A Love Letter to Leviticus
Delivered on Parashat Vayikrah, March 31, 2017
Well, here we are. The time has come for you to be here with us again. And I understand that you’ll be with us until late May.
I for one am glad you are here. Others are non-plussed. You get a bad rap. They say that you are all blood and guts; you are the nasty little bits of Torah. Your focus is sacrifice. Dash some blood on the altar, burn the entrails. You are all about sexual immorality and scaly skin infections. You tell us all about the minute details of kashrut. Remind me, is duck kosher? Why is it that we cannot eat Chicken Parmesan? “Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk,” you say.
Yes, Leviticus, you are all about rules and regulations. Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign? Some do not see your value. They cast you aside, like an entree the chef thought was a good idea but that the customers find unappetizing. Some congregations used to shuttle you away. They would not study you. They would not read you. They made the b’nai mitzvah students read Genesis over again rather than read your difficult portions.
But I love you, I want to spend time with you, and I want to tell you why.
You have much to offer. You have a purpose. You are just as good as your siblings. Sure, you do not have the family drama of Genesis, you lack the miracles of Exodus and Numbers, and you do not have the poetic ending of Deuteronomy. Still, I value you.
What is that value? As Anthropologist Mary Douglas notices, you are all about two things: the Justice of God and holiness. In those concepts you prove that your worth is more precious than rubies.
But it is not without a fight that I make this case. When it comes to arguing that God is just, you are fighting an uphill battle. You are now read by a world of educated, liberal, skeptical Jews. We too quickly bristle at the thought of God on High meeting out justice based on our earthly actions. To quickly we turn to questions of theodicy and ask, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” That question freezes any possibility of seeing Divine Justice in the world as it is, right? In truth, we live in a broken world, where injustice—both earthy and cosmic—is apparent. Still, for a moment, help us leave our theological skepticism aside. Help us understand your version of Divine Justice:
Toward the end of the book of Leviticus, in the 25th chapter to be precise, the book turns to the conversation of land ownership and loans. In the course of that conversation, the following scenario is described:
A man comes to town. He is of our kin, but does not live among us. He has come on hard times. The text enjoins us to treat him as if he were “a stranger who dwells and lives among you.” The property he rents from us, or loans takes out with us cannot be done with any sort of advance paid or with interest. In other words: you, my dear Leviticus, are the biblical voice who instructs us, “no money down, 0% APR!”
Why are we to show this kindness to our kinsman who fell on hard times? You answer us in that same passage: “I am the Eternal your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt to give you the Land of Canaan, to be your God” (Lev 25:35-38).
This is a sort of justice that is based on two things: God’s divinity, and God’s want for us to be a holy people. Because of the Exodus, because we know what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land, because we know what it is like to be the kin who have fallen on hard times, it would be unjust for us to treat another as if he were an unfamiliar other. At your core, Leviticus, in your heart, rests the central moral tenet of Judaism, “Love your neighbor as you yourself are loved.”
And this is why I love you. You remind us of the very thing that we should be doing.
During my family leave, I managed to finish a book or two. One of the books I read was Tom Friedman’s latest, titled Thank You For Being Late. In that book, he describes the multiple accelerations that are happening in our day: Technology is speeding up our connectivity, mother nature is becoming more volatile as the climate changes, politics are more and more unpredictable. In the face of those accelerations, it makes sense that we would feel vulnerable and powerless.
As we cede control to the world around us, what can we do to regain a sense of balance, a sense of optimism, a sense of worth? In the examination of his own life, Friedman answers his questions — it comes back to the Golden Rule. It comes back to your heart, Leviticus: Love your neighbor as you, yourself, are loved. By doing so, we slow down time, we refocus on our relationships, and we bring a bit more holiness into the world. In that way, we still see God’s just ways at work. There is our Divine Justice. We, Israel, as a community are to be a holy people. As you, yourself, say Leviticus, “Be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:1).
Holiness, the purpose behind the covenant, is achieved when we enact the sort of Godly justice that Leviticus puts forward for us.
My dear Leviticus, we are living in interesting times. Market volatility is a regular phenomenon that economists now expect. Our politics are especially chaotic. The external pressures around our lives can feel out of our control. In response, some #resist. Another response some have to that sense of being squeezed is to turn inward, and focus solely on the spiritual, calling for an ascetic mentality. But you, Leviticus, have never encouraged us to live at one of those polar ends. You have always been a voice for community.
This Shabbat we begin to read through your chapters and verses. Some will say yuck, and others will scratch their heads about why what you have to say matters. I would remind them that while some of your thoughts may be morally unsound when we consider the ethics by which we live today, your voice still matters. Though you contain a record of our biblical ancestors’ methods of worship, your intention is still true. Your place in our tradition is still paramount. You are the living breathing core of our tradition. You encourage us to strive for holiness and to be close to God. No matter the events of the world, no matter the experiences we have in our lives, you make two things clear:
Treat each person as if he or she were yourself. In so doing, we make ourselves an Am Kadosh, a holy people, because God too is holy. When we act with justice in mind, and when we perform the sacred rituals that bring meaning to our lives, that’s when we invite God in, and that’s when a touch of Your holiness is made real.
Thank you for being, you, Leviticus. Fondly, Rabbi Neil Hirsch