Rabbi John Levi
, Rabbi Emeritus of
Temple Beth Israel
, Melbourne, Australia
There is a perpetual quarrel between Exodus and Leviticus. The Book of Exodus is high drama. It takes us through the departure from Egypt and the revelation at Mt. Sinai. It dashes our dreams with the episode of the molten calf and confronts us with the struggle between the stern lawgiver and his stiff-necked people. In Exodus we meet the complex laws that will shape the life of the people of Israel.
How different is the third book of the Torah: Leviticus deals with the priestly duties in the tabernacle, the community and the Temple. By tradition the book is called
– The Priestly Code. The Haftarah from Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 43:21 – 44:23) for this Shabbat makes it clear that, even in biblical days, sacrifices were highly problematic. The prophet Isaiah expostulates “
You have not brought Me your sheep for burnt offerings. Nor honored Me with your sacrifices
” (Isaiah 43:23).
The rabbis of the Midrash wondered why this third book of the Torah begins with the words “
And the Eternal God called out to Moses
” (Leviticus 1:1). The Hebrew verb “called” (
) is also used to mean “read”. Reading silently is a modern invention as anyone who has ever visited a traditional Yeshivah or an Islamic
knows. From within the noise of the elaborately decorated Tent of Meeting comes a commanding voice calling to Moses.
It is true that in a world governed by a universal and creative God the sacrifice of animals, oil and flour seem trivial. However, in biblical times, they were unimaginably significant. In a rural setting where subsistence living was normal, every offering would have created hardship. The question must have lingered in the minds of everyone who brought an offering to the sanctuary about the effectiveness of sacrifice. The prophet Isaiah explains clearly: “
It is I, I, who for My own sake blot out your mistakes and remember your sins no more
” (Isaiah 43:25). Much later the great teacher Maimonides conceded that the sacrificial system was a station along the way to prayer and spiritual effort.
The ever inventive teachers of the Midrash drew our attention to the opening verb
. They asked why God had to call out to Moses. Wasn’t he listening? Surely Moses was an attentive student? And they explained that it was like the architect of a king who designs a palace and within its halls and rooms writes the name of the king everywhere. When the monarch finally enters his palace he is embarrassed and he calls out to his architect to enter and take his place within the structure he has built. And then they offered another explanation (and another and another). It is like a king who visits one of his provinces and finds that the governor is missing. Where is he? He is busy writing the rules for the king’s subjects. So busy, in fact, that the king has to call out loudly to get his attention. And indeed the book of Leviticus is full of those detailed instructions. That opening verb
tells us what lies ahead.
It would take a massive religious revolution to do away with the many high places, the sacred groves and altars of stone and wood and centralize worship on the Temple Mount. The Priestly Code was part of the revolution that happened in the seventh century BCE. Two thousand years ago when the Temple no longer stood, the sacrificial code vanished, leaving the synagogue to maintain the worship of God. Quite literally the reading desk and the prayer book took the place of the altar and the concept of sacrifice. That change did not happen without pain and deep regret but the people understood that the clock could not be turned back.
Progressive Jews understand that without thoughtful change we would still be chained to the past. We are not only members of the Jewish People; we are also deeply embedded in contemporary culture and the Book of Leviticus with its ancient regulations and ritual demands is challenging.
Now that we live in a global village we are daily witnesses of human triumph and failure. The internet has made the whole world one. Quite simply, the shocking pictures of events taking place during the “Arab Spring” throughout the world of Islam are blood curdling. From Libya to Egypt to Syria and Iraq the world watches as each individual society staggers from one atrocity to another. And to make it worse, these scenes are now to be seen just over the fence from Israel. What would have happened to the people of the Galilee if the Syrian Army had not been stopped on the Golan Heights? And we may wonder how many centuries have to pass before the focused humanism that is so evident in the Torah and the process of its evolution will be understood by all peoples and all religious civilizations.
Why then do we read this third book of the Torah? Its message is so different from all that has gone before. This book is not only about blood and incense, illness and priestly ritual. It puts human beings at the heart of its concerns. It is a link with our past. And if we listen carefully we can hear God calling us.