Leviticus 1:1 to 5:26
Leviticus is often seen as a “guidebook” for the Levite priests of Israel. While it starts with an outdated sacrificial system, it contains many ideas that present great truths for today. Even the sacrificial system can spotlight the concepts of what “holiness” is and how to achieve real forgiveness.
This week we begin a new book of Torah. Vayikra / Leviticus….
Vayikra (and He called) – God is calling to Moses and telling him to speak to the Israelites about the laws and rituals of the sacrificial system. The rest of Leviticus presents a system of laws covering both the ritual and secular sides of community life.
The English title – Leviticus – refers to the priestly tribe of Levi. This section of Torah has often been called the priestly handbook. Unlike many other religions of the time, the rules governing the priesthood were not secret. There are available for all to see in Leviticus.
It is interesting to note that the Book of Leviticus is located in the center of Torah. In many ways this is the heart of Torah telling us how we should act – how we should treat our family and our community – and how we should relate to the Eternal.
When we start Leviticus, the first thing we see are the seemingly irrelevant laws of sacrificial offerings. These offerings (grain or animal) are made to God through the priest and include free will offerings, offerings thanking God for good fortune, offerings asking forgiveness for wrongful action. But, today this concept of sacrifice seems completely against contemporary thought.
First, let’s look at the meaning of the word “sacrifice.” In contemporary usage it means to give up something in order to obtain a different item or objective … (as example: “We had to sacrifice to send our child to college.”) The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban and in the biblical sense it has a completely different meaning…. It is seen as an attempt to come closer to God.
The text of this parsha, and that of next week, goes into great detail regarding the different types of sacrifice offerings. While almost no modern Jews are in favor of returning to sacrifice, the results of the sacrificial systems can produce favorable results for the people involved (not so much for the animals)…. The people obtain a feeling of being closer to their God. Different offerings were made to express feelings of gratitude for good fortune – forgiveness for not following the commandments of God, whether inadvertent or on purpose … And forgiveness for wrong-doing through actions of the community. The end-result produced a reduction of personal guilt.. Plus it also created a forgiveness from the community toward the person who committed a wrongful act . It also provided a method for forgiveness for errors involving the entire community. Today there is no effective method to create this forgiveness for any of these types of wrong-doing.
Currently we are taught that prayer and “acts of good will” replace the sacrificial system. While these may create some good feelings, they lack the power of personal and community forgiveness of the sacrificial offerings. Today we need a more effective system to help cure the many problems of mental health resulting from feelings of guilt.
Today we see an even greater challenge…the need for forgiveness by the community toward a person who committed a wrongful act. This guilt is rarely forgiven (or forgotten) by the community … even after apologies, retribution, or the service of time in prison. The erroneous act remains part of a person’s identity and takes a real toll on future opportunities.
Maybe the completion of “acts of good faith” is an answer…. But, before it can achieve the goals for a more complete forgiveness, the community – both Jewish and secular – must reshape its concept of forgiveness.
As a final thought … the sacrificial system has no chance of becoming accepted in our present community. But, we can examine the advantages it had in its time. Then, look at our present world and see what we can learn from it. This way of thought will also apply to many other, seemingly outdated concepts that are presented in the Book of Leviticus.