Leviticus. In Hebrew, Vayikra.
Why bother reading it year after year? Isn’t it just an old instruction manual? For a form of worship that no longer exists? YES. BUT.
It’s also an instruction manual for a utopian society. An imperfect first draft, but a good start.
Thus, this year, you should read Leviticus cover to cover. Because it tells us why societies fail. And also how to rebuild them. These are messages we need to hear, right now.
So, here they are again.
People can create an ethical community, Moses says. But they must tend it, constantly. Because the health of the community is like a delicate force field. Grief, illness, or crime disturb the energy field. But people can help reset it, with rituals of consolation, healing, and restitution. With maternity leave for new mothers. Ceremonies of welcome for people who recover from disfiguring illness. Accountability for corrupt leaders. And limits on economic inequality.
In the farming economy of Leviticus, some inequality is inevitable. Because some soil is more fertile. In some regions, weather patterns are more reliable. So, some landowners make money more consistently. In modern jargon, they have surplus capital. They buy more equipment and more working animals. They plant more and sell more. But, they understand that people without surplus capital live differently. From pay cheque to pay cheque. Or, from social assistance event to event. So, ideally, landowners share their wealth. With everyone. Native and immigrant. Male and female. Family and strangers. Sighted and blind. No one is “othered.” No one is left out. Landowners hire all kinds of people. Pay them promptly, with a living wage. Run a harvest-time fresh food bank. Pay taxes to support the poorest. And offer interest free loans. Because without interest-free loans, borrowers fall deeper and deeper into debt.
A culture of mutual support helps everyone. Because even the wealthiest farmer could lose everything. And thus need to rely on others. So, when there’s a labour dispute, judges must be fair. Never favour the wealthy or sneer at the poor. Anyone who is tempted to take advantage should examine their heart. Maybe they carry scars from family trauma. Or a heartbreaking family secret. Something that leads them to hate their own self. And thus direct their anger at an innocent. If so, they should revisit the original event. Speak directly with whoever harmed them. And try to heal whatever blocks their love.
But consistent ethical practice may not be enough. So, Leviticus recommends, a community should hit the economic reset button. Every seventh year, do a soft reset. Landowners will take a year off from planting and harvesting. Grains and fruits will grow anyway. So, let the needy gather them and eat. Every fiftieth year, do a hard reset. Help those who sold their land for emergency cash. Let them reclaim their property. Help people who sold their long-term labour for a short-term cash grant. Release those indentured servants from their debt. But don’t be afraid to lend, just because the 50th year reset is coming. Instead, lend a small amount. Ideally, the reset is a win-win. The poorest start life anew, debt-free. And the wealthiest lose nothing.
But without the economic re-set, Moses says, society’s energy field would fail. Social safety nets would be overstressed. People would lose hope in a healthy life. Their anxiety and depression would grow, too. They would blame each other. Become paranoid. Fear imaginary enemies. The community would fracture. Be unable to unite in self-defence. So, it would be vulnerable to invasion. People would pray for rescue. But without social action, their prayers would be useless. Finally, after many deaths, their arrogance would be broken. So, together they would find their way back to right living.
But — you may wonder — is all this really in Leviticus? YES it is. True, Leviticus also has some weaknesses. For example, it allows a death penalty, harsh judgment of gay men, and lower wages for women. Its draft utopian vision still leaves room for improvement. But if all you remember are the book’s flaws, then please. Take another look!
Still wondering about chapter and verse for each point? Then, you can read a longer version (but with more political context) here.