This week’s Torah reading marks the end of the book of Vayikra. This, the third book of the Torah, is replete with laws, commandments, and descriptions of Temple services. It is also the book that contains the fundamental principles of human relationships, as envisioned by the Torah and Jewish tradition. It is a book about holiness, but not only about ritual holiness or Temple service, but also the holiness of human beings and human relationships.
The great principle of the Torah is included in this book – to be able to love and treat another human being as one can love oneself and wish to be treated by other human beings. It is this balance between ritual practice and exalted social and psychological values that in many ways characterize the essence of Judaism and of traditional Jewish life. By combining these two facets of the commandments granted to us on Mount Sinai, Judaism asserts its eternity, its service to our Creator and to the human beings that he created.
Though we often divide the commandments that appear in this book into two separate sections – those that relate to God and those that relate to our fellow human beings – in reality it is only in the totality of two taken together that one can see and experience the true nature of Judaism and Jewish life. Since both sections are equally commanded, so to speak, by the total, they are not to be viewed as two distinct sections of Jewish life, but, rather, as the two components that create the totality of Jewish life and our eternal existence.
With the exception of the story of the tragedy of the sons of Aaron, the entire book of Vayikra is free of narratives. This is unique, for the other four books of the Chumash contain a great deal of narrative. The commentators note this exception, and state that one of the reasons for this is to emphasize to all later Jewish generations that even though the narrative story of the Jews and of Judaism is vitally important, that story can never be communicated in a meaningful and eternal fashion, without the observance and study of the laws and commandments that form such a basic part of Jewish life.
The future of the Jewish world is determined by loyalty to tradition and observance of commandments. As important as knowledge of history is – and I consider it to be very important – history alone can never preserve us. There are many great schools in the world that teach and delve into the history of past civilizations and great empires. The studies may be fascinating and increase our sense of scholarship, but they do nothing to revive those civilizations and empires that have passed from the scene, never to return.
It is only through the actual enactment and discipline of commandments on a daily basis that we can be confident that the narrative of the Jewish people will continue and grow. It is in this knowledge that we are strengthened by this moment of completion of this holy book of the Chumash Vayikra.
Rabbi Berel Wein