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Learning from Leviticus

03/26/2020 12:36:30 PM


Last week, we finished reading the book of Exodus, which began with the familiar stories of liberation and revelation, highlighted the laws of a functional society, and concluded with a focus on construction of a physical structure, the tabernacle. This week, we begin reading the book of Leviticus, Vayikra, the most opaque of the books of the Torah. Normally, when Leviticus rolls around, rabbis scramble to find something else to talk about. This year, this book sets the table for the next few weeks of our lives in many profound ways.

Vayikra begins with the commandments of the sacrifices. This week’s portion includes the idea that everyone will have to give something up, though some will give and do more than others. God understands that each of us is subject to limitations, but we must do what is within our capacity.  It recognizes the fallibility of human leaders, as it mentions sacrifices to be brought by those leaders when they err and lead others astray.

Vayikra continues to focus on rituals of cleansing, of protection from forces that are ill-understood. When we read the inspection rituals of the person afflicted with tzaraat, who is to be separated from the camp for 7 or 14 days to see the course of his illness, or when we review the Yom Kippur ritual of the High Priest who washes his hands 10 times in one day, we can nod along. One of Vayikra's few stories is of tragic death and how a nation grapples with the aftermath.

Vayikra is not only about purity rituals long-defunct. It also includes the famous injunction “V’hai bahem” - that the commandments exist so that we can live through them, and not risk our lives unnecessarily. Its ethical passages remind us of the obligations to love and respect each other and to refrain from harmful gossip. It says again and again that we must care especially for the vulnerable in our community. Our own congregation has begun a number of efforts to care for and support each other. A support group for Healthcare professionals is already up and running, and efforts for those who are affected financially will be rolling out shortly.  If have an idea of how to help others, or there's something our community can do for you, physically or spiritually please don't be shy.

Vayikra concludes with laws of sabbatical and jubilee years. It anticipates the idea that despite the economic impact, a society may be strengthened by an enforced break, and that there is an obligation to ensure that no-one falls into permanent poverty.

The book of Leviticus has more to teach us this year than we could have possibly imagined. Though I fear that it will be largely behind us before we are able to convene in person for prayer and study, I know that we will find other ways to come together to draw inspiration from our sacred texts and draw encouragement from each other. I look forward to studying Vayikra with our community, in all the ways that we can, and concluding with the same words we used this past Shabbat, "Hazak Hazak v'Nitchazek" - be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened.

Sun, April 21 2024 13 Nisan 5784