Vayikra, the third book of the Torah, is known in the tradition as “Torat Cohanim”, dealing as it does with many laws concerning the priests and their role in leading the people in service to God. Overall, the book confronts us with details of animal sacrifice, ritual purity, prohibited sexual relationships and punishments for disobedience; as the Tosafot say, “it is the most difficult of the Five Books of Moshe”.
The Lubavich Rabbi commented that, “Being the most difficult to understand, the Book of Vayikra demands more effort from its reader, which in turn lifts the reader to new heights of understanding and spiritual achievement.” Of all the books in the Torah, Vayikra challenges us to think about what it means to live by the Torah’s precepts and what it means to be in service to God.
Just as the Cohanim of Torah and Temple times were called to lead the people in service to God, so too the Jews, known as a “mamlechet cohanim” – a kingdom of priests – are called to lead humanity in service to God as a “holy nation”. With the destruction of the Second Temple, the role of the Cohanim in their service is more circumscribed; our service as a holy nation has never been more demanding.
For Jews outside the world of Orthodoxy, the Torat Cohanim presents challenges on another level. Our questions about God and Torah have become more complex as the world has become more secular and materialistic. Given the growing disbelief in God itself, what does it mean to “serve God”?
Further, when we find passages of Torah we see as morally reprehensible, such as the denigration of gays and lesbians derived from this book, how can Torah guide that service? In the Psalms, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace”; we need to ensure that is so. What means of interpretation and application of Torah allow us to engage with mitzvot concerning kashrut and living a holy life found within this book while restricting those that actually bring harm to others?
To be a “kingdom of priests”, a people willing to take a leadership role among humanity in the service of God, requires diligent study and discerning application of Torah. This week’s parashah, in its opening word “vayikra”, whose last letter “aleph” is written small, provides an important insight into how we can connect with God and how we can read Torah.
Much rabbinic commentary has been written about the meaning of this “small aleph”. The small aleph alludes to the mystery of revelation and God itself, that which we are called to serve. Aleph is the first letter of “anochi”, meaning “I”, the one that begins the declaration of the Ten Commandments at Sinai: “I am ‘yud-heh-vav-hey,’ your God…” Noting that the first two commandments are in the first person while the following mitzvot are in the third person, sages over the centuries have taught that the people of Israel heard the first two commandments directly from God, and everything else from Moses.
Franz Rosenzweig suggests that the single word actually spoken by God was just the first word – anochi – and that “from God’s affirmation of existence and presence, all else flowed.” (Etz Chayim Torah commentary on Exodus 20). The Hassidic master, Menachem Mendel of Rymanov, taught that the only revelation actually heard by the people was just the aleph, the sound of which is silence. The small aleph at the beginning of Vayikra is a reminder that when we are called to the service of God, we should always recall just how small we are in the face of the infinite, ineffable mystery of life. Life in all its majesty and mystery is what we are called to serve. Understanding God as “existence and presence”, the ultimate Conscious Being and creator of life, should inform our conscious being.
This principle guides us in our study and application of Torah. Our ancient sages also comment that the aleph written small alludes to the humility of Moses. Just as Moses led and served not with hubris but humility, so too should we. It approaches hubris to think that given the enormity of the universe and our tiny place within it, that we know God’s will or word. While some believe that this infinite mystery is the author of books, we should humbly acknowledge that no book, no matter how sacred for its followers, is the literal word from God, but rather a literary approach toward God. Our words and our will should be striving toward that which we understand as the source of Conscious Being.
Reading Torah as a pathway to conscious being and then accordingly applying its lessons is the ultimate “avodah”, or service of God. Just as our ancient sages who understood the passage “Chai Bahem, you shall live by them” found in the book as applying to the mitzvot in general, we should be confident in interpreting the Torah’s precepts in the same way. They interpreted an “eye for an eye”, the death penalty, the rebellious son and more in a way that undermined and overturned their literal application. We can and should do the same with other pernicious passages of Torah. There is so much in this book that guides us to living with deep awareness, such as teachings concerning the sacredness of time through Shabbat and festivals, the protection of the poor and underprivileged, the relationship we have with the animal world and our planet, and the striving for God as a holy people.
At the heart of Vayikra is the holiness code, the same code of holiness that should be in our heart. A “kingdom of priests” must study and apply Torah with humility to understand our sacred responsibility of living with conscious being.
About the Author:
Rabbi Jeffrey B. Kamins is Senior Rabbi of Emanuel Synagogue in Sydney, Australia.
The above previously appeared as #209 in our series of Torah from Around the World.