fellowmen or nature; it marks a special attribute in our relationship to God. We are partners with God in the ongoing process to keep this world in balance; in its divine order.