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Torah Commentary
Vayikra (March 19, 2016)

Missy Bell,
Program Director
of Youth Learning and Engagement

Vayikra is the first portion in the book of Leviticus, also known as Vayikra. The building of the Tabernacle, or Mishkan, has just been completed at the end of Exodus, and the Israelites are left wondering about the purpose of the space. We find out the answer pretty quickly in the first chapters of Leviticus: making sacrifices to God. Vayikra outlines five different types of sacrifices: the burnt offering, the meal offering, the sacrifice of well-being, the sin offering and the penalty offering. Each of these sacrifices involves the priests burning a food item, such as an animal or flour, on the altar and then offering it to God on behalf of the person making the sacrifice. The Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, comes from the same root as karov, meaning “near.” It is thought that the purpose of these sacrifices was to bring the Israelites closer to God.

Today, we do not have a Tabernacle. Nor do we have the First or Second Temple in Jerusalem, the other altars where sacrifices were made to God. So how do we respond to these chapters of laws in Vayikra that no longer apply to our lives? From the Rabbinic period through today, prayer has replaced sacrifice as our offering to God. Many people feel that prayer fulfills a similar purpose as sacrifice by bringing them closer to God, or if not to God, then to the rest of the Jewish community with whom they share a common language.

In addition to these laws about sacrifice, there are many other laws in the Torah that our Reform Jewish community tries to make relevant to life today. This week, the students of our Seventh Grade Mitzvah Corps are wrapping up a unit on the mitzvah of Caring for Animals. While many of us feel that the dietary laws of kashrut given to us by the Torah are outdated and don’t need to be followed to the letter, the students are discussing how they still might be applicable to us today. Maybe these laws can teach us to be intentional about the things we eat, or perhaps they can inspire us to think about the way animals we eat should live, not just the way they should die.

Not only are our students thinking about how outdated Jewish laws can become more relevant to our lives, they also are having experiences that encourage them to think about how certain American laws might need to be changed to be more appropriate today. Just a few weeks ago, eight of our ninth graders went on a Civil Rights trip to Alabama, and they learned about the struggle that the black community went through in order to gain the right to vote in a fair way.

Prior to the Voting Rights Act, black citizens experienced all kinds of discrimination when going to the polls to vote. For example, in some states, voters were required to pass some type of test. In some places, this was a literacy test, and many poor black citizens did not have enough education to pass. In other states, this was an oral test administered subjectively by a voting official. A white person might be asked an “easy” question with a straightforward answer, such as “What is the capital of the United States?” A black person would be asked a question that the average person wouldn’t know or even a question without a right answer, such as “How many stars are in the sky?” When unable to answer, that person would be denied the right to vote.

While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did away with many of these forms of discrimination, our students were angered to learn that discrimination does still exist against black and poor voters by states that require IDs in order to vote. The students at first were surprised to learn that this was considered a form of discrimination, but they then discussed how these are items to which poor citizens — many of whom are black and Hispanic — may not have access. The steps required to obtain a photo ID — from getting a birth certificate, to taking time off from work to go to a government office during business hours, to the cost of paying for the ID are prohibitive to Americans living in poverty. Twenty-five percent of eligible black voters and 16 percent of eligible Hispanic voters, compared with 9 percent of eligible white voters, don’t have a photo ID — so those who live in one of the 18 states that require photo ID are unable to vote. The teens on this trip were very angered by this form of discrimination and came home ready to take action, but they learned that they are fortunate to live in one of the 17 states that does not require any form of identification to vote.

There are many ways that both our Jewish community and our American community can be inspired by the way Rabbinic Judaism took the laws of sacrifice found in Vayikra and replaced them with prayer, an effective way for our modern community to use sanctuary space and become closer to God, rather than making sacrifices.

Join the conversation and post your thoughts. »

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