D’var Torah: Each step of our journey has a higher purpose


RABBI LORI LEVINE, Congregation Shaare Emeth

Have you ever opened a book that was so technical and so outside your realm of understanding that you found it difficult to get through? Like the words were all in English, but you were reading without understanding a thing? 

For many people, this perfectly describes their understanding of Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, in the Torah. Leviticus is the shortest book in the Torah, and it lies at the physical center of the Torah, which is no accident. It lies at the heart of so much of what it meant to be an ancient Israelite in a proper relationship with the Holy One. 

Still, it is not easy to embrace. I used to feel that Vayikra was completely irrelevant to me until I spent time deeply studying it. If we can look past the obscure language, the carefully described ritual sacrifices, and the dry style that many scholars and ordinary folks have disparaged, what we can uncover is an approach to leadership and life that has much to teach us. Leviticus reminds all of us of this simple but radical fact: Life dances constantly between the holy and the ordinary.

Leviticus in a larger sense proposes a Jewish way of living in which holiness is accessible to anyone, sins are named and forgiven without shame or moralizing, and every moment has greater, sacred meaning. 

The first portion of the Book of Leviticus, also called Vayikra, describes the sacrificial system set at the heart of Israelite worship. The priest played a particular role in facilitating these sacrifices, from preparation to performance and completion. The priest dedicated himself to God and to the offerings made to worship God properly and keep the communal system in balance. 

Though many of the other cultures around the ancient Near East also offered animal sacrifices to connect with God, the Israelite version found in the Torah is quite unique in one specific way. As Rabbi Mary L. Zamore writes in “The Social Justice Torah Commentary”: 

“The Israelite sacrificial cult is designed to function in an atmosphere of radical transparency … the laws regulating the sacrifices were given to the entire people of Israel, not just to the elite class of priests.” 

Many other ancient religious cultures operated in secrecy, and their rules and laws were closely guarded secrets. From the inception of the formal sacrificial system handed down by God to Moses, Aaron and the people, the kohanim performed the rituals of the sacrifices publicly. This sense of transparency was evident in their day-to-day work. 

In addition, of the five sacrifices described in the first few chapters, three of them are voluntary. The person who had made the mistake or violated the boundary, intentionally or unintentionally, needed to have the knowledge about these sacrifices so they could find absolution through the correct sacrifices. God speaks not just to Moses and Aaron to outline the laws for sacrifices, but to all of Israel. The task of seeking holiness in some way involves all of us, with the priestly leaders guiding us forward. 

I believe that the description of the role of the priests and their leadership role gives us permission to imagine an ideal world that reflects our highest values even as we stand firmly grounded in the reality of the world as we know it. 

The priests in the Torah were tasked with sustaining the seemingly mundane while keeping the people in proper relationship with God as they strive for holiness. In their context, this meant maintaining boundaries of purity. Just one small issue, like the wrong animal organs, an impure vessel or a blotchy patch of skin, had high risk, divine stakes. 

Restoring individuals, leaders and the community to purity, putting out those little fires and managing disruptions that threaten the wholeness of the community were appreciated as critically important work that allowed Israel to endure in its covenant with God. 

As we begin reading this new book in the Torah, I think we have the opportunity to see our own Jewish lives through the lens of Leviticus. 

What are the everyday tasks and responsibilities you hold that you want to elevate and make sacred? When you are working on a project or toward a greater goal or good for your community, remember that each step of the way, each routine to do is part of a higher purpose. 

Remember when you fail or fall that sometimes, just doing our best is enough, even if it is not perfect. There is always a way to repair and move forward, and this, too, is part of God’s plan for us. 

Each of us can take the time to notice those changes as we move from the pure and holy to the impure and ordinary and back again in all that we do, and therefore find deeper meaning.