An old Jewish tradition holds that a child’s Jewish education begins with Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus. This might seem counter-intuitive. Unlike Genesis or Exodus, there is very little narrative in this book. Many of the laws that pertain to the sacrificial system have not been in use for 2,000 years, since the destruction of the Temple. “Small children are pure. The sacrifices are pure. Let those who are pure come and occupy themselves with things that are pure!” (Leviticus Rabbah, 7). A twelfth-century German-Jewish custom includes a child reading the first verse of Leviticus and licking a drop of honey off the writing tablet so that the words of Torah will always seem sweet.
Modern Biblical scholarship has opened up the sweetness of Vayikra for us in different ways. For some traditionally observant Jews, this may sound heretical, but the fact is the Torah does not speak in one voice. The Torah is a composite of different ideologies and perspectives that were woven together into one book that together expresses to us and to the world that there are different, valid ways of understanding and approaching God within Jewish tradition. Indeed, the greatness of the Torah stems in part from the fact that the book as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Scholars have identified four major strands of Biblical authorship. They are known as J, E, P and D. J is short for Yahwist, E for Elohist, P for Priestly and D for Deuteronomist. These sources were woven together, and yet their differences were not erased. The unique characteristics of each strand were left exposed for us to derive meaning to this day.
One illustration should suffice: if the book of Exodus were our only book of the Torah, then our observance of Passover would look very different. Each one of us would take a Paschal lamb with our families, slaughter it at our homes, roast it over spit and consume it in one sitting. We would observe this rite anywhere in the world. Imagine how Florida Home Owners Associations would react on Passover night. Of course, that is not what we do. We follow Deuteronomy, which came along and mandated that all sacrifices were to be done only in the Temple in Jerusalem. It follows, that if there is no Temple, there are no sacrifices. In this and other ways, Deuteronomy is the most influential book for us in terms of our daily practice as Jews till the present day.
And yet, Leviticus is still part of our Torah. We still read it every year. Opening Leviticus anew is an appropriate time to wonder why the redactor of the Torah sought to make such fault lines among different sources plainly visible to the critical reader. The P source makes his presence known in various parts of the Torah; however, the book of Leviticus is his crowning achievement. In sifting through the details of sacrifices and ritual purity that are so prominent in P, here is the basic reason. God is with us and could be physically present with us right here right now. If we were kohanim (priests) in the ancient Temple, we would have to believe that, otherwise we would be out of work. God shows up at least once in a while in the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and if so, we’d better be ready to have such a distinguished guest dining in our midst. Therefore, there have to be rules for how we behave in this environment.
These rules take into account another important detail. God is the only God and the source of all life. Any food we put into our mouth should be a reminder that God is its ultimate source. If we are to eat animals, we must not eat the blood because in blood is life. Eating meat, according to P, is done only the context of ritual sacrifice where it is sanctified on the altar, and we acquire permission from God to eat it. Outside the Temple, meat may not be eaten.
Leviticus and the P source come to tell us that God is immanent. That means God is right here with us, and our awareness of the divine Presence mandates order, ritual, decorum and purity such that we merit having God at our dinner table on an ongoing basis.
In contrast to God’s immanence in P, according to D, God is transcendent. God is distant, not readily approachable. God is a distant ruler who gave us laws through Moses as an intermediary. God will reward us for obeying the commandments and punish us for disobeying, but God is pulling the strings from afar, not from a tangible place. Based on the cultural influences around us both from within and outside the Jewish community, most of us feel more at home with the transcendent God of the universe. And yet, the voice of God’s immanence still speaks to us. We want and need to feel God’s presence.
This essential lesson of Leviticus is something that has practical implications for us in our daily lives. Imagine if we knew that God’s presence was right here, right now. How would we conduct ourselves in a way befitting our distinguished guest? In the absence of sacrificing an animal, we might think of other ways of honoring God’s presence. We might refrain from gossiping and tale-bearing about our neighbors to prevent a negative energy from infecting our sanctuary. We might love our neighbors as we love ourselves and seek to understand before we seek to be understood. We might refrain from putting a stumbling block before the blind and seek instead to communicate with one another with honesty, openness and kindness. We might seek to create a communal space of kedushah, holiness, set apart from the cut-throat, dog-eat-dog, back stabbing world in which we live. In case you were wondering, all of these guidelines for personal conduct are also found later on in the book of Leviticus. The book is concerned not only with how we conduct ourselves in the Sanctuary but also how we conduct ourselves as if God were right in our midst all the time.
With this perspective, the practice of children beginning their Jewish education with Leviticus makes more sense. We should all have the taste of honey on our lips when we open the book and read: Vayikra el Moshe, [God] called to Moses. In a Torah scroll and any edition of the Masoretic text, the final aleph of the word Vayikra appears smaller than the four letters preceding it.
Dr. Burt Visotzky of JTS comments on this and says that to be called by God requires a certain amount of diminishment. In order to be called, we need to make ourselves a bit smaller. When God calls to us, we must make ourselves humble before the Creator of all things.
The small aleph in the opening word of Vayikra, reminds us of the humility with which we should approach life. I pray that this message will be as sweet to us as the taste of honey. May we strive to act both within synagogue and outside as if God is right there with us, so that we may merit God’s continued presence.