Torah Comment Parashat Vayikra
Posted On March 19, 2015
Leviticus 1:1-5:26 (Reading Lev. 5:5–5:26 Plaut p.660; Hertz p.410)
Haftarah for Shabbat Ha Chodesh: Ezekiel 45:16-25 (Plaut p.1457; Hertz p.1001)
This Shabbat we start with the reading of the third book of the Torah, called Leviticus, or in our Jewish tradition Vayikra (And he called). The very first parashah of the book, also named Vayikra, launches the book with a complex discussion of burnt offerings to be brought to the priests for a variety of circumstances, from voluntary gifts to offerings for one’s well-being, atonement, and more. This leads to what seems to be endless chapters of animal sacrifices, purification, and expiation rites; forbidden sexual relations; and rituals for the dead and diseased, all faithfully administered by the priests. And yet, at the heart of the book there is an almost insubordinate chapter that “echoes the beauty of our prophetic tradition and our most humanistic values” (R’ Kelman), includes the list of our most noble, ethical mitzvot, commandments, of our religious tradition, such as “Love your neighbour as yourself!” (Leviticus 19:18). It is as if we are being asked to flip the entire book on its head to examine what it means to worship God.
How do these two sides of the book Vayikra fit together, and how can we, as progressive Jews, find meaning in rituals that seem to us as ancient and without meaning for our lives nowadays?
Rabbi Naama Kelman points to a wonderful bridge that our Jewish heritage provides for us, to answer this question and to bring both different sides of Leviticus together:
“The Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, … derives from the root kuf-reish-bet, which means to get close. Our rites and rituals – and their interpretation into today’s worship of God – are designated to get us closer to holiness and God. … The mitzvot we find in Leviticus 19 [are] acts of loving-kindness and compassion. … One Chasidic reading of this takes the word mitzvah and rereads it not as tzivui, command, but rather tzavta, togetherness, or acts that bring us closer to one another “ (Kelman, Noble and Difficult Texts).
The chapters we are going to read in the next few weeks aren’t always easy to understand, and they contain many parts that are challenging and need to be discussed, but this doesn’t mean that they are meaningless or of any less value for us. On the contrary: More than any other book of the Torah, Leviticus calls us to come closer, closer to God, closer to the world and closer to the people that are surrounding us, sharing with us the idea that we need to be in a constant dialogue with God, the world, and ourselves. Its’ ethics teaches us to create a just world, based on these ethical values, and a society that respects and honours all its members. – Rabbi Adrian M Schell
Shabbat HaChodesh is the fourth of the five special Shabbatot before Pesach. In the special Torah reading for this Shabbat (Exodus 12:1-20), God instructs Moses and Aaron on how to observe the first Passover. The special Haftarah reading from Ezekiel discusses the observance of Passover in the Temple. These special readings are meant to draw our attention to the fact that Passover is approaching and to encourage us to begin our preparations.