Dear Friends and Family:
I’ve never prided myself on being a biblical scholar, but these days I do find myself studying each week’s Torah (The Five Books of Moses) portion in order to prepare short “Divrei Torah” (literally, “Words of Torah;” lessons or sermons based on the portion of the week). I am often asked to speak at Sabbath and High Holiday services at Hillel. The books of Genesis and Exodus are easy. They are filled with drama and family conflict. Genesis begins at the beginning (…In the beginning God created…) with creation of the world followed by great C.B.DeMille-type stories of Noah and the flood, Abraham almost sacrificing his son Isaac, Jacob and Esau fighting over and tricking Isaac out of the father’s blessing and the first son’s birthright, Joseph, who’s brothers throw him in a pit and sell him, then slavery in Egypt and Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and leading the Hebrews for forty years in the wilderness. Great stuff, no? Anyone could relate these conflicts and experiences to modern-day life.
But, just when one might begin feeling comfortable sermonizing on each week’s section of the Torah, we come to Leviticus. Leviticus goes on and on with laws regarding institutions that no longer exist; sacrifices and the Jewish priesthood. It has always seemed to me that this is the book we skip or at best skim. I’m thankful that we are no longer a People who brings animals to the tabernacle or Temple so the priests can slaughter, sprinkle blood, and burn them up. What kind of deal is that? Nothing to learn, not even an Oneg afterwards.
Last week we attended Sabbath services at our local synagogue, Beth Shalom. Lana E. led the service and gave the sermon, based on the first chapters of Leviticus. I will forever be in her debt. She demonstrated a different way of understanding biblical sacrifice and the priesthood. Here’s my take on her words.
It may be difficult for us to empathize with our ancient ancestors because we see them through 21st century eyes. Of course their practices seem at best strange to us. But consider that Moses had just taken about 400,000 Jews out of Egypt, out of slavery. They are no yet a People. They do not know what it means to be moral, to be responsible, or to be accountable, at least not in a nation kind of way. Neither does this People Israel have the leadership to show the way. Lana taught that in order for the Jewish multitude to become the Jewish People it had to be taught how to acknowledge life’s experiences, both positive and negative. The institution of these several types of sacrifices did just that. There was a sin offering, a meal offering, a peace offering, a guilt offering, etc. The sacrifice was the action which taught our ancient ancestors that behavior was important and needed to be acknowledged. Today if we sin we ask for forgiveness (Al Chet on Yom Kippur), if we wrong someone we ask for their pardon, if we fell blessed we recite Sh’Hechianu. We try and repair the negatives and appreciate the positives. A slave nation had to be taught right from wrong, that behavior was important, and that we should appreciate life. A system of sacrifices teaches a People to observe, appreciate and acknowledge.
What of leadership? Leviticus is crammed full of instructions for the family of Aaron, Moses’ brother. They took on the duties of the priesthood, caring for the sacrifices that took place in the Tabernacle in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem. It seems more reasonable to understand that where no leaders have existed, and where they are desperately needed, a manual of operations for new leaders is a must. In this way, Moses commands each detail of dress, behavior, and ritual to the fledgling priests. They couldn’t Google, “vestments” to find out what a priest wears to work. There were no sacrifice instruction books to refer to. Had there been a Hebrew Union College back in those days, our priests might have studied there for five years and learned how to “operate” as leaders in the Jewish community. They had no rabbis’ manuals to tell them how to help the people celebrate good things in their lives or make amends for wrongs that had been done. Leviticus is the manual.
Wow Lana. Thank you. You gave me so much to think about last Friday night. I am so glad I didn’t stay home and watch Blue Bloods.