IN TIME AND SPACE
Rabbi Dr. Michael S. Berger
For the last 1500 years, the Jewish calendar and the cycle of the public Torah readings have been calibrated so that certain portions fall out near certain holidays.
For the last 1500 years, the Jewish calendar and the cycle of the public Torah readings have been calibrated so that certain portions fall out near certain holidays. Thus, Parshat Nitzavim which deals with repentance is always read before Rosh Hashanah. Similarly, we usually begin reading the third book of the Torah, the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), around the holidays of Purim and Passover. Is the coincidence of these readings with these holidays significant or mere happenstance?
Whether deliberately coordinated or not, at some level, it is certainly fortuitous. For many, Vayikra is a perplexing, even dizzying, catalog of sacrifices and ceremonies which are foreign to us, and which, we must admit candidly, intimidate or even bore us. Moreover, inyana deyoma - the topic of the day - is a legitimate subject to turn to, as it has a more immediate and practical application. It is not surprising, therefore, that in many classes on the weekly Torah portion and from many pulpits, the opportunity to discuss the entertaining holiday of Purim or the intricate laws and profound symbolism of Passover and the seder often eclipses the mitzvot of the first half of the book of Leviticus. Even the four additional maftir readings leading up to Purim and Passover are justifiable alternatives to tackling the first five and a half Torah portions of Leviticus.
One of the reasons that Purim and Passover draw our interest so fully is because they both reflect the rather unique Jewish understanding of history. Rather than seeing the Divine as only active in some supernatural realm, Judaism asserts that Hashem is actively involved in human history. Indeed, a likely part of the appeal of the first two books of the Torah is precisely their treatment of a historical drama which involves G-d and Man alike. Whether a divinely ordered flood which destroys an immoral world, or a covenant which connects one family and the Creator of all, or a showdown between an earthly monarch and the King of kings for the sake of slaves, these gripping narratives reveal a G-d who is interested in humanity and involved in history.
This theme deeply connects to Passover and Purim, for they both show that Judaism affirms G-d's presence in history, whether it is clear and evident, or hidden behind the scenes. Both holidays remind us that history is not always what it appears to be; under Hashem's providential gaze, an ongoing bondage or a sudden threat of annihilation can turn around instantly. This year (a lunar leap year which includes an additional month of Adar) underscores this common thread, for when the sages debated whether Purim should be celebrated in the first or second Adar, they opted for the latter, stating that Purim should be as close to Passover as possible, as both deal with salvation (Talmud Tractate Megillah 6b).
But while the Divine presence is detectable in the arena of history, it is also palpable geographically - in the precincts of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and Temple. When G-d agreed to "dwell" among the people (Exodus 25:8), it was in part to allow human encounter with the Divine to occur at more regular intervals. In the Torah's view, our relationship with Hashem could be expressed not only in our observance of His commandments, but in visiting the Tabernacle and offering a variety of "gifts". In some cases, we were even allowed to "share" a meal with G-d, where the offering, called a shelamim, was consumed partially on the altar and partially by those who brought it. The sages understood the name of the sacrifice to be describing what this offering accomplishes - "bringing shalom (peace) between G-d and Man." Sin, which violates and damages that relationship, demands that we try to repair it; the sinner's advent to the Mishkan with expiatory offering in hand was a clear expression of contrition. Thus, the Tabernacle was a barometer of our individual and collective relationship with Hashem.
So while Purim and Passover emphasize G-d's presence in time, the first half of the book of Leviticus focuses on G-d's presence in space. Both are testimony to the abiding concern of Hashem to interact with us, to enter into a unique covenant with the Jewish people. But if G-d's presence was just as palpable in the Tabernacle as it is in history, then it behooves us to try, as challenging as it may be, to give equal attention to the laws which guided our daily contact with Hashem in the Mishkan. In that way, the reading of the book of Leviticus will truly coincide with Purim and Passover.
Editor's note: Continuing his thoughts from the above article, Rabbi Berger offers advice on how to make our study of the book of Vayikra more meaningful.
1. Look at it as a whole: The details of the laws are not always comprehensible in and of themselves, but often begin to make sense when compared to other laws. For instance, the blood of an individual's chattat (sin offering) is sprinkled on the outside altar, but the blood of a communal chattat or that of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) is sprinkled in the sanctuary. This would seem to signify that the sin of the people, or of the High Priest, is of greater impact, and requires cleansing of the Tabernacle's inner chamber as well. Similarly, some sacrifices are entirely burned on the altar, while others are shared by the altar and either the priests or the owners. Clearly, it is in the comparative that we begin to see the lines of an organized infra-referential system: sharing the sacrifice with the altar is a covenantal act, while offering it all to G-d is more devotional. This feature of sacrifices demands, of course, learning many of the details, requiring both diligence and patience. But it is like entering any new field or discipline: you can't master it all at once, but it takes much time and effort.
2. Look at it as an insider: While the Torah is an eternal revelation, it also was spoken to the Jews of a certain time. At least initially, do not try and translate the material into your own, late 20th century idiom, but make every effort to "check your assumptions at the door" and let the text speak to you. For instance, an animal's significance is hard to gauge in an urban, modern environment, but a farmer would note that a large animal is only slaughtered when there are many people to feed at once (remember, no refrigeration); a small family might slaughter a lamb or a small goat to feed itself. Therefore, if a sacrifice calls for a bull or cow, we can assume that this would be "interpreted" by the contemporary Jew as signifying something of major impact, which affects many people. Thus, it is no surprise that the High Priest's chattat calls for a bull, while an individual brings a smaller animal.
3. Look critically at your own assumptions: We tend to see all sentient beings on a par, simply because they seem to act according to a deliberate will. But is that what defines life exclusively? Does the fact that animals are sentient beings mean that they are our equals? For instance, despite our similarities to animals, the first chapter of Genesis portrays human beings as on a different level than the animal kingdom: only human beings were created in the image of G-d, not any other creature. Why is it that we routinely use animals for our benefit (clothing, food), yet somehow "using" them for religious purposes offends us? Do we have preconceived notions of worship which are narrower than the Torah's vision? We must be ready to open ourselves up to other perspectives and other models.
4. Look it up: Today, we are the beneficiaries of many Torah commentaries, both classic and more recent. Read more than one of them to start to get a sense of the richness of the text. If you read Hebrew, yet find some words hard, look them up in a dictionary, then in a concordance, where you can check out other uses of the word, and see if those help you understand the term better. Also, don't hesitate to use the readily available books (in many Judaica shops) which offer pictorial renditions of what went on in the Tabernacle.
5. Lastly, don't give up: Do not read one translation and, in exasperation, give up if it seems incomprehensible. The book of Vayikra is fraught with difficult passages and enigmatic laws which require serious effort to penetrate and understand them. It will also take a long time; consider attending a Torah class on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Take advantage of any sources you can, including the many books which have come out recently. There are many how-to books which describe, often with pictures, the various procedures. For a conceptual analysis of the Temple and its place in Judaism, I highly recommend Joshua Berman's The Temple (Jason Aronson, 1994). Good luck!
Rabbi Dr. Michael S. Berger is Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies at the Emory University Department of Religion in Atlanta.
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