“Ki vayom hazeh y’chaper aley’hem, le’taher et’chem; mikol hatotey’chem lifnei adonai tit’haru. (For on this day atonement will be made for you to cleanse you, of all your sins before God, you shall be cleansed” (Lev 16:30)
On Yom Kippur, when the High Priest entered the inner Temple, dressed in special robes and breastplate, the priestly garments including the frontlets on his head, the vestments of fine white linen, he would repeat this biblical verse in each of the three confessions he made. And the people would crowd around outside in the temple courtyard, listening hard, and when they heard the the glorious and awesome four letter name of God we write as yod hey vav hey, the name which would be uttered only by the High Priest, only within the Holy of Holies, only on Yom Kippur, only as part of the confession ritual, then they would bow down with their faces to the ground and respond with the blessing of God’s name. This annual ritual of confession and sacrifice was a dangerous one, surrounded by mystery, perfumed by the incense, veiled from the community. Tension mounted as the confessions grew, as the animals were sacrificed and the hopes pinned upon them being favourably received reached some form of expression.
My sympathies have always been with the high priest, upon whose shoulders rested the burden of so much expectation. The fate of the whole people seems to have been given over to this one man on this one day – so he had better get it right. The ritual was complicated, the choreography of washing and changing clothes, of sacrifice and prayer awesomely elaborate, the consequences of making a mistake unthinkable. We don’t know much from either biblical sources or first temple texts, but by the time of the Second Temple the Day for Atonement was focussed on the actions and intentions of the High Priest, and the role of the people was to listen, to be awe-struck, and to hope that he got it right.
That was then, but since the Temple days Yom Kippur has developed a different set of rituals, and while we re-enact part of the Avodah, the temple service of Yom Kippur, during the mussaf service, experiencing just the echo of the thrilling gravity and overwhelming power of that ceremony, our own liturgy and imagery takes us to a different religious place. Yom Kippur is no longer the Day for Atonement for the people Israel, it is by far a more personal and individual experience for we children of modern times. The High Priest has long gone, the sacrificial system consigned to a stage post in history that no longer speaks to us of religious action, and the corporate nature of the people Israel has been changed as we have become a different category altogether – Jews, and while we consistently create community we see ourselves in the main as individuals, individual Jews.
The structure of the ritual and the philosophical underpinnings of the day have undergone a radical transformation, and so, I would posit, has the meaning of what Yom haKippurim means to us. While we still translate this obscure name using the invented composite word ‘at-one’, we have changed both meaning and purpose of the day for our own spiritual needs. I would even go so far as to say that the day is not really about sin and atonement any more – how would we even define those terms today? – but that Yom Kippur for us is about something quite other – Time. Yom Kippur is about our use of time, about our location in time – it is in particular a day for us to focus on our own mortality.
Interspersed in our machzor with the major themes of sin and repentance, of forgiveness and atonement, we hear the insistently repeated motif of life and death. We talk for example about the Book of Life, we read the Martyrology, we recite a service of Yizkor, our traditional clothing for this day is to wear shrouds and we are called to abstain from the physical pleasures of living, eating, drinking or washing. We take a day right out of time and act as if the world outside is irrelevant to us, as if we are, for the moment, temporarily dead.
What message do we take from the prayers and texts as we sit through Yom Kippur. It is probably true that we examine our lives and find our behaviour wanting. It is probably the case that we make our stumbling attempts towards recognising and harnessing our own spirituality, yearning as we do for a sense of meaning, for a firm belief in a greater being. It may well be that we feel momentarily inspired to change some part of our lives, or that we experience the satisfying of a need for connectedness which tends to be submerged during the busy weeks of the rest of our lives. As the day rolls on, the ancient formulae about sin and loss swirl around us, as do the equally ancient phrases about return and forgiveness. We know that we are less than perfect and we look for ways to deal with both the knowledge and the reality. But we cannot retreat into the Yom Kippur of the Temple period and leave the whole religious business to someone else. The Yom Kippur of our time looks us in the face and says – you are mortal, you only have a limited time on this earth – and you do not even know how limited it may be – so what are you going to do about your life?
Yom Kippur is no longer a day simply of general and ritual atonement. It is a day for us to restructure our lives, to reconcile our realities with our requirements. Loud and clear through the prayers comes the reminder – we are mortal, we, and those around us do not have all the time in the world, and so if there are things we want to do, we should be planning to do them now, if there are things we need to change, we should be arranging to change them now, if there are things we want to say, we should be saying them now.
Nothing is so precious as time, nothing is so consistently abused. We waste time, we kill time, we fill in time – rarely do we actually use time appropriately. Yet our tradition has been able to transform a day of communal awe and professional ritual activity, and give it to us in a new form – personal time for us to spend reconciling and reconstructing the lives we are living with the lives we already know we could be living.
As a community rabbi I have sat and listened so many times to the laments which begin ‘if only’, I have witnessed the rapprochements which have sometimes come too late, I have heard the stories of fractured relationships which have entailed years of lost possibilities; I have met broygas individuals (note for translater – people who have taken offence) who are determined that the other person should make the first move towards reconciliation – sometimes about an argument the reason for which is lost in history. We don’t tend to use the word ‘sin’ for such behaviours, but surely to fail to make or maintain relationships in this way is one of the biggest sins we currently commit. We all live within the constraints of time, we all know what is truly important to do in that time, yet most if not all of us regularly fail to acknowledge that we should be making our priorities so that when the time runs out – be it our own time in this world or the time of a loved one – we have done what was important and responded appropriately, addressing the most meaningful issues of our lives rather than reacting to what is presented as the most urgent.
On the tenth of Tishri the bible tells us to come together as a holy assembly for Yom haKippurim. It is clearly to be a day of repentance, of hard thinking, of reconciliation and reconstruction of relationship. We are used to the imagery that reminds us that we are to reconcile and reconstruct our relationship with God, and parts of us are able to do so. And we manage it without the intermediary of the stylised actions of the high priest. We sit and think and pray, hear the voices inside us as they speak of loss and pain, of comfort and of peace.
But today isn’t only about our working on our relationship with God, it is about using that work and the understanding brought about by such a relationship so that we make substantial changes to our relationships with others. As Morris Adler wrote:
‘Our prayers are answered not when we are given what we ask, but when we are challenged to be what we can be’ .
Yom Kippur has been many things for we Jews during our history. The most solemn day of our calendar it is described as ‘shabbat shabbaton’ – the Sabbath of Sabbaths. There is a tradition that when God had finished creating the world, God created the Sabbath, and scripture tells us “uvayom hash’vee’ee shavat va’yinafash” (Exod. 31:16-17) And on the seventh day God stopped all work and restored his soul. This word va’yinafash is a strange one – often translated as “God rested” it really means something to do with restoring the soul. From it comes the idea that on Shabbat we are given an extra soul or measure of soul, with which we can discern and taste the world that is more usually hidden from us, we can experience something outside of normal sensation. If we have an extra dimension of soul on Shabbat, how much more so on shabbat shabbaton – today, Yom haKippurim? On shabbat we use it to experience a taste of the world to come, but today we can use it for something else entirely – we can use it to understand more about this world and our place within it. The liturgy of today reminds us about time, about the fleeting nature of our life in this world, about the end which all of us will face. Yom Kippur gives us the time and the space to consider our part in our world, gives us the extra measure of soul we need to really consider and construct our lives as we mean to live them. We have about another seven hours today, and the real world will begin to crowd in once more and drown out the world of prayer and thought we have created. We do not know how much time we will have after that. So today let’s face the time and let’s spend it wisely, rather than profligately allowing it to run away. Who knows how many tomorrows there will be?
“Ki vayom hazeh y’chaper aley’hem, le’taher et’chem; mikol hatotey’chem lifnei adonai tit’haru. (For on this day atonement will be made for you to cleanse you, of all your sins before the lord, you shall be cleansed” says our machzor, quoting the book of Leviticus. There is no High Priest to do the cleansing, only ourselves and our dedication and our desire, and of course this very special and holy block of time – today.
There used to be a joke told about how barbecues happened in the suburbs. It went like this “When a man volunteers to do the barbecue this is what happens. First, the woman buys the food. Then the woman makes the salad, prepares the vegetables, and makes the dessert.
Then the woman prepares the meat, placing it on a tray along with the necessary cooking utensils and sauces, and takes it to the man who is standing by the barbecue with a nice cold drink. The man puts the meat on the grill. The woman goes inside to organize the plates and cutlery, coming out briefly with another cold drink for the man. He flips the meat, watches it a while and then takes it off the grill and puts it on a plate which he gives to the woman.
The woman brings plates, salad, bread, utensils, napkins and sauces to the table. Everyone eats. After eating, the woman clears the table and does the dishes. The man accepts the praise for his cooking skills. Then he asks the woman how she liked her night off from making dinner.”
I sometimes think of this joke when listening to the instructions about the sacrificial system – only the final stages are really described, the process from a live animal being brought to the door of the tent of meeting to the burning of flesh and dashing of blood is strangely fuzzy. And I wonder who were the other people who supported the work of the ritual system, what were their roles, what were they thinking? Were there women involved as well as men?
This last question comes to mind in part from reading the midrashim which discuss what was the actual sin of Nadav and Avihu, that in this earliest moment of priesthood they offered strange fire and were struck down by fire.
A variety of reasons for their deaths are contrived from the text: their sacrifice was made at the wrong time; they were drunk or unwashed or were not wearing the right clothing for the ritual. None of these speak to the ‘strange fire’ that they offered before God.
But there are other reasons suggested for their deaths and these reasons bespeak arrogance and self-importance and a huge lack of self-awareness: firstly that they had added to the fire already burning, something they had not been taught to do by Moses, so their crime was as much to do with dishonouring their teacher as the ritual they performed – they believed they knew better (Leviticus Rabbah 20:10). This arrogance is spoken of in another midrash recorded in the Babylonian Talmud: “Moses and Aaron were walking together with Nadav and Avihu behind them, and following them were all of Israel. Nadav said to Avihu, “When these two elders die, you and I will lead this generation.” God said “Let’s see who buries whom.” (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 52a)
The implication is as described by Rashi, middah kneged middah, the punishment matched the crime, the sin of offering strange fire was death by strange fire, the sin of arrogance and ignoring the rights and existence of others was addressed by their own death.
So whose ‘death’ or lack of rights to existence are we talking about here? The midrash tells us, intriguingly, the following viewpoint: “Rabbi Levi said, “They were conceited, many woman awaited them eagerly (to marry them) but what did they say? ‘Our uncle is King, our other uncle is a head of a tribe, our father is High Priest, we are his two assistants. What woman is worthy of us?'” (Leviticus Rabbah 20:10)
The sin of Nadav and Avihu was the ignoring of the legitimate rights of women. In their self-satisfaction they did not feel the need to marry, and in their refusal they consigned women to a problematic limbo. But there is more to this refusal to attend to the needs of women than a quick reading suggests. We are back to the ‘joke’ I began with. Israelite society was the only one of its kind in the region at the time that does not appear to have had priestesses – at least according to the biblical texts. Yet archaeological evidence suggests that there were indeed women who functioned within the priestly ritual system, at least in the later period. For example there are a number of grave inscriptions in Beit Shearim which show women with titles including that of priestess. The general view has been that as women were not priestesses these women could not have been priestesses, a circular argument which Bernadette Brooten demolishes thus: “It is my view that [the titles] were functional, and if the women bearing these titles had been members of another Graeco-Roman religion, scholars would not have doubted that the women were actual functionaries….what the male rabbis said about women does not necessarily reflect who the women were, what they did and what they thought. Rather it reflects on who the men making these statements were” (from “Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue” by Bernadette Brooten). Brooten has collected all kinds of inscriptions and, having removed the lens of “tradition says women didn’t do this” sees that the physical evidence is clear that women clearly did. My favourite was when, having done a thorough review of the archaeological literature and finding that many synagogues had no separate gallery or room apart from the single room, she challenged the assumption that that must have meant that no women prayed there, rather than the more likely assumption that men and women were not separated in prayer. It was my first lesson in how we notice what is important to us and ignore anything that is not important or that conflicts with the model of the world we have in our heads.
So – women and priesthood in Torah. Were there really no women involved in the structural priesthood of the Israelites unlike that of all the other groups around them? Or is that what bible wants us to think. Was it as patriarchal a society as we tend to think or is that a later gloss in order to create the patriarchal structure of Rabbinic Judaism? We know that the matriarchs were powerful figures who clearly had agency in their lives and the decisions that mattered. We know of a woman who both judged and directed battle – the formidable Deborah – even while midrash diminishes her role as it also does for Huldah the prophetess whom bible records as being consulted by the agents of King Josiah at his request – she is described (2Kings 22:13,14) as relaying God’s words to Hilkiah and the others and she speaks truth to power bluntly and without fear. She is described as a prophetess in the text, a role that requires mediating God’s words to the world. We know of women who played drums and who sang and processed, of the women at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 38:8) and of the Temple (1Sam 2:22). We know of the idolatrous cults that also used the Temple, that there were women weaving cloth for the Asherah there (2Kings 23:7). There are intriguing glimpses of women involved in the worship systems of the time, but they are almost erased from the biblical text. Asherah is our best entry point – who was she, what was her cult that it was so necessary to destroy? Archaeology comes to our aid again, for there are texts that describe her as the wife/consort of God – was there a cleansing of all that Asherah meant in order to promote the power of the single divinity YHVH? In that cleansing were the female attendants also swept away from the power base of the Temple?
There is another possibility –that the Jerusalem Temple which had to fight hard to become the focus of worship for all Israel – was clearly a political entity as well as a religious one. We know, again from the Books of Kings, that under the monarchies of Hezekiah and Josiah the strictness of the boundaries of this Temple was increased to the point that only the members of the Levitical tribe and specifically only the descendants of Aaron had access to the power bases in the priesthood. As the status descended through the paternal line, there was no room for women in the records of genealogy, no need to record them or to give them space in the structure.
So in the tight control of the Jerusalem Temple in order to concentrate power at that time (around the seventh century BCE), the women paid the ultimate price. And slowly their history was lost, their roles seen as less important. They could buy the food, make the salads, set the table, prepare the vegetables, help the man who would make the barbecue, they could eat from the meat if they were relatives connected to the priesthood, but their role in keeping the show on the road could be ignored, unappreciated, forgotten. The meat is what is important in a barbecue, forget the vegetable kebabs or the nibbles. The animal sacrifice is what is important in the ritual system, and even though the flour and the oil and the wine offered are also recorded in the texts they just don’t have a starring role.
The joke about the barbecue has an ending in some variations. After the man has taken all the praise, the woman has cleared up, and he has asked her if she enjoyed her time off, he notices she is fed up and exclaims “there is just no pleasing some people”.
At least he notices her feelings and that she is not happy. Maybe in this century he might go further, see why she is feeling unappreciated, ignored and excluded. Maybe he might notice that she is not happy and fulfilled in her role, and work together with her to create what was presumably the expectation behind the midrash about Nadav and Avihu not being willing to marry– it takes two to fulfil the role of priesthood, both the masculine and the feminine are needed to represent the human being. One alone who thinks they can do it by themselves are conceited, arrogant and destined to fail. We need each other, we need our diversity and our differences, our separate strengths and our individual gifts if we want to really create a bridge towards the divine.
Beginning the book of Leviticus we enter into a world which so far has been peripheral to the thrust of the narrative since Adam and Eve left the sheltered privacy of Eden and entered the real world. Even the long and cumbersome details of the building of the Mishkan,, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness, which took up some sixteen chapters at the end of the book of Exodus hasn’t really prepared us for the focused detail of the sacrificial system, the almost obsessive choreography involving altars, animals, incense and blood
The book of Leviticus brings a whole new approach to religion. People and their actions are categorised and prescriptions given to make restitution for having broken God’s commands. For particular kinds of sin you would bring particular kinds of animal. You might bring an animal from your herd, and would lay your hand of the head of the offering, which would then be slaughtered, cut into sections, laid on the altar and burned. Five different sacrifices are detailed at the very beginning the book of Leviticus, each one with its own set of regulations.
We look today at the book, described in rabbinic literature as ‘torat cohanim’ the priests legal and practical manual, and it makes very little sense to us. Animals brought to the sanctuary, identified as being expiation for our wrongful behaviour, and killed. Some parts splashed, some parts burned, some parts made into a thick smoke and some parts even sometimes eaten. A fixed ritual for a category of behaviour. It seems miles away from our current spirituality which trends to be personal, private, sedentary, tailored to our particular experience – modern.
We experience the text as atavistic, regressive, somehow uncivilized, or else maybe we see it as a way for people who didn’t know better to try to relate to their God. We have moved on to using prayer, to building relationship on our own terms, to introspection. We no longer need to make a public sacrifice, to act out any external ritual, to follow the rote and regulation of offerings for knowing sins and unwitting misdeeds, for individual breaking of vows or the collective responsibility of communal wrongdoing.
So we read through the book of Leviticus with our minds neatly closed against the horror, the smells, the hierarchy, the blood – and the meaning behind them all.
The sacrificial cult is, it is fair to say, anachronistic. It is not of our time. But that does not mean that it has no lessons for us, or that we can’t draw out real spirituality from exploring the things our ancestors did, and were so anxious to make sure that we could know how to do so too.
Firstly for these Jews, what they were doing was ‘korban’ a word meaning to draw near to something, to come closer. The building of the tabernacle had been effected by freely given offerings, by taking the best of what they had to put to the service of God, but the whole purpose of the building and of the system which it was designed to service was not simply giving up wealth, of sacrificing something of value, but it was korban – drawing nearer to God. In terms of the purpose of worship, over all this time the foundational idea simply hasn’t changed – we still want to experience closeness with the divinity.
When people offered up an animal in the specific rituals laid down in Leviticus, one of the things they were doing was showing how they were not defined by what they owned – before approaching God they would let go of the materialism that distorts and distracts all human beings from can and Abel onwards. It is a problem we wrestle with to this day – coming from the outside world with all the pressures and problems, we walk into the synagogue still defined by the things which seem to own us, our problems and situations, as well as clinging as if for dear life to all the external validators and bolsterers of our identity. It’s hard to let go of the world and our preoccupation with it, to relax into the state of being a Jew at prayer, offering the service of the heart with full attention and intention. Without some sort of structure it is more than hard – it is practically impossible.
So still today we create a structure for our own korbanot, our own drawing closer to God. Maybe it isn’t so clearly recognisable a construction as the rituals described in the book of Leviticus, but it is a construction nevertheless. Be it the habit of daily prayer, or simply the formal system at work in the siddur, we still today go on our spiritual journey clutching a map and a set of implicit directions which, if written out, would probably rival the words of Leviticus in their attention to detail and in their unfamiliarity.
The service prescribed in the siddur is built to take us somewhere. We follow it carefully, even if it sometimes happens that we know longer have a deep familiarity with the signposts. It has taken on some of the elements of magic that must also have been perceived by those who followed the ritual of the tent of meeting – which bits are important, which bits left over from another meaning are no longer distinguishable to us. One of the most significant changes of the reform movement 200 years ago was to take out of the siddur whole swathes of repetitious texts, as well as texts devoted to the sacrificial cult, the Temple and the messiah. We edited the siddur and tried to bring it back to its core purpose – a means of bringing us closer to God. We kept in the concept of Avodah, of work and worship, we kept in the idea of korban, of approaching God, we kept in too the distancing of the material world, the shrugging off of the layers of worry and doubt and of making a living and striving to have ownership of things. We created, and continue to create, a siddur to be proud of, a siddur which can really lift us in prayer, elevating the holy in our thoughts. But there is something which continues to nag at me and which I miss – though we took out a lot of things that needed to be excised, the accretions of a long and complicated history of trying to come closer to the mysterious divine, we also took out the idea of being active in this search, of action that is so much an intrinsic part of the sacrificial system.
We honed a beautiful liturgy and created a more coherent theology while doing so, but we have left it innocent of much ritual, and ritual, bizarre as it seems to the outsider, is part of worship too. Now I’m not advocating a regression to the sacrificial system, nor that we suddenly take up what is sometimes known as prayerobics, the shochelling of yeshiva bechurim while they chant their texts, but I do feel that a bit of action and taking part, together with a bit of unpredictability which must also have been a component of the sacrificial system, would be in order in our oh-so-orderly prayers. With all the senses awash with sensation, the sacrificial system would have overwhelmed the person who came to pray, brought them into a spiritually different place. Our more hygienic services can also be experienced as bland, neutral, less than spiritually satisfying, making it hard to let go and really sense the presence of God as we pray the beautiful words of our prayers. For all its directions and instructions for an ancient – and to our eyes cruel – practise, I sometimes wonder which generation really understood what is important to do when a Jews tries to reach God.
