Image: High priest offering a sacrifice of a goat, from Treasures of the Bible, by Northrop, published 1894. Public Domain.
Vayikra Moshe [“He called Moses”] appears twice in the Torah. Each time the words mark an invitation from God to Moses. In the first occurrence, following after Moses ascends the mountain, God calls to him from the midst of God’s Glory, the cloud covering Sinai (Exodus 24:16). These words tell us about God’s invitation to Moses to enter the cloud and receive instruction.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayikra, God calls to Moses, inviting him to enter the Tabernacle to receive the instructions for the Temple cult. Just as the story that begins Genesis describes the creation of a world, the instructions in Leviticus create a new and ordered world: the world of the Temple cult.
The world of the Temple cult is an ordered world: there are right ways and wrong ways of doing things. The acts of each person have consequences for Israel as a whole. We must read slowly and study deeply, if we are to absorb the many levels of this “priestly manual.”
Millennia after the physical Temple was reduced to rubble by the Roman horde, the Temple cult remains intact, enshrined in the words of Leviticus. The world of the Temple cult is available to us through this book of Torah. We cannot carry out the korbanot [sacrifices] without the physical Temple, so the literal meanings of many of these lessons are history. However, other understandings can emerge if we study closely enough. Many of us in the Reform Movement understand this shift as progress. As Maimonides asserted, we have outgrown the need for animal sacrifices, substituting sacrifices of prayer. Every time we say the Amidah, we evoke the spiritual altar of Leviticus, the constant connection of God and Israel.
Intertwined with the ritual commandments regarding the sacrifices, Leviticus conveys ethical mitzvot directing us to live according to specific values. Just as they are in the book of Leviticus, in the lives of observant Jews the ethical commandments and the ritual commandments are intertwined, never entirely separable. That was the message of the prophets: we can make sacrifices all we want, if we don’t take care of the weak and the suffering, God will reject the ritual. (Isaiah 1)
This week God invites us in, as long ago Moses was invited into the cloud, God’s Presence, and into God’s Home, the Tabernacle. What instruction will we hear this year as we receive the world of Leviticus anew?
This d’var Torah previously appeared in a slightly different form in the CCAR Newsletter.