Varikra (Lev) 1:1-5:26
This week we find ourselves starting a new book of the Torah, a book that centers primarily around the Mishkan, the priesthood and the sacrificial system. As far as practicality is concerned, it would seem that most of the things contained in Vayikra are of little value, a purely academic exercise. The priesthood is non functional and there is no temple at which to make sacrifice.
Yet in many Jewish communities, the children begin their Torah education with this book. many of the leaders of Israel have found this book to be central to the teaching of the Torah and Judaism. Why would YHVH place it in the hearts of these leaders of Israel to start here. Would not the stories of Bereshit be more appealing to a child, or even the straightforward reiteration of the covenant in Devarim be more conducive to teaching a young person about the way of YHVH? Why start with a description of ritual and sacrifice that has no practical impact on our everyday lives?
Obviously there is something central to the teaching of Torah and Judaism in Vayikra that G-d wants His people to know. And perhaps developing an understanding of sacrifice is precisely what YHVH want’s His people to understand. Sacrifice is central to our lives as the people of God. We often forget that worship in the Mishkan was expensive to the worshipper. That sheep or that bull, or for a poor person, a dove or even a grain offering took real material things out of the worshippers possession and into G-d’s. Sacrifice was just that, sacrifice of livelihood, of material possessions. It was a visible reminder that all they had belonged to G-d and they were dependent on Him to provide. And those are just the free will offerings. When one had to bring a sin offering because of some transgression, it his right where it hurt, in the wallet. Just think how much less sin there would be if those who committed it had to pay out of pocket. Lashon Hara-$500, premarital sex-$3000, stealing- $2000, you get the picture. Sin costs: being one of the chosen people costs. It costs money, it costs time, it costs one’s life. Many of us have turned down jobs or promotions because of Shabbat. We give to the work of G-d and sacrifice some of our desires. We sacrifice ego when people think we look funny in a beanie and fringes. But such things are rubbish when compared to being on of YHVH’s unique, chosen, covenant-keeping remnant people.
When we learn the lesson of sacrifice and we put it into practice, our children see it and they take note. We all know that in teaching our children, what we say is much less important that what we do. They know what things we attach value to by the way we spend our time and resources. And when we begin by teaching then the lessons of sacrifice contained in Vayikra, they understand why. here is a short story I found that illustrates the point.
There was once a man who was a mason by trade. He had a son whom he was sending to study with the local melamed (Torah teacher). The man was behind in his payments to the melamed, and because of his own poverty the melamed would be forced to drop this man's son, so he could take on a regularly paying customer. Unfortunately, there was a shortage of bricks at the time, and the mason was getting little work done. He had heard that a rich man was looking for someone who would build a brick oven for him. (The brick oven was used for both cooking and heating.) This mason then took on the job. Having no bricks available to him, he set out to carefully dismantle his own brick oven which he then used to build the customer's oven. The proceeds were given to the melamed to pay for his son's studies. It was a very cold winter in the mason's house that year. Nevertheless, the mason's priorities couldn't be clearer. The impression this act left on his son stayed with him, and it was the foundation of all that he achieved later on in his life.
Do our children see our sacrifice for G-d and for them?
We have just concluded Shemot which ends with the Shekinah filling the Mishkan to the extent that neither Moshe or any of the Kohanim can enter the tent of meeting, G-d’s presence is too intense. But we begin Vayikra with YHVH calling to Moshe from between the cherubim to give him the instructions that follow in our parasha. This calling is an assurance that G-d is not far off, G-d is not all awe and majesty and we puny creations must continually grovel in the dust in His shadow. He wants a relationship, he wants to talk. They had just put an immense national effort into the construction of this most holy place and with the intense nature of the presence of G-d, they were perhaps wondering if it was ever going to be able to be used as intended. Vayikra, and He called. Come closer, let us sit down together, get to know me, learn from me. Yahushua, the presence of YHVH in human form, the One who stilled the waves and raised the dead says come to me, you who are meek and lowly, learn from me, my yoke is easy, my burden is light. Same words, same intention. He seeks us, He wants us to come. It is what we were created for.
In the Torah ‘vayikra’ is written in a unique form. The aleph that concludes the word is written smaller than the other characters. And as we know, everything in the Torah has a reason and a purpose. The aleph tells us something about the G-d who does the calling and the kind of man who responds. Vayikra comes from the root ‘qra’ which means ‘to call’. Another time a man was called was when G-d called Balaam (Num 23:16). But when G-d called him, he used a ‘shortened form’; vayikar’, no aleph at the end. In this form the word has to do with chance or even spiritual contamination, a word suitable to describe YHVH’s relationship with Balaam. G-d may have chosen to speak to Balaam, but the relationship was not based on love.
Tradition tells us that Moshe, when he came to write this part of the Torah, wanted to use the same form of the word that described G-d’s relationship with Balaam. Moshe was exceedingly humble, he know who he was, he knew his past, he knew that he was not worthy for the role he had been chosen for. In contrast to the awesome holiness of G-d, he was spiritually bankrupt. YHVH had a different view. Just as Avraham was known as ‘the friend of G-d’, Moshe spoke to G-d face to face as a man speaks to his friend. Moshe was not just a convenient tool that G-d chose as His intermediary to instruct the people. YHVH had affection for Moshe, as a father and as a Friend. The small aleph, which really draws attention to the character, is there as a testimony to that affection.
As ‘co-heirs’ with the Messiah, as His friends and brothers and sisters, we know that G-d has the same affection for us. He no longer calls us servants, we are not insignificant slaves but we are His intimate friends. He knows us by name, He knows the hairs on our heads, He knows what we need before we ask, he demonstrates His love for us constantly. So while we may feel insignificant at times at work or even in our families, we are intimate friends of the King. That is a thought of comfort, of privilege and responsibility. That is the lesson of the small aleph.
This book is generally described as the handbook for the priests in the rituals of the mishkan, specifically that of offerings and sacrifice. We often wonder what we can learn from such descriptions since they are so removed from our experience. There is an essential point to understand as we begin this book and that is it’s purpose. If we understand that, we will gain so much more from our continuous study over the next several months.
Our first hint comes with the first word, ‘vayikra’ which comes from the root ‘qra’ which means ‘to call’. YHVH desired to call out to Moshe and speak to Him. The sages teach us there is something unique about this word. In the Torah scroll the final aleph is smaller than the rest of the characters. If the aleph was not there, we are left with ‘vayikar’ which does not have the connotations of deliberateness and intimacy that ‘Vayikra’ has. G-d’s calling to Baalam and Saul’s comment in I Sam 20:26 are indicators of this use. YHVH wanted to emphasize his intimate connection to Moshe and Moshe, wanting to demonstrate humility, made the letter smaller. It is this desire for intimacy on the part