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Torah Commentary
Vayikra (March 21, 2015)
 

Jennifer Knobe,
Operations Manager,
Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center

THE BOOK OF VAYIKRA MEANS, “And He called.” Vayikra is the first Hebrew word of the book, which begins by saying, “And the LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from inside the tent of meeting.” (Leviticus 1:1) The Book of Leviticus focuses on the ritual in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert. By the end of the previous book, the Book of Exodus, the Tabernacle is completed and filled with the divine presence of God. The central ritual that takes place within the Tabernacle, the regular offering of sacrifices, is now the first order of business.

Leviticus describes the sacrificial service and the duties of the priests. It also introduces ritual purity, the biblical diet, the calendar of appointed times, laws of holiness, and laws relating to redemption, vows and tithes. In addition, Leviticus discourses on ethical instruction and holiness. The 24th reading from the Torah is eponymous with the Hebrew name of the book it introduces: Vayikra.This portion introduces the sacrificial service and describes five different types of sacrifices.

Nachmanides, in his introduction to Leviticus, has an interesting understanding of the sacrificial rites. This is how he explains them: “This book [Leviticus]...commands him [Moshe] about the sacrifices and the care of the Tabernacle; that the sacrifices will serve as an atonement for them [Israel], and their sins will not cause the Divine Presence to depart.” The fact that the Torah, once the Tabernacle is built, immediately goes into the laws of the sacrifices, leads us to believe that the sacrifices are the point of the Mishkan. Nachmanides, on the other hand, sees these rites as a means, rather than as an end. The point of the Tabernacle is to be a place where the people of Israel live with God, where they can experience and interact with His presence. That is why the Tabernacle was built.

However, as in every close relationship, in which there is an ongoing intimate interaction, mistakes will be made, feelings will be hurt, and acts will be committed that disappoint, betray or insult. The Torah knows this and, quite cleverly, builds into the relationship between God and the Jewish people a system of atonement...a way for the partners to make up after some hurtful act has been committed. According to Nachmanides, therefore, the system of sacrifices is not the point of the Tabernacle. Rather, an intimate and immediate relationship with God and His Torah is. The instructional sacrifices recognize the difficulty inherent in such a relationship. In turn, the sacrifices are an attempt to arrange a solution to that difficulty.

The insight here is crucial. The Tabernacle represents our intimate relationship with God; it is the place where that demanding relationship is played out. The Torah assumes that the relationship will be marred by sins and, therefore, prescribes a ritual of forgiveness and atonement when such sins are committed, whether by an individual or by the entire community.

Where do we learn how to address our relationship with God, with our peers, with our partners? The Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center provides a venue to explore all the challenges and our imperfections through chavurot (groups of friends), semester-long classes, and innovative lectures and programs. To have a relationship with God or with humans, there always will be a need to work on the imperfections. Find your avenue to learn about the parashah of the week and expand your Jewish relationship. The next class, program or speaker may be “the one” that expands your Jewish relationship and provides you with a new Jewish experience.

Only a willingness to let go of what we have, for the sake of the relationship, can keep it intact. The implications for our human relationships are enormous. The Torah assumes that the Jewish people will sin — will act in ways which jeopardize their relationship with God — and, therefore, at the very beginning of the relationship, sets in place a mechanism for dealing with those relationship-threatening moments. We, too, when entering into an intimate relationship, also should assume that not all will necessarily go smoothly.



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