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Insights from Leviticus

This Shabbat we begin reading from Leviticus, the third book of the Pentateuch. The Book of Leviticus probably causes modern Jews more consternation and discomfort than any of the other 38 books of the Hebrew Bible. Its emphasis on animal sacrifices, highly ritualized means of absolving one of sins, bluntness in describing prohibited and permitted behaviors and excruciating attention to inaccessible details combined with a noticeable lack of personal narrative turns many modern readers off. This is unfortunate because the one book of the Five Books of Moses that arguably contains some of the most needed kind of wisdom for us today is Leviticus.

Very briefly, the Book of Leviticus, and in particular this week's selection, offers valuable insights into three areas of human existence where, on the whole, we as a society are sorely lacking wisdom. First, individuals need mechanisms (rituals) which allow for expiation of wrongful acts: "When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of the Lord's commandments ...." (Leviticus 4:2). Second, we are reminded that there is a social or communal level of culpability when wrongful acts occur, and as such there is a need for communal expiation as well: "If it is the whole community of Israel that has erred..." (4:13). Finally, we are reminded at the conclusion of this week's reading perhaps the hardest lesson for us to integrate: "When a person commits a trespass against the Lord by dealing deceitfully with his fellow [human being]... he shall bring to the priest, as penalty to the Lord....a guilt offering...and he shall be forgiven for whatever he may have done to draw blame thereby." (5:20 - 26).

In summary, this week's selection begins three important discussions decidedly relevant to us today. The first deals with our lack of rituals (mechanisms) for allowing us to resolve and then let go of wrongful acts; second, is our society's lack of communal rituals for addressing wrongful acts for which we as a community are guilty; and finally our ability, both as individuals and as a society, to forgive transgressors. The Book of Leviticus offers us one paradigm. Our ancient ancestors, the talmudic sages, transformed the deep wisdom of Leviticus into another paradigm, rabbinic Judaism. Now it is time for us to glean the wisdom of Leviticus and forge a new and meaningful paradigm for ourselves.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah