Parashat Vayikra 5777

Rabbi Alexandra Wright, 31 March 2017


We must take care that the shocking events of last week in Westminster – the deaths of four people, including a police officer, the wounding of more than fifty, some critically, by a lone actor who was shot by police – do not slip out of our consciousness or prayers. What must it be like for the families of those who died so suddenly and brutally? How are those who survived the trauma coming to terms with their injuries – some of them undoubtedly life-changing? The randomness of death, of injury, of narrowly escaping a man driving a car along the pavement – all of these dark events and others may seem to be better stowed away in the depths of our unconscious as a way of controlling our fear of being out on the streets and mitigating uncertainty.

Last week, we read the final double portion that concludes the Book of Exodus. The book, which begins with the ruthless oppression of the Israelites by the Egyptians and the degradation of slavery, with a seemingly distant and distracted God who needs to be reminded to take notice of His people, ends with a magnificent vision of God’s presence filling the Tabernacle, a symbol of God’s close and watching accompaniment of the Israelites through the desert.

Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, which we begin reading this week, interrupts the narrative of the Exodus, and presents, instead, a highly detailed manual for priests – torat kohanim – ‘instructions of (or by) the priests’ as it is called in the Mishnah and as it is labelled by Sifra, the midrashic commentary on the book. The extent and detail of Leviticus seem to leave no legislative stone unturned: the first nine chapters covering the religious services of the cult, the consecration and regulation of the priests, the dietary laws, laws of purity and impurity, forbidden degrees of sexual relations, festivals and holy days, laws pertaining to the land and, in the central chapters, the Holiness Code, moral, social and economic laws, echoing the Ten Commandments, that are to govern our relationship with each other and with God.

This first section is interrupted by the death of two of the sons of Aaron who offer strange fire in the Tabernacle. No apparent reason is given for their death, and although a law prohibiting priests from imbibing wine or any other intoxicant when they enter the Tent of Meeting may suggest that they were guilty of this transgression, the sudden conflagration may equally imply that the skirts of their robes caught fire in a moment of eager and naïve enthusiasm in the immediate aftermath of their ordination and installation as priests.

For all the meticulous restrictions and laws to limit the damage done to the created order, this story – one of the very few narrative passages in Leviticus – suggests that however cautious we are, we still cannot avoid those random acts of natural upheaval or human violence that can ruin lives.

This week’s parashah, which details the sacrificial rituals in the Sanctuary, ends with a list of ‘trespasses’ against another human being: deceit, robbery, defrauding or lying – ethical violations against individuals. The Torah requires restitution to be made by the perpetrator to the victim, for the created social order has been upset and damaged. Once reparation is made, then the relationship with God also needs to be repaired and this is done through the offering of a sacrifice. Sin and offence undermine the balance of God’s created order at the beginning of time and that balance needs to be redressed and the tear in the fabric of creation repaired.

A sacrifice – korban in Hebrew – was the means whereby a human being could draw near to God (the root k.r.b. means to draw near). The killing of an animal undoubtedly seems to be counter-intuitive to this process of spiritual alignment, but Milgrom’s view that the smoking of the animal’s flesh on the altar was not about destruction and death, but about a transformation from one kind of existence to another, may also apply to prayer.

When communal prayer replaced the sacrificial system two thousand years ago, the synagogue became the locus for spiritual transformation and change. It is where, in the midst of community, we can find spiritual alignment, where we can mend broken spirits, find healing and come together to mourn and celebrate and, in quiet reflection, pray for the things we most need in our lives – strength and resilience, courage to find our voices and speak out about what is important and crucial in life.

Like sacrifice, prayer invokes the whole cosmos, life and death. Unlike sacrifice, there is no suffering victim to be smoked on the altar, but a different kind of ethereal and spiritual transformation that may take place in our hearts and help us to see our place in an uncertain and uneasy world.

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