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Leviticus - A Spiritual Guidebook

Last week we finished reading the Book of Exodus, the second of the five books of the Torah. Moses and the Israelites had just completed the construction of the Mishkan, the portable, desert sanctuary. The cloud of glory that symbolized God's presence, which had guided our people to Sinai, had descended from the mountain and rested upon the sanctuary, where it would remain in view of all the Israelites throughout their journeys. The Exodus experience had come to an end. We had escaped from Egypt. We had received the Covenant at Sinai. We had built a central shrine. God had settled in our midst. We were ready to continue our journey.

If the Torah's chief concern were with the history of our people, Exodus would logically be followed by the continuation of the story of our ancestors' wanderings on the way to the promised land. We would jump ahead over the Book of Leviticus, the third and next book of the Torah, to the middle of the fourth book, Numbers, to continue the adventure.

But the Torah, although describing an historical moment, is not interested primarily in history. Its foremost concern is to present a way of life and a pattern of life based on a continuing relationship between God and the Jewish people. Just when we are ready to learn what happens next, the Torah focuses on another issue - what it means to have God's sacred presence situated in the midst of the people of Israel in the beautiful, new Mishkan.

Therefore, the Book of Leviticus, Vayikra in Hebrew, is concerned with a spiritual issue rather than an historical one. It is a spiritual guidebook, but unlike contemporary spiritual literature, Leviticus does not focus on how we are to feel about spiritual issues. It does not contain moving stories, sentimental verse and gentle encouragement. Rather, it is a book of rules and regulations. Leviticus describes in detail the rites and rituals that are to be performed in the sanctuary. It tells us about sacrificial worship, the cycle of the holy days and ritual purity, and presents a demanding moral and ethical code of behavior.

In this way it models a very Jewish approach to spirituality - that by participation and practice one gains spiritual insight. Leviticus provides powerful guidelines on how to respond to the holy and sacred presence of God among the Jewish people. Its goal is to teach us how to live lives of holiness so that we can be in communion with God through worship, and with each other, members of God's holy people, through righteousness.

Not all of Leviticus is directly applicable today. Many of the rules and regulations contained in the Book of Leviticus, particularly the laws pertaining to the long lost Temple and its rites, no longer have direct significance. Some of the laws refer to social, political and economic structures far different from our own. But throughout our history, our teachers and sages have struggled with the underlying challenge of Leviticus - how to respond to the holy God who dwells within us - to interpret the ancient laws in light of the changing circumstances of Jewish life.

In English we call the third book of the Torah "Leviticus" because most of the rules pertain directly to the tribe of Levi, whose task was to serve God in the sanctuary. This name, however, is misleading. Leviticus is not a technical manual for priests, but a spiritual guide for all of us. It is addressed not to a specific tribe or clan, but to all Israel. At the beginning of the book and at significant moments within it, God calls on Moses to speak to all the b'nai Yisrael, to all the Jewish people.

Leviticus is not always easy to read or simple to understand. It speaks to us from a time and place in our history far distant from our own, when we dwelt in the wilderness in a massive encampment with God's sanctuary directly in our midst. But the Torah is much more than a history book, and its teachings are not tied to any particular historical period. The Torah teaches us, wherever we may find ourselves, how to live lives of holiness in the presence of the Holy God who dwells with us. Thus, the middle book of the Torah, the Book of Leviticus, is our people's first spiritual guide.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah