(photo credit: ROOM404.NET)
This Shabbat we will begin reading the book of Leviticus (Vayikra), the book that was coined “Torat Kohanim,” the Torah of the Priests. This term encapsulates the essence of the book that primarily deals with halachot (Jewish laws) pertaining to the Temple, sacrifices, the pure, and the impure.
At first glance, most of the book deals with subjects that have not had practical application for many years.
The Temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago, the status of the kohanim is virtually insignificant since the destruction, and even the laws of purity and impurity are partially inapplicable.
Undoubtedly, there is great value in reading and learning Torah even when discussing subjects that are not practical in the here and now. The values that stem from these commandments are as relevant today as they were in the past. Dealing with the Torah is valuable in and of itself. If we had to explain how the Jewish nation was able to maintain its identity and values during 2,000 years of exile, the best explanation would be because they were occupied with Torah. But aside from all this, the Book of Leviticus has another important and profound message on which we should focus.
The terms Temple, kehuna (priesthood) and tahara (purity) are terms that express a different reality; one which is transcendent and lofty, one that man can only enter when he rises above his base desires and only when he stops the chase after money and social status.
This is a reality that on the one hand is distant from daily life, and on the other hand can be brought in to every part and moment in life. There is no moment in which man cannot touch the sacred.
Reading the Book of Leviticus has the power to provide us with the inspiration and spirit to raise our perspective above the mundane, to look far and wide to better days that we should not wait for with folded arms, but which we should work hard to bring closer – to the here and now where we stand today.
This year, Parshat Zachor joins the opening of the Book of Leviticus. “Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt.” Once a year we are commanded to remember the story of Amalek – that same evil nation that fought the People of Israel after they were liberated from Egypt.
Amalek as an ethnic group has not existed for thousands of years. And yet, we continue to read and remember its deeds and our obligation to fight it. This is because evil has not yet disappeared. Throughout history, different groups have taken Amalek’s place; people and states that made evil into an ideology. Even today we are witness to horrifying atrocities committed under the mask of ideology – terrorism, violence, oppression, degradation of the human spirit, and trampling of human rights.
This combination of reading the Book of Leviticus and Parshat Zachor points to a truth which we must uphold: There has never been nor will there ever be something sacred in the place of something evil. Battling evil is necessary in order to bring the sacred into our lives.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.