This Shabbat, we begin reading the Book of Leviticus. This book, the third of the five books of the Torah, is also called Torat Kohanim, the Torah of the Priests, because of its focus on laws pertaining to priesthood: the offering of sacrifices and the laws of purity and impurity. These topics are far removed from the consciousness of someone in our times. The Book of Leviticus raises topics we do not think about in our daily lives. It is, therefore, thought-provoking and cultivates ideas we would not have otherwise thought about.
The first comprehensive topic is that of sacrifices. There are sacrifices that are obligatory and others that are optional; those that the person bringing them takes part in eating them and others that only the kohanim (priests) partake in eating; and yet others that are wholly burned on the altar. When we try to understand the significance of the sacrifices, we find it hard to see what purpose they served. As opposed to the idolatrous concept that sees gods as having needs that are answered by humans, Judaism believes in one God Who has no need of food or material goods brought to Him by humans. So why were sacrifices offered?
The sacrifices are fundamentally an expression of standing before God. The acknowledgment of God’s existence demands that a person experience a sense of nullification in the face of Divine glory and power. This is the basic religious experience and it is the beginning of the encounter between man and God. It is an encounter between a transient, flesh and blood, powerless mortal and the forceful and mighty creator of the universe Who bequeaths us existence; the God of life. The essence of this encounter is complete submission.
By offering a sacrifice, a person expresses the maximum nullification he can feel: giving life to God. In the symbolic sense, the sacrifice represents the person, and when the person brings the sacrifice to the Temple, he expresses his devotion to God and the nullification he feels. This experience might seem foreign to a person in our times, but it is a profound religious experience, and surprisingly also especially significant and transcendent.
The Book of Leviticus teaches us about an additional aspect of sacrifices. The actual act of sacrificing was familiar to us also from the books of Genesis and Exodus. While those who were not part of the Jewish nation could offer sacrifices to God, the Book of Leviticus invites the Jewish nation to offer sacrifices at “the entrance of the tent of congregation,” the Temple of the God of Israel. Additionally, the innovation in the Book of Leviticus is the sacrifice called shelamim, in which a person who brings the sacrifice takes part in eating it. It is a sort of feast in which God – through the meat burned on the altar – and the kohanim as well as the person who brings the sacrifice all take part.
The Book of Leviticus is a book of friendship and amiability with Divine inspiration. Leviticus can be seen as a meticulous book full of specific and pedantic details on offering the sacrifices, laws of impurity and purity, laws relating to the kashrut of food, etc. But this would be a partial view. It is like a person invited to a fancy ball, and when he is asked to describe the experience, he focuses on the strict demands of the dress code that suited the ceremony and the official rules and manners that were forced upon him. Indeed, the uplifting encounter demands a lot of preparation and suitable behavior, but that is not the essence of the encounter. Another example would be a person who visits a prestigious museum but the experience etched in his mind is the fact that he was prohibited from touching the exhibit. Even when caution is demanded, that is not the museum’s purpose; it exists for the knowledge and insight we can gain from the exhibits.
The sacrifices were a particularly uplifting religious experience, and for that experience to be precise and correct, many precise halachot (Jewish laws) were necessary. But that is not the essence of the encounter between man and God. The essential and significant experience is nullification from one side and friendship and love on the other. The Book of Leviticus invites us to get a taste of that same ancient experience. ■
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and the Holy Sites.