Sunday, March 6, 2011

Service and Sacrifice (Vayikra)

The book of Leviticus (Va-yikra), which we begin this week, can be difficult for contemporary Jews. While we generally find it easy to relate to the stories, ethics, and teachings of the rest of the Torah, the sacrifices and laws of ritual impurity that take up much of Leviticus strike our modern sensibilities as profoundly strange, alien, and archaic.

Yet Leviticus sits both literally and metaphorically at the center of the Torah scroll. For most of our history—and still today in more traditional settings—young children begin their Jewish studies with this, the third of the Five Books of Moses. For centuries, then, our people have found wisdom and inspiration in Leviticus. What, then, does it offer us?

My Israeli colleague, Rabbi Micky Boyden, draws a lesson from the opening of this week’s parashah. Leviticus 1:2 commands: “When a person brings from you (mikkem) an offering to the Eternal One, he shall choose the offering from the herd or from the flock. “ The word order here is unusual; one would have expected, “When one of you brings an offering. . . .” Rabbi Boyden suggests that the odd phrasing comes to teach a lesson: the real sacrifice is not the animal on the altar but our ability to give of ourselves.

Conservative rabbi and commentator Baruch Levine draws on this same rationale in his explanation of why Torah learning classically starts with Leviticus. He proposes that by beginning with this challenging book, with its long and detailed prescriptions for animal sacrifices, we teach our children, from the outset, that life inevitably demands sacrifices of them.

This lesson is timely, indeed. So many of our current crises spring from a collective reluctance to make sacrifices for the common good. The future of our nation, our species, and all of life on earth really depends on our willingness to overcome our resistance to such sacrifice. If we wish to preserve our planet’s magnificent but fragile ecosphere, we must learn—quickly—to live with less. If we seek economic recovery, we must once again recognize that those blessed with great abundance have a moral obligation to share it with those less fortunate. And if we are to create peace, both within and between nations, all sides will have to acknowledge the essential need to compromise, to give ground on important principles and resources in exchange for tranquility and security.

Like most liberal Jews, I neither pray for nor desire the rebuilding of the Temple and restoration of the sacrifices. But I struggle daily to learn to give more of myself, to sacrifice my individual desires for the benefit of the community. This is very difficult and I often fail. Still, I am grateful that a contemporary reading of Leviticus continues to offer both a reminder and path toward this end.

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