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Parashat Vayikra

March 25, 2009

Towards a MacroCosmic View of Leviticus
By Molly Karp

“God called to Moshe and spoke to
him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel
and say to them “When a person from among them would bring near (
yakriv) an
offering (
korban) to Adonoi from the cattle, from the herd and from the flocks you
shall bring near (
takrivu) your offering. (korbanchem) ” Leviticus 1:1-2

opening verses of Vayikra contain the Hebrew root k-r-v four times, referring to both the person who approaches God,
and the offering that s/he brings near to God in order to approach the Holy Presence. What we generally translate as “sacrifice” is
literally the thing that we bring near to God in order to come near to God’s

Vayikra is the central book of the Torah. It is a catalogue of instructions for Israel
about how to approach and retain God’s presence in our midst. In the opening words of the book God calls to
Moshe; Leviticus calls on all of us, teaching us where we might find God’s
presence. This d’var Torah will take a
macrocosmic view of Vayikra‘s teachings.

Parashat Vayikra, along with Tzav
and Shemini, deals with the different
kinds of offerings, and the ordination and installation of the Kohanim. God
does not desire that we lay down our lives on the altar; rather, our offerings replace
us, allowing us to draw near to God’s presence. The Kohanim are also stand-ins for us, accepting and bringing the
offering near to God on our behalf. Thus
both God and Israel are protected from the consequences of those who would draw
too near to God’s presence. The deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, serve
as a cautionary note regarding these dangers.

Shemini suggests that our bodies are
analogues to the altar, instructing us to eat only what we may place on it. Tazria
and Metzora continue this idea of the
relationship between our bodies and the sacred space, instructing us to
separate ourselves from the Holy Space when we have emitted or been in contact
with reproductive fluids, or death. The
beginning and end of life belong to the Divine domain; we may not approach the
Divine through sexual expression or ancestor worship. Aharei
explains how, in the first Yom Kippur, the sacred space is purified of these
tum’ot annually, in a riddance ritual
that includes the scapegoat.

Aharei Mot ends with Chapter 18, which,
together with Chapter 20, addresses sexual
morality and worship, instructing us how to behave in our most intimate and
private moments with each other and with God.
These chapters envelop Kedoshim,
the Holiness Code, the heart of Vayikra,
the heart of the Torah, which describes how to be holy – how to treat each
other as made in the image of God, and ways of approaching God that are forbidden. Here we find perhaps the most famous verse in
Torah: “You shall love your neighbor as
yourself, I am Adonoi” (Leviticus 19:18).

Emor addresses the conduct and
qualifications of the Priestly families, Israel’s representatives to God. It
addresses the sacred calendar. Besides finding God’s presence in time, it also
finds God’s presence especially in the land. This conjunction of sacred space and sacred time – the observance of the
sacred calendar in the land where God resides, suggests God’s presence squared. Perhaps the instructions here for the
Ner Tamid in the Ohel Mo’ed, serve as a reminder of this. The section ends with a cautionary tale about
defiling the Divine Name, and committing murder, suggesting an analogous
relationship between the two.

The twin
portions of Be-Har and Behukkotai focus on laws for the
promised land. We learn how to treat the
land that is God’s extended sacred domain, and the rules regarding the sacred
cycles of sevens that echo the first Shabbat, reminding us once again that God
can be found in both time and space. We learn
the rewards for observing these laws, and the consequences for ignoring them.

teaches us to approach God’s presence through our gifts to God, the food we eat,
our worship, sexual morality, holy relationships with others, observance of the
sacred calendar and respect for the land as sacred space. There are thus many possibilities to find and
approach God in virtually everything we do.
It is my prayer that we are able to find God when and where we seek, and
that we see the divine spark that is in ourselves and each other as well. God is there for us to find – it is for us to
do the seeking.


Molly Karp is a rabbinical student at AJR.