This week, we begin Leviticus, the third and central book of the five Books of Moses. The central question of this book, posed in this opening portion, might be paraphrased as "How will the Israelites become a holy people worthy of their unique connection with the Holy One?"
This question challenges all who have made our way through Genesis and Exodus, which recount a heartbreaking history of human failings. Our ancestors included those who stole birthrights and blessings, tricking family members and betraying those who extended hospitality. Our forebears included murderers and rapists, liars and cheats. After the miraculous liberation from slavery, our ancestors behaved so badly that Moses had to entreat God not to destroy them.
Leviticus proposes a blueprint for flawed human beings to reach towards holiness and wholeness by establishing a system of laws and protocols to protect and restore the divine order.
This portion begins by detailing the procedures for making offerings to God. The verb and the noun share the same root: k/r/b — "to come near." Just as the construction of the mishkan provided an alternative channeling of the passionate energy that resulted in the construction of the golden calf, so does the offering of sacrifices redirect our thirst for blood. Rabbi Janet Marder explains that the priests, "descendants of Phinehas, a family whose origins are murderous and full of rage, are taught to (re)direct their zealous energies to the service of God."
With the assistance of the priests, the people prepare offerings of animals to express gratitude for health, wealth and well-being, and offerings that ask for pardon and the expiation of guilt.
How might we, as modern Jews, read this portion that describes in detail the animals that are brought for sacrifice, including "a male without blemish," "a female without blemish," healthy bulls and sheep and goats that are killed, and their blood ritually "dashed on the altar"?
Marder suggests that the processes described here transform the officiants' most base instincts: "Their killing is tamed and domesticated, their dangerous proclivities neutralized. Through bringing offerings to the altar, the fierce passions of the ego are not indulged but controlled and transcended."
Tragically, the world in which we live is no less violent, rapacious and brutal than the world our ancestors inhabited. For some of us, art, culture, learning and service to others are tools that tame the ego and redirect destructive passions. Our Jewish tradition teaches that prayer replaces sacrifice; as our ancestors brought their prized animals for slaughter, and first harvests and choice flour to God's altar, we bring our hearts to God's service.
As Jews who continually renew and refresh our covenant with God, we ask: "How can we live as a holy people worthy of our unique connection with the Holy One?"
For us, "drawing near" may mean creating and sustaining communities that are strengthened by prayer. By coming together in communities of prayer, we come near to God. And we "draw near" to one another. Our ancestors created legal and ritual structures to help them order their lives. We, too, create structures of community that enable us to honor our passions, and to share and focus our search for holiness.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi and worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. E-mail her at: [email protected]