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Vayikra and First Tastes

This commentary marks the beginning of our fifth year studying the weekly portion together via the internet. As you know I have faithfully written a commentary each and every week for the past four years. I hope some of my words and interpretations have found their way into your hearts and minds. The effort remains the same as it has been for thousands of years. We continue to ask how the Torah can provide meaning and guidance for our world. As always I welcome your thoughts and responses, and even disagreements. Torah is given renewed life through our discussions and debates. May our conversations continue to be lively and thoughtful. And so today we begin again, and we begin anew.

This week we open the book of Vayikra, Leviticus. Its relevance for our present world appears distant and remote. The book is filled with details about sacrifices. Do you want to thank God? Offer a sacrifice. Such is the counsel of Vayikra. “The bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord; and Aaron’s sons, the priests, shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar which is at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting…. Its entrails and legs shall be washed with water, and the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord.” (Leviticus 1)

Could anything seem more irrelevant? Sprinkling blood? Cleaning entrails? Slaughtering an animal to please God?

Why then would the tradition insist that a child’s Jewish studies begin with this book of Leviticus? True, nearly half of Judaism’s 613 mitzvot are found in Leviticus. And so one could discover a life wedded to the commandments by studying these words. In the myriad of commandments listed in this biblical book a child can begin to learn the meaning of mitzvah. Yet many of these mitzvot are no longer binding. We do not offer sacrifices. We do not examine the sick for signs of leprosy. We do not get tattoos. (Perhaps another example might be more apt.)

So why begin our studies with a book filled with laws we are no longer required to observe? It is because then our study can truly be for its own sake. Then it is Torah l’shma. Some teachers even place honey on the text so that a child’s first taste of Torah is sweet. As we pour over the words of this book our motivations are purified. We discover there our desire to draw closer to God and God’s Torah. That can be our only hope for all this effort. When we open Leviticus first our intentions become true and we draw nearer to God. And then our lives become sweetened.

The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban. It comes from the word to draw near. Its origin suggests that for the ancients sacrifice was first and foremost an effort to draw closer to God. Despite the book of Leviticus’ unappealing details of blood and entrails, the effort remains the same.

We open the pages of a book. We draw near to God. We begin again with the words “Vayikra—And the Lord called…”