The Torah of obligation


The Book of Leviticus opens in the aftermath of Divine Revelation and the focused energies of the wandering Israelites for building a portable sanctuary. They are still carrying the weight of a learned history acquired during their long sojourn in Egyptian culture. The momentous revelation of Sinai and the building of a sacred space, place the Israelites betwixt and between. They are no longer slaves and are not yet capable of fulfilling the purpose of their redemption. Freedom, in Judaism, is a call to serve. The Book of Leviticus, called Vayikra in Hebrew, begins with the word — Vayikra, “and God called.”

Vayikra is a word that permeates the creation story where God distinguishes between night and day, between above and below — as the heavens, the earth, and the great oceanic ecosystems are called into being. The second verse of this portion, Vayikra, mentions a human (Adam), a being created in the divine image. The word Adam connects the reader to the events in creation. It is a word that symbolizes boundaries and distinctions.  Here in Leviticus, this instructional manual for drawing closer to the Divine, the word connects us to rituals of conscientiousness, the Torah of obligation.  

The sacrificial system outlined in Leviticus is often interpreted as a penalty for carelessness, a lack of conscientiousness. A serious breach in behavior is considered a sin, a defiler of personal character and integrity.  Character is an important value in Judaism. We measure the character of religious leaders, politicians, communities, and just plain folk through their words and actions. We know too, that character is a formative process and Leviticus is a template for our education. Vayikra tells us that our refinement as human beings requires practice in giving something of ourselves back to God, not for appeasement for a violation of service, but for our own growth and development. Maimonides (12th century) tells us that the Levitical system of ritual slaughtering and offerings had more to do with human needs than Divine ones.  

Each of the sacrificial offer

ings described in Vayikra call into consciousness something that needs to be addressed in order to bring renewed effort to the work demanded of us. It is this conscientiousness of doing that restores the balance to all who hold themselves accountable as partners in creation. The sacrificial system was etched into the psyche of a people through centuries of service and was destroyed more than 2,000 years ago.  The prophetic voice reminds us that sacrifices were only preferred when they came with the conscientiousness that led to personal growth. Compassionate acts are preferable to empty offerings.

What do we have to offer today? A Torah of obligation commands us to relieve suffering, to increase our efforts in the face of evil, to grow in morality and to redeem ourselves when we have violated our own integrity. We are the inheritors of this Torah which has been passed to us. This notion appears in the words of the morning Ahava Rabbah, just before the Shema. Essentially it says we are loved by a great, enduring love that is Torah.  We ask to be taught so that we can grow an insightful and understanding heart that inspires reverence and obligation.

We ask that we not be shamed, humiliated through our own excessive natures, or allowed to stumble along the path of right actions.  We ask that we be unified in our attunement to the Source of All Creation.  

What do we have to offer today? The Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (18th century) says we offer up ourselves by sacrificing what he calls the nefesh behemit — the animal in us. Within each person rests an altar, a sacred space which when purified draws Godliness into our existence. We bring up our basest human desirous self and allow it to be consumed on this holy altar within the human heart. Then, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks concludes, our highest faculties, energies, thoughts, and emotions are liberated to respond to God’s call to serve from our highest selves.

Rabbi Dale Schreiber, M.A., is a Board Certified Chaplain, directs Renewal in Action, and is Jewish Care Coordinator for Pathways Community Hospice and Palliative Care.