Parshat Vayikra 2017
We have entered the month of Nissan, we are beginning to itch from cleaning fluids, pollen and the sweet aromas of flowers and trees and other marvels of nature that bring joy to the senses. We have also entered a new book in the Torah, Vayikra, Leviticus, which is chock full of details that most of us would rather ignore: sacrifices of various types, various types of skin, cloth and building discolorations and afflictions that require attention, and then a whole lot of mitzvoth on sundry subjects.
What are we supposed to do with all these laws? Many of them are totally irrelevant today – with no Temple and no priests all of the laws about sacrifices are moot, same regarding the discolorations. So what can we learn from the book? What does it have to say to us today?
One approach brought by Rabbi Neal Katz compares the role of the priests as presented in Vayikra, and the role of the prophet. Citing Ahad Ha’am (Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginzberg), the founder of cultural Zionism, Rabbi Katz calls priests and prophets archetypes of two approaches to religious engagement.
What is the prophet? He is a spokesperson for God. He is imbued down to his sandals with a zeal to serve God so that society will be God-fearing and just. Anything less blows his fuses. Moshe, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha and others were of this category.
But what can we do – the general tendency among us was (and is) usually toward slip-sliding away from what was difficult and toward what was easier and more fun. So there was a constant tension between prophets and the people.
Along comes the Torah with a set of rules to be enforced by the priests, assisted by the Levites. If you sinned this way, this is what you bring. If you sinned that way, that’s your penance. This is a ritualistic, practical approach that is not based on zeal or preaching. In Achad Ha’am’s words, the priest creates a social and ritual order and thereby accommodates the passion of the prophet into a livable Jewish life. You can’t live the way the prophet wants you to. But you can live a Jewish life by following what the priests say.
Take Aharon. In contrast to Moshe the prophet, Aharon’s job was to provide the rituals through which the people could atone for their bad behavior and start anew. This was even beyond Aharon’s inherent good nature and desire to impose peace through peaceful means.
Both prophets and priests have important roles to play in our lives. Both sides are actually within us. Sometimes we have to call out and say, this is wrong. You can’t do that. The strongest example of such an outcry in the last few weeks was in the US Congress. The Republicans wanted to repeal Obama-care but thanks in part to a massive call-in campaign organized by dozens of organizations that felt the new replacement legislation was evil – thousands called their senators and expressed their opposition to the new bill (at a rate of about 500 to 1 against it). This was the prophet side among the people speaking out for what was right. And it helped that many of the senators actually agreed with the people.
The ritual side is what we have to do to keep the wheels of society running. These are the laws and regulations that tell us how to act, the customs that allow us get through the day without killing others or being killed, in the supermarket, on the road, in the schools. We pay our respects, our dues, our homage to those who deserve or require them. And life goes on until the next crisis arises that requires us to speak out.
Thus we can read Vayikra as a blueprint for maintaining social order. Yes, we transgressed. We will make our ritual atonement and do better.
This oversimplification makes the sacrifices sound like going to confession and saying a few hail Marys and starting afresh. What we should also remember is that the rules for sacrifices enumerated in Vayikra are much more comprehensive. The rules set down there apply to everyone: from the general populace to the leaders, to the president or prince or king, and to the priests themselves. No one is exempt. Not the rabbis who fondle the kinderlach and not the leader who receives cigars.
Personally, I would not like to see a halacha-based state in Israel for the simple reason that whoever ran it would most likely take it to the extreme, as we see with the rabbinate. But I would like to see the laws of one type of sacrifice – modernized to include heavy monetary fines, automatic removal from office and public shaming. The sacrifice I refer to is called the guilt offering – asham. This is brought in one of three cases: a person is needed to testify and doesn’t; a person comes in contact with a ritually impure animal or person and does not undergo ritual cleansing; a person does not fulfill an oath or promise.
Ariel Seri-Levi points out that this guilt offering is not a result of psychological remorse. In two biblical cases, people feel guilt because something bad is about to happen to them and they think that their prior bad action is the cause. So the guilt is not remorse – but rather an attempt to forestall or rescind another tragedy in the future. The examples he brings are Joseph’s brothers, who are about to be punished by the viceroy of Egypt (Joseph in disguise); and King David who is afraid of the punishment he will receive for the sin of having Uriah killed and taking Batsheba.
I would like to institute the guilt offering sacrifice for some of our leaders on the national and local levels. But there’s a problem. They don’t feel guilty about anything they have done and more importantly, they don’t think any great punishment is going to come to them because they and their actions are as pure as the driven snow.