“And the Levites shall encamp around the Tabernacle of Testimony so that there be no wrath upon community of the Children of Israel; and they shall engage in the guarding of the Tabernacle of Testimony.”
This is one a numerous verses that charge the Levites with the job of protecting the sacred shrine from inappropriate incursions while thereby also protecting the Israelites from the mortal consequences that could befall them should they attempt to enter the Tabernacle at the wrong time or in the wrong state of being. This role of guardianship is the direct result of the special status of the Levites. God says: “The Levites shall be Mine.” (Num. 3:12) God assigns to the Levites the role of protecting the holiness of the shrine and the wellbeing of the people. Both are especially precious to God.
The book of Leviticus begins by stating that its contents were conveyed to Moses within the Tent of Meeting that had been constructed by the Children of Israel. Yet, as we draw the book to a close, we read that this Torah portion was revealed “B’har Sinai – at Mount Sinai” (- hence the name of the first of our Torah portions). (Lev. 25:1) We seem to have gone backwards.
Our Torah portion, Emor, besides a number of other ritual rulings, details several restrictions pertaining to priestly conduct and eligibility. The priestly office demands total commitment, limiting the priest’s relations with his spouse and family (Lev. 21:15). Officiating as a priest thus constricts their possibilities of basic human interaction. Furthermore, just as the Torah mandates physical perfection for all sacrifices, it also requires that the priest be a healthy and complete physical specimen, unblemished by any deformity (vv. 16-24. And see 22:17-24.) Ironically, this very insistence on physical perfection also, in a way, diminishes our sense of the priest’s humanity, for, after all, isn’t imperfection an essential quality of being human? Yet, our tradition goes to great lengths to exclude physical distinctiveness from the priests. The priest must be physically perfect – almost inhumanly so.
Parashat Aharei Mot/Q’doshim
Holiness is the central concern of our double Torah reading. The first Torah portion concentrates on holiness within the sanctuary. The second expands the realm of potential holiness to encompass our entire world and lives. As I have explained many times, the essence of holiness is not withdrawal and restriction, but generosity and sharing. (See, e.g., Sparks for 2017 and 2018)
The affliction of surfaces – of our homes, garments and very skin (tzara`at)- that is the main subject of our Torah reading has been interpreted by our tradition to be a signal to us to heed how powerful our gift of speech is and to be aware of how easily we casually debase it as a means to hurt others. This unique, heaven-sent affliction was seen not as a disease, but as a Divine punishment for one who has abused their power of speech to attack others in secret.
Our Torah portion continues its narrative of the meticulously planned out process for the dedication of the Tabernacle. God has delineated everything – each detail of each ritual. And the rest of the Torah portion includes a thorough-going treatment of dietary laws. Indeed, the bulk of this text is comprised of orderly ceremonies and regulations.
Parashat Tzav/Shabbat Ha-gadol/Passover
This year I will place a new item on my seder plate – a nearly used-up roll of toilet paper. It will serve as a reminder and a prod to appreciate a person, an act and a tradition of holiness.
Our Torah portion continues to give details about how to perform the sacrificial rites. The simplest of sacrifices is the flour offering, the minhah – literally “the gift.” This simplest of gifts – “The Gift” – is one that even the poorest person could bring to God. And it includes in its ceremony the lifting of a small portion of flour, spices and oil that is burnt on the altar. This small amount is called the “azkarah – the memorial.” (Lev. 6:8) This term is never used for any other gift. None of the other types of sacrifice has any of its elements characterized as a reminder. But this simple sacrifice does. Commentators (see, for instance, Ibn Ezra to Lev. 2:2, where this term first appears) link remembering here with scent and aroma, the pleasing aroma that signifies God’s happiness in this simple offering, above all else.
The book of Leviticus – Vayiqra – begins by giving rules for the offering of sacrifices in the newly constructed sanctuary. Today we find these rules difficult to pay attention to. They seem so far from our experience. Yet, for the Torah, these sacrifices are the means by which a person might hope to draw close to God. The clear implication of this text is that it is here – in the sanctuary space and nowhere else – where sacrifices should be offered if they are to be acceptable to God. It is meaningful to follow some of the details of these instructions to see better how this concept is driven home.
Parashat Vayaq’hel-P’qudei/Shabbat Ha-Hodesh
The national effort to build a sanctuary for God has concluded. The Divine Dwelling Place (mishkan) is finished and put together. Each piece of it had been meticulously and lovingly fashioned by the men and women of Israel. How they must have yearned to walk through the finished structure in its completed state! Yet, what they had once handled and manipulated they were now prevented from touching. The end result of their magnificent accomplishment was to create a space so filled with Divine energy that it made their entry into that space both legally and physically impossible. Not even Moses, God’s most intimate interlocutor, could step inside the Tabernacle: “And Moses could not enter into the Tent of Meeting because the Cloud was dwelling upon it and the Glory of the Eternally Present One was filling the mishkan.” (Ex. 40:35)
Parashat Ki Tissa/Shabbat Parah
The Israelites are commanded to each give a half-shekel. This tax serves two purposes: it is a means of counting everyone, creating a census, and it is also the way the annual budget for the upkeep of the new Sanctuary will be met. But the Torah is not content to leave it at that. This levy is characterized in a very special way. It is called “money of atonements (kippurim).” (Ex. 30:16) This is the same word used for the Day of Atonement – Yom ha-kippurim. The Torah demands that “each person shall give the atonement of his self/soul.” (v. 12) And a few verses later we read: “The wealthy shall not increase nor the poor decrease from half a shekel, to give the gift of the Eternal, in order to atone for your selves/souls.” (v.15)