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Friday, March 15, 2013

Parshat Vayikra: Creating a Structure for Holiness

This week we begin reading the third book of the Torah, Vayikra/Leviticus. Also known as Torat Kohanim, the Torah of the High Priests, much of Vayikra is dedicated to the laws of sacrifice and ritual purity that were the domain of the ancient Israelite priests.

There is a long-standing custom within traditional Judaism that children begin their religious studies with Vayikra. It has always seemed strange that children were to  begin with the book of Vayikra and its detailed descriptions of animal sacrifices and its intricate laws and regulations. It always seemed more logical to start with the creation story or the intricate family dynamics of our ancestors found in Bereshit/Genesis or the drama of slavery and redemption found in Shemot/Exodus? Our sages asked a similar question in Yalkut Shimoni, a collection of midrash/rabbinic stories and commentaries, believed to have been written in the 12th or 13th centuries. Here we read, “Why do young children start with Torat Kohanim (“Torah of the Kohanim? [Why not] let them start with Bereshit/Genesis? Since the korbanot (sacrifices) are pure and the children are pure, let the pure come and deal with the pure.”

I like the idea of beginning a pure, young child's education with something that is directly connected to purity (at least in the minds of our ancestors). After all, we read in the Torah that we are to be a goy kadosh/holy nation and a mamlekhet kohanim/a 'kingdom' of kohanim/priest. What better way to begin this enterprise than be studying the laws of sacrifice that were incumbent upon the priest?

In the 21st century, this interpretation may not speak to us as it did to our ancestors. Yet,, I have come to realize that there is still great wisdom to our Sages' decision to begin Torah study with Vayikra. For one can discover through delving into this central book of the Torah (it is literally the center of the 5 books), the centerpiece of what it means to be a Jew, and a human being.

Vayikra means "and [God] called." It may seem easier for us to hear the call of the Divine when reading about mythic journeys of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the ordeals of the slaves and their exodus from Egypt or the revelation on Mt Sinai; to hear God's call in the description of sacrifices and ancient rituals is not so simple. However, Vayikra is about more than just rules and regulations. At the core of this, the central book of the Torah we find an attempt to create structure for a new society. This structure is based on the commandment which is
at the center of the book of Vayikra, and therefore near the exact physical center point of the Torah scroll: "you shall love your fellow human being as yourself. I am the Eternal your God."  This deceptively simple command is the essence of our quest for holiness and divinity in our world.

When we reach eventually Chapter 19 in Parshat Kedoshim (holiness) on Shabbat, we will read  this as one of a group of commandments that instruct us to be holy because God is holy. This quest for holiness and holy living is at the core of the Torah, for it is at our core as individuals and at the core of creating community. However, in order to create a society that focuses on holiness there must be a structure as well as a path set out for people to follow. The structure may be adjusted from generation still remains. The heart and soul of this structure is the commandment quoted above, which reminds us that each and every person we encounter in life – from our "worst enemy" to our "best friend," is created in the image of the Divine.

Jewish tradition is based on what we call halakhah. Most commonly  translated as "Jewish law," another translation might be "the way to walk." Halakhah is the path that is meant to lead us through life. It is the path of holiness. At one moment, the path may seem broad and winding, while at another it seems narrow and treacherous. It is halakhah, in its broadest, most flexible and porous sense that provides the for the path. of Halakhah. After all, there are many paths to holiness and to the One God. As a liberal Jew, I prefer to focus on its flexibility and adaptability, though of course, I respect my more traditional Jewish brothers and sisters who may have a different view. After all, there is more than one path to God and holiness. Yet, without an inner structure or without a path to follow it is ultimately more difficult for us to adapt and change as times change.

However, the path and the structure, as important as they are, are not  simply there to give us a sense of safety, security and grounding. For as much as we would like to feel safe, secure and grounded while walking the path, ultimately we never know when the earth will shift beneath our feet. Rather, the path and the structure give us a sense of where others have gone before us in their journey of holiness. Each step we take along the path invariably changes its very shape. Sometimes this occurs without us realizing, while at other times we change the path or reshape the structure quite intentionally, and even radically. How and why the path changes is not as important as  noticing the fact that is indeed changing with each step and in every moment and noticing where we are as this occurs.

In addition to changes we affect as individuals, the community also has an effect on the path as well. It is the community's search for holiness, and our part in it, which reminds us that we are created in the image of God, and allows us the freedom to discover who we are as individuals and as part of a community. The individual path and the communal path are neither totally distinct nor identical. Rather, they are intertwined and interdependent. Change in one calls for change in the other. For me, that is the essence of my halakhah; my way of walking the path of holiness. For to be holy does not mean that we are meant to understand exactly what holiness is and to behave in that exact way. Instead, to be holy means to seek out the that which is best for humanity and brings us closer to godliness in our world as we walk every step and every moment.

For me, the essence of what it means to seek holiness and hear  the call of the Divine is not only to be found in observing the traditional forms of ritual and behavior that we have come to call halakhah. For that is only one of the paths to holiness. Every moment is an opportunity for each of us to make a choice, and each step we take is also that moment's destination in our journey. As we continue on this journey, let us remember "Vayikra" – that God has called, is
calling and will always call to each of us if we only listen.  Ultimately, this call is what enables us to make the choices and take the steps as we continue on the path of holiness.

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