This Shabat we begin to read the book of Vayikra. This book of Vayikra has very little narrative to it and concentrates mainly on the sacrifices that were offered in the Temple service of the mishkan and the beit hamikdash; the laws of purity and defilement; and a listing of many of the commandments of the Torah and Jewish ritual.
This makes this section of the Torah a difficult one to comprehend, internalize and attempt to teach to others. Therefore our educational sense would have postponed the teaching of this book of the Torah until the years of maturity and life experience have fashioned us as Torah devotees and scholars. Yet the rabbis of Jewish tradition have ordained that children begin their Torah experiences by studying the book of Vayikra.
Their statement is: “Let those who are still pure and holy begin their education by studying the concepts of purity and holiness.” Purity and holiness are difficult concepts to study. They are states of being, more of the heart and soul than that of the mind.
Someone who does not ever deal in being holy and pure will never be able to fathom the secrets of the Torah that lie in this book of Vayikra. That person will only see a seeming hodgepodge of laws and rituals, many of which would be judged to be anachronistic in our “enlightened” age.
But our Torah is a Torah of experience and emotion as much as it is one of soaring intellect and deep analytical thought. To begin to understand the concepts of purity and holiness, one must be, or at least strive to be, a person of holiness and purity. And that is a most significant lesson that the book of Vayikra teaches us.
Purity and holiness are inextricably bound to the overriding value of constant sacrifice in Jewish life. It is no coincidence that the laws of the sacrificial worship in the Temple are connected to the laws of purity in this book of Vayikra. Without sacrifice, constant daily sacrifice, purity and holiness are unachievable goals.
In a very contaminated environment, it is most difficult to keep one’s self clean and pure. It requires great discipline and restraint, care and will – in short, a supreme sense of sacrifice. In life we are always faced with myriad, daily choices. Every choice that we make indicates that we have sacrificed another choice that we could have made.
Then the only question that remains is whether we made the correct sacrifice. Will our choice bring us closer to a sense of holiness and purity and purpose in our lives or, perhaps, will it do the opposite? The seeming jumble of laws in the book of Vayikra is meant to guide our choices of which sacrifices we should wisely make in our lives.
The Torah details for us all of the categories of sacrifices – public, private, those of leaders and of paupers – and thereby points the way to our sacrificing wisely and productively. This is the overall thrust of this great biblical book of Vayikra.
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