The Chumash of Vayikra, which we begin reading this Shabat, is probably the most difficult and esoteric of all of the five books of the Torah. It is long on ritual detail, especially of the laws of the sacrifices in the Mishkan and later in the Temple in Jerusalem and of the laws regarding purity and defilement. It is very short on narrative, though it does contain a large number of the actual mitzvoth of the Torah, especially in the latter part of the book.
Because of its construction and its difficult content, it seems to be hardly a likely candidate for the initial introductory lesson to Torah to be taught to young children. There is none of the “story” appeal that Bereshith, Shemot and Bamidbar have within them, nor is there the soaring historical and moral essay of Torah that Devarim represents in its words and content. Yet, the Jewish tradition throughout the ages was to start a child’s education in Torah by teaching the book of Vayikra.
In the words of the rabbis, “Let the holy, young and still innocent children of Israel come to begin their education by studying the book of Vayikra, the book of holiness and sanctity.” Though this is the tradition, there has been a tendency in our times to no longer follow this rabbinic advice and to use Bereshith as the introductory conduit to the splendid and wondrous world of Torah for beginning students.
Be that as it may, the mere idea of using Vayikra for that purpose bears note and comment. After all, the rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash were superb educators, so what were they thinking of when they made that recommendation regarding beginning study of Torah with the book of Vayikra? What does the subject of ritual holiness have to do with knowledge and the real world?
In our modern day world, holiness is not a popular subject for discussion. Since there is almost nothing that is profane or unholy in our world where “everything goes” and every type of human and social aberration is condoned if not even encouraged, naturally there is no room for a discussion of purity of body and mind and holiness of behavior and soul.
The rabbis of old who lived in the Classical Era of Greco-Roman thought, mores and culture were well aware of the disappearance of holiness and purity from civilized society. They therefore insisted that the first lesson that a Jewish child learns should be of the presence and necessity of holiness in the world of the individual and society.
In the havdala service, we emphasize the difference between the holy and the profane, the noble and the tawdry. Rabbi Meir Shapiro ruefully remarked in the 1920’s that American Jewry “knows how to make Kiddush but forgot about havdala.” Moral behavior stems from a realization of the innate holiness that life itself represents.
All of the stories of our people, of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of Israel, of the Exodus from Egypt, even of the revelation and granting of the Torah on Sinai, will be of little avail in helping Israel survive if they are not grounded in a sense of holiness and purity – both national and personal. And, we must reinforce this and make moral behavior the practical way to behave in a world that has lost much of its moorings. So let us listen and pay attention to what Vayikra has to say to us.
Rabbi Berel Wein Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com