Vayikra, the third book of the Torah, is known in the tradition as “Torat Cohanim”, dealing as it does with many laws concerning the priests and their role in leading the people in service to God. Overall, the book confronts us with details of animal sacrifice, ritual purity, prohibited sexual relationships and punishments for disobedience; as the Tosafot say, “it is the most difficult of the Five Books of Moshe”. The Lubavich Rabbi commented that, “Being the most difficult to understand, the Book of Vayikra demands more effort from its reader, which in turn lifts the reader to new heights of understanding and spiritual achievement.” Of all the books in the Torah, Vayikra challenges us to think about what it means to live by the Torah’s precepts and what it means to be in service to God.
Just as the Cohanim of Torah and Temple times were called to lead the people in service to God, so too the Jews, known as a “mamlechet cohanim” – a kingdom of priests – are called to lead humanity in service to God as a “holy nation”. With the destruction of the Second Temple, the role of the Cohanim in their service is more circumscribed; our service as a holy nation has never been more demanding. For Jews outside the world of Orthodoxy, the Torat Cohanim presents challenges on another level. Our questions about God and Torah have become more complex as the world has become more secular and materialistic. Given the growing disbelief in God itself, what does it mean to “serve God”?
Further, when we find passages of Torah we morally reprehensible, such as the denigration of gays and lesbians derived from this book, how can Torah guide that service? In the Psalms, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace”; we need to ensure that is so. What means of interpretation and application of Torah allow us to engage with mitzvot concerning kashrut and living a holy life found within this book while restricting those that actually bring harm to others? To be a “kingdom of priests”, a people willing to take a leadership role among humanity in the service of God, requires diligent study and discerning application of Torah. This week’s parashah, in its opening word “vayikra”, whose last letter “aleph” is written small, provides an important insight into how we can connect with God and how we can read Torah.
There is much rabbinic commentary about this little letter – all suggesting that it should hint about human modesty (aleph being the first letter of the word for “I”), especially in the light of the profundity of what God might be (aleph also being the first letter in the word for “I” referring to God, the sound of aleph being silent.) It approaches hubris to think that given the enormity of the universe and our tiny place within it we know with absolute certainty God’s will or word. While some believe that this infinite mystery is the author of scripture, we should humbly acknowledge that no book, no matter how sacred for its followers, may be the literal word from God. Perhaps our teachings draw down on our understanding of God in our moment in time and space. A “kingdom of priests” must study and apply Torah with humility to understand our sacred responsibility of living with conscious being.
Rabbi Jeffrey B. Kamins