By Bettijane Eisenpreis
“The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying speak to the Israelite people…”
The Hebrew title of the third book of the Torah is Va-Yikra, taken from the first words of the first sentence, “And God called.” For centuries, the Jewish people have called it by its Greek name “Leviticus,” referring to the laws of the Levites, the priestly clan. And for good reason! Starting with the very first chapter, the book is a recitation of law after law after law. A person reading it can find herself lost in a maze of laws.
But while the priestly class reveled in this book and claimed it as their own, it is well to remember that the book survived long after the priests were gone. True, we don’t sacrifice animals anymore, but we do read Leviticus. That’s because this book represents the attempt of a long-enslaved people to cope with the reality of living as free men and women. It was their way of wresting order out of chaos, of acknowledging gratitude to God and finding a way to live in harmony with their fellows.
When the early Israelites wanted to draw near and worship God, the only way they could do it was through sacrifice. The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban, which comes from the root “to draw near.” A burnt offering is “olah” from the root for “to go up.” In order to get closer to God, the people felt that they had to send an offering up, to communicate, through the pleasing odor of their sacrifice, with a higher power.
The Levites were the chief facilitators of the sacrifice, the middlemen between the people and God. We have seen in Exodus the pomp and ceremony with which Aaron and his sons were consecrated as priests, the awe in which they were held and the respect which the position commanded.
But it wasn’t just power the Levites commanded; they were well compensated for their efforts. Yes, there are a few sacrifices that were burnt on the altar and entirely turned into ash. But usually the priest turned a handful of the offering into smoke and he and his family ate the rest. Housing in cities was also set aside for the Levites, so they didn’t suffer. But their main asset was power, and they relished it!
Still, in reading these opening chapters of Leviticus, we can see the outlines of an ordered, ethical life beginning to be set here. If a man or a woman couldn’t offer an animal, he or she could offer a bird. And offerings were not only given to expiate sin; there were offerings of well-being, of gratitude to God for simply being alive.
The last offering in this section is of particular interest. It is the reparation offering, asham in Hebrew. There is a catalogue of offenses that one person may commit against another person – robbery, defaulting on a pledge, lying, or swearing falsely. Before he made his guilt offering to the priest, the offender had to repay the person he wronged. And here we see the structure of the Ten Commandments repeated: It is essential to respect and worship God, of course, but it is every bit as important to do right by our fellow persons.
Difficult as it is, the Book of Leviticus was once the place where a traditional Jewish boy began his education. Its pages were smeared with honey, and the child was given a taste as he began school. We Jews are “a kingdom of priests and a holy people,” and ours has always been a society of laws to live by. We may not observe all the laws listed in this book today, but we understand the principle of being law-abiding citizens. It’s bred in our bones, going all the way back to our earliest traditions. Leviticus is a reminder of the importance of the laws of God and of man.