Leviticus: What's the Story?

Leviticus: What's the Story?
A scene from Leviticus. The Two Priests are Destroyed by artist James Tissot

Leviticus (Vayikra) is a book for our time. It is full of wisdom for creating spiritual community. And for dealing with disruptions to spiritual community.

Why many don’t like Leviticus

But, many readers don’t really like the book of Leviticus. Why? Because it has 247 laws and only two stories. I’ll get to the stories, but let’s start with the laws. Why so many laws? Because Leviticus offers a blueprint for an ideal society. It’s a flawed blueprint, to be sure. There’s a death penalty, low wages for working women, and verses that have been used to harm LGBTQ+ people. But there also some powerful ideals.

Leviticus: Utopian Community

People can create an ethical community, Leviticus 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. Living wages for workers. Interest-free loans. Fresh food banks. Accountability for corrupt leaders. And consideration for everyone. Native and immigrant. Male and female. Family and strangers. Sighted and blind.

This 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, Leviticus says, 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.

Story: Opening Day Disaster

Leviticus’ main goal is to offer us this vision. But twice—only twice—stories do pop up to interrupt. Both stories have basically the same plot. Moshe shares a bunch of teachings. Ritual scripts, ethical principles, rules and mitzvot, all carefully thought-out. And then someone goes and does the opposite. The exact opposite. And how does Moshe respond? He makes more rules.

In Parshat Shmini, Moshe carefully orchestrates a whole ceremony for opening day at the Mishkan, the traveling wilderness tabernacle. He describes exactly what each priest will do. How and when they will do it. And then young priests Nadav and Avihu, Moshe’s nephews, go right ahead and do something different. They bring a “strange fire,” as the text says. And they are burned to death. We do not know what the strange fire is, or why they bring it. We only know that opening day is a disaster. And we know how Moshe responds. With more rules. He tells young priests Itamar and Elazar, two grieving siblings, also his nephews: don’t tear your clothes in grief, don’t leave the sanctuary, eat the grains, eat the meat, eat only where I tell you to eat.

Surely Moshe is also grieving. He is shocked. He is confused. Maybe he is afraid. So he defaults to familiar habits. He tries to impose order on the chaos by making more rules. When his nephews eat in the wrong place, he gets angry. But his brother Aharon, the grieving father, interrupts him. “Is this really what God wants? For us to carefully follow all the eating rules, after what happened today?” Fortunately, Moshe listens and calms down.

Story: An Unholy Fight

This motif shows up again in the parshiyot Kedoshim and Emor. Moshe explains how to treat others with respect, integrity, honesty, and love. Then, two men ignore every single principle. They have a fight, and one curses the other. How does Moshe respond? You guessed it. He defaults to his usual way of imposing order on chaos. He makes some new laws about death penalties and civil damages. Including “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” an appalling principle, if you take it literally, an approach that every Talmudic teacher rejects.

Moshe’s Desire for Rules

There is a famous midrash about the revelation on Mt. Sinai. On that day, God actually spoke only one word: “I.” And each person heard something different. Moshe heard a list of rules. So he wrote down what we now know as the Ten Commandments. But it’s only one of many possible responses to God’s voice. To the awesome disruption of numinous experience.

We don’t know why Moshe was so stuck on making rules. Why he put it at the centre of his spiritual experience. Maybe he had childhood ADHD and found calm in a rule-governed environment. Maybe his adolescence was chaotic, so he imagined an ideal world, ethical and orderly. Torah tells us nothing about these years of Moshe’s life. So, I’m just guessing based on the ways that I identify with the character of Moshe in the book of Leviticus.

Wisdom: Life and Leviticus

I know I have habits of thinking and feeling and interacting that date back to my earliest childhood. Once upon a time, they were adaptive. They helped me carve out a safe place in my family of origin. They were familiar routines in a familiar environment. But things change. And when they do, my first impulse isn’t to change. It’s to seek safety in my familiar emotional routines. Just like Moshe.

So here is a quick summary of the wisdom of Leviticus. Hold each other in spiritual community with routines of ritual, ethics, and care. But be prepared: sometimes life erupts, and these routines cannot hold it all. At those times, we listen, we learn, we improvise, we evaluate. And we draw wisdom from the book of Shemot Exodus, dwelling in the true nature of divine spirit: compassion. Compassion for one another and, sometimes, even for our own selves.


Image: The Two Priests are Destroyed, James Tissot c. 1896-1902

Originally presented as a d’var Torah sermon at Or Shalom Synagogue. I am grateful to Or Shalom’s rabbis, board, staff, and volunteers for bringing . You the wisdom of Vayikra to life so graciously these last four years.

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