“When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, …, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Eternal your God will choose… You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him; “I acknowledge this day before the Eternal your God that I have entered the land that the Eternal swore to our ancestors to assign us.” …. “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meagre numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labour upon us. We cried to the Eternal, the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents, bringing us to this place and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Eternal One, have given me.” ….. And you shall rejoice in all the good which the Eternal your God has given to you, and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the stranger that is in the midst of you. (Deut 26:1–3, 5-10, 26:11)
The commandment at the beginning of the sidra is familiar to us, reminding us to tell our story in such a way that we do not just focus on harvest, or on our good fortune, nor even to tell it while recognising that our good fortune is not simply the result of our own effort, but to create a narrative that puts our experience into the context of the historical experience of the Jewish people.
Telling our story is how all of us make sense of our lives. Each of us has a narrative running through our consciousness, each of us notices most easily what fits into that narrative, manages to ignore that which cannot be meshed into the story. The theme of these days of preparation for Rosh Hashanah – that of opening and reading to book of our lives, emerges in part from the awareness of the stories we construct about our everyday experience. But while each of us may be the centre of our own continuous narrative, Jewish teaching does not allow us to become self-absorbed. Instead we are expected to see ourselves as part of a whole that is greater than ourselves. We are part of a people. We live beyond this moment – we live in the span of the whole experience of our people. And the way we express ourselves religiously is woven into our internal and external narrative. We have to become aware not only of the immanent God with whom we can create some form of relationship of “I – Thou”; The God we worship is the God of history, the God who has no limits of time or space. Ever since we accepted Torah, Jews have been taught to see God at work in the world around us, in the historical experience of our people, and in the humanity of others.
Each of us, like the Israelite farmer bringing his first fruits, is required to tell a story, to render an account – before God and to our innermost selves, of who and what we are – a narrative that explains just what it is that spurs us on to action in this world. In telling his story, that farmer was commanded to look beyond his immediate reality to a vision of what his life was to be about. So, we too, are asked, when telling our story, not to ignore the “real world” but to transcend it, to direct our attention away from the concrete trivialities of our material existence and toward those goals, however exalted and “unrealistic,” that God would have us set for our lives.
The liturgical formula that is preserved in the verses at the beginning of ki tavo is a rare example of the prayer life of ancient Israel. We use it in a number of settings – from the Pesach Haggadah to the liturgy of bikkurim, and its familiarity speaks to us and reminds us that the story of the redemption from slavery which led to the covenant at Sinai is a foundational one for us as Jews. Without it our stories are in danger of sentimentality. But it isn’t just the words that teach us. We are moved from words to actions. The ritual begins with our declaration to proclaim our understanding and our faith. Then we go beyond the declaration into action – the tachlis. Having acknowledged the Source of our blessing – God – and told the story of our own historical vulnerability, remembering our impotence and pain, we go on to do something intensely practical – to share the offering with the Levite/ priest and the ger–“the sojourner/stranger that is in your midst.” (Deuteronomy 26:11)
The ger, (Sojourner/stranger) is almost a synonym for the idea of the vulnerable, the one who does not have land or resource, the one without the support of family or landsmen, the person who is quintessentially alone. Today the closest equivalent is likely to be the refugee or the asylum seeker, washed up without possessions in a foreign environment. Torah requires us not only to acknowledge our own good fortune, but to behave directly out of that acknowledging, to routinely share with those who do not have the same good fortune as us. The act of thanksgiving commanded at the beginning of the sidra leads us to act even before thinking about the action, getting us to do a good thing, to perform a mitzvah, that will shape our understanding of the world, that will shape us. The requirement to care for the vulnerable enters into the narrative we live by each day, we cannot disregard it. It is no surprise therefore that tradition teaches that “In the future age, all sacrifices and prayers will be abolished, except that of thanksgiving”. (Menachem of Gallia, in Vayikra Rabbah 9:7).
In this month of Elul as we approach the High Holy Days and we think about what we have done and what we have not done, what we should do and what we fear we will never do, it is important to remember that these days are the white fast, they are days of Awe but they are also days of thanksgiving for all we have, for knowing that God will not desert us, that God will let us find our way if we search. They remind us that we should not forget our past nor think only of our present. They remind us that we have to find the words to tell the story that is true for us, that gives meaning and shape to our lives. And even before we really understand, we have to act.
A modern mind may look at the book of Leviticus and feel the distance. The world of ritual purity and impurity, of worship through sacrificial system etc is not one we instinctively understand and indeed are likely to find problematic. How can it be possible to come closer to God through such acts of ritual sacrifice?
Traditional Jewish practise dictates that young children are introduced to bible by studying Leviticus, based on the statement by Rav Assi who said that young children began their Torah studies with Leviticus and not with Genesis because young children are pure, and the sacrifices explained in Leviticus are pure, so the pure should study the pure. (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3.) I find it fascinating that our children begin not with the narratives that we find so often in books of bible stories for bedtime, not with the great dramas of exodus or Sinai, but with texts that do not pretend to have any historical interest, but are filled with rules and regulations about how to worship in the Sanctuary. The heart of Leviticus is that we have to learn how to encounter the God who dwells amongst us –remember that the Mishkan was built to remind people of the presence of God within and among them.
As we learn a series of rituals in order to approach God and come closer to an encounter with the divine, it becomes normative to think of God as a being who is in relationship with us. Leviticus teaches us that we can approach God, that God is open to our searching, indeed wants us to search. Leviticus also teaches that people do wrong things, both deliberately and unwittingly, and in either case forgiveness is not only possible it is waiting for us. What forgiveness requires is for us to know and acknowledge the wrong, and to do something about it in order to be absolved from the guilt.
Children, who have no difficulty believing in a divine being and who indeed often seem most at home in a world of searching for meaning, are indeed well able to begin to look at the texts in Leviticus that might be off putting for their more world weary parents. Children understand that bad behaviour has bad consequences, and that doing something to mitigate the behaviour will lead to better consequences. They believe that they will be forgiven no matter what they do, that they are loveable and acceptable even if their actions may not be.
So as we read the book of Leviticus, let’s remember it isn’t JUST a rule book for the priests, but a philosophy that says – approaching God is very easy, and if we do it thoughtfully, appropriately and mindfully then we will achieve what we want. The word used for sacrifice (korban) and for nearness share the same root k-r-v. Coming closer to God, having God come closer to us is what the ritual system is all about. We have replaced the structure with prayer and liturgy, but the underpinning understanding is the same. All we have to do is approach with a willing heart, and God will find us.
This week we are beginning a new book of Torah – the book of Leviticus, called in Hebrew “Vayikra”. The book deals in great detail with the minutiae of esoteric sacrifices and rituals – and of priestly purity, and for this reason it is also known in Rabbinic tradition as Torat Cohanim – the Book of the Priests, but surprisingly the book also contains within it the most accessibly ethical and spiritual texts of the whole bible – in particular it contains the list of behaviours in imitation of God that we call the Holiness Code.
There is a time honoured tradition that when a child was considered ready to begin to study scripture at the age of five, they would begin by studying the book of Leviticus. Many people find this somewhat bizarre – after all, a substantial amount of this book deals with the laws of the sacrificial cults, laws which are terribly complex and hard to follow, and which are also in abeyance since the destruction of the Temple –not something one would expect a five year old to understand and retain. Surely one would expect them to start with the stories in the book of Genesis, which would appeal to children and which benefit from being the very beginning of Torah, but the argument goes that as little children are innocent and pure (tahor) and as the book of Leviticus discusses the sacrifices which by their nature restore spiritual purity (taharah) to the person, then it is appropriate that the pure little children would begin their Jewish education with the topic of purity.
Other commentators point out that unlike the other four books of Moses, Leviticus does not open with subject matter in an historical setting – its main message is about individual and communal responsibility and accountability, and the means whereby we can approach God. The Hebrew word for sacrifice “korban” is derived from the root meaning “to draw near” so the whole of the ritual system defined and described in Leviticus is all about bringing us closer to God.
So the book which is physically at the centre of Torah is also spiritually at the centre – teaching that which is at the heart of Judaism – to recognise and to act on the need to come closer to God. Each of us is obliged to do this, from the High Priest and the leadership through to what the bible calls the cutters of wood and the drawers of water, and each of us, wherever we are in the pecking order, brings our own personal daily sacrifice.
Small children traditionally learn to read and study Vayikra, because in its mix of the ritual and the ethical, it embodies the timeless identity of being a Jew. It is about doing, about how we behave towards God, and how we behave towards our fellow human beings. It may read like a manual for priests, but look a little deeper, and you will recognise that a real human need is being addressed, a need which has not changed in the intervening generations, even though our way of dealing with it may have altered.