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Structure

This week we begin reading the third book of the Torah, Vayikra/Leviticus. The parashah is also called Vayikra, as the first parashah of each of the five books of the Torah takes the name of the book itself. There is a long-standing tradition within Judaism that when young children begin to study Torah they begin with Vayikra. Now if I were to choose a place to start I might choose the intricate family dynamics of Bereshit or the drama of slavery and redemption found in Shemot. I certainly would not choose the book of Vayikra with its detailed descriptions of animal sacrifices and intricate laws and regulations. And yet there is great wisdom to our Sages' decision to begin Torah study with Vayikra. For in many ways the central (third) book of the five books of the Torah is the centerpiece of what it means to be a Jew, if not a human being. No, we do not sacrifice animals. No we do not observe all of the laws and regulations of Vayikra. But we do need structure. We do need teachings to follow. And that is what Vayikra is about.

Vayikra means "and he (God) called." It is easy for us to hear the call of the Divine when reading about the journeys of the patriarchs and matriarchs or the ordeals of the slaves and their exodus from Egypt. But to hear God's call in the description of sacrifices is not an easy task! And yet Vayikra is about more than just sacrifices and laws. At the core of Vayikra is an attempt to create a structure for a new society. This structure was based on the central commandment of this central book of the Torah "you shall love your fellow human being as yourself. I am the Eternal your God." When we reach Parashat Kedoshim (holiness) we will read this commandment as part of a group of commandments that are meant to teach us to be holy for God is holy. The quest for holiness and holy living is at the core of the Torah for it is at the core of community. But 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 need to be adapted from generation to generation and the direction and width of the path may alter, but they are both necessary. In order to understand the meaning of Torah as a whole we need to begin with what our ancestors called Torat cohanim - the teachings of the cohanim (priests) - that is the book of Vayikra. This particular group of teachings dealt with how to create a new society and how to create the structure and begin the path of which I wrote. The Torah tells us that we are meant to be a "holy nation and a kingdom of priests." Vayikra helps us to begin the journey towards holiness and communal "priesthood."

Traditional Judaism is based on what we call Halakhah. This is most commonly translated as "Jewish law" and yet it's true meaning is "the way to go/walk." It is the path that leads us through life. At times the path is broad and meandering, at other times it is narrow and treacherous. And yet at all times the path has boundaries. It is the reality of these boundaries that allows us to walk this path at its narrowest points as well as its broadest without getting lost or falling. As liberal Jews we like to focus on our flexibility and the importance of being able to change and adapt as times change. But without a path to follow and a structure around us we cannot truly have the freedom to adapt and change. We need the safety and security of the path in order to truly be flexible.

As I wrote above, the width and the direction of the path may change, the shape of the structure is not static, but it is the community that determines how the structure changes and the path winds. It is the community's understanding of what the search for holiness is about and what it is that makes us created in the image of God that allows us the freedom to truly search for who we are as individuals and as part of a community. That is the essence of the teaching of the cohanim. It is the essence of the Torah and of Judaism. It is the essence of what it means to hear the call of the Divine from within and to begin the journey to find its source and our destination.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah