Digging deep for meaning amid bevy of sacred rites and rules

Rabbi Amy Feder

By Rabbi Amy Feder

Every October, there is one particular morning when our congregation’s Religious School telephone begins ringing off the hook at exactly 9 a.m. and doesn’t stop ringing all day long.  That’s the day, somewhat arbitrarily chosen, when families of our fourth grade students can call to reserve a bar or bat mitzvah date for their children for three years into the future. Unlike the date of “go” day, the date requests that parents make are anything but arbitrary. They choose dates close to their children’s birthdays, or over long holiday weekends, and often they have a particular Torah portion or at least book of the Torah in mind.

Never once, to my knowledge, has someone specifically made a request for the book of Leviticus, or its first eponymous portion, Vayikra, which we begin reading this week. To the contrary, many families choose to shy away from early spring entirely in the hopes of avoiding this third book of the Torah.  

Why is Leviticus so unpopular? Unlike the family dramas of Genesis and the origin stories of Exodus, the wanderings of Numbers and the poetry of Deuteronomy, there’s not a lot of action in Leviticus. The focus on the sacrificial system and the priesthood seem foreign to many modern Jews. There are also a number of themes that, were they made into a movie, would certainly be rated R; sexuality, violence, diseases, oh my!  These are not the engaging, exhilarating words of Torah that most parents want their 12-year-olds studying.

Yet from its first words, Leviticus reminds us that it is not to be overlooked.  It begins with the phrase vayikra, “and God called.” If we believe that Judaism is as relevant today as it was from its inception, that the messages of the Torah are and must be refreshed and made new for us every day, then we have to imagine that God is continuing to call to us just as God called to Moses and the Israelites.  

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The teachings of this parasha, and this entire book, set out ways to maintain a sacred relationship with God and with each other. If we are unable or choose not to follow the guidelines as set out, that should not prevent us from hearing God’s call; rather, it should encourage us to work harder to find our own ways to keep those holy connections strong and vibrant.  

When we study the text deeply, we are reminded of the necessity to pay attention to detail, to maintain order and focus in our days, to attach meaning and purpose to even the most mundane acts.  The lessons may be more deeply buried, but the rewards of finding them beneath the priestly rites and rules of cleanliness are so much greater because of it.  

My own children are years from their b’nai mitzvah, and it’s hard for me to even imagine that one day I’ll be the one anxiously seeking out the best date for this pivotal family milestone. I’d like to hope, though, that when that day arrives, our family will be just as eager to have the chance to delve into Vayikra as into the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs or the saga of the exodus.  There is beauty and order in these holy words, hidden just beneath the surface, if only we are willing to hear God’s call once again.

Rabbi Amy Feder serves Congregation Temple Israel and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.