Parashat Vayikra 5780

The Teachings of Leviticus for This Present Moment
A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayikra
By Rabbi Len Levin

This week we begin reading the book of Leviticus. The interpretation I offer here has benefited from the perspectives of the contemporary scholars Mary Douglas (Purity and Danger) and Jacob Milgrom (The Anchor Bible: Leviticus), both of whom have enriched my understanding of the author’s complex outlook.

The underlying unity of the book’s diverse themes can be seen in the theme of purification—purification through ritual (especially sacrifices—chapters 1–10 and dietary laws—chapter 11), purification through medical diagnosis and quarantine (the laws of leprosy and family purity—chapters 12–15), and purification through ethical living and social justice (the teaching of “love your neighbor” (Lev. 19:18) and the Sabbatical / Jubilee years—chapter 25). In the book’s coda (chapter 26), the author promises peace and prosperity if these teachings are taken to heart in the life of the individual and society, and warns of catastrophe if they are ignored and flouted.

These themes seem a lot more relevant to our lives this year than even a few brief months ago. Among the specific issues the book touches on: How much responsibility does the individual bear for the welfare of society? (Lev. 26:3–45) What cleanliness practices (including washing hands) should be observed, and in what contexts? (Exod. 30:17–21, Lev. 16:4–28 and elsewhere) What kinds of conditions mandate separation of the individual from the group, and for how long, and when can the person be reinstated? (Lev. Chapters 12–15, Num. 19:1–22) What are the proper sources of food, and what are the conditions of purity under which food may be consumed? (Lev. 11:1–47, 17:1–16, 22:1–16) Does it make sense to take off a “Sabbatical year” during which the normal business of society is suspended and people take a break, while nature restores itself? (Lev. 25:1–55)

The opening of the book has its own special teaching for our moment. The call of God to Moses seems to come out of nowhere, and even when we are told it was at the “tent of meeting,” this information is quite minimal. Where did this revelation take place?

In most religious communities, specific sacred places are designated for communication with the divine. The renowned anthropologist of religion Mircea Eliade cited the Genesis narrative of Jacob’s dream of a ladder (Gen. 28:10–22) as an example of the widespread notion of “axis mundi,” the axis or center of the earth, where there is a connection between heaven and earth. This connection is often pictured as an umbilical cord, and the corresponding spot on earth is called “the navel of the earth” (Ezekiel 38:12). Beth El, Jerusalem, and Delphi all serve as examples of this concept.

But in the wilderness, the Israelites were constantly wandering from one place to another. A specific sacred location was impractical. They needed a portable “hot spot” where Moses could communicate with God whenever needed. In the episode of the Golden Calf, we read of a “tent of meeting” outside the camp where Moses would go to consult with God. (Exod. 33:7–11) At the end of the book of Exodus, the “tent of meeting” and Tabernacle seem interchangeable and may have merged into a single portable entity, under the pillar of cloud, where Moses would enter to have communication with God. (Exod. 40:34–38) When the Israelites journeyed from one campsite to another, the Tabernacle was dismantled and erected again at the new site. (Num. 2:17, 4:4–16) When we read at the start of this week’s portion that “The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” (Lev. 1:1), it tells us that the laws contained in this portion (and in most of the book) were communicated there, under the cloud.

In later centuries, when Jews wandered from one land to another, they followed the example of the Israelites in the wilderness. In each new land of their residence, they erected a synagogue, the symbolic successor of the sanctuary in the wilderness, the address of the Jewish community. Many of the architectural features of the classic synagogue replicate the features of the Mishkan and its vessels: for instance, the ark, the Menorah, the table, and the washing basin (how important that is in these times!). The stability of the synagogue architecture reassured them that even if they were living in strange lands, these familiar symbols of spiritual connection could help them to maintain contact with God, with Torah, and with Jewish peoplehood. We who are now displaced from our customary sites of worship relate instinctively to this whole long history of displacement and striking new roots.

In addition to the physical site of communal worship, Leviticus (in Chapter 23) provides for what Abraham Joshua Heschel called the “sanctuary in time”—the Sabbath and holidays. As the site of the sanctuary (the “axis of the world”) is our reference point in space, so the Jewish calendar helps us situate ourselves in time.

We live in chaotic times. The repeated rapid changes in our picture of the world as we hear updated news of the virus, and the disruption of our regular routines as we try to stay as safe as we can from the spreading plague, threaten our psychic stability. Disorientation on many levels is one of the ever-recurring stresses of these rapid changes we are undergoing.

In such times, we look for the axes and coordinates of our spiritual world to give us orientation and guidance. Shabbat still comes once a week, and Pesach still comes in the spring. Our traditional bricks-and-mortar synagogue may be physically off-limits, but we are now meeting under the pillar of the ever-present cloud, just as we did in the wilderness. We see each other’s faces and renew our ties with the community that gives us strength. We find our spiritual center wherever we gather to invoke God’s name. May this help us gain renewal of strength for the challenges that still lie ahead.
Rabbi Len Levin is professor of Jewish philosophy at AJR and editor of Studies in Judaism and Pluralism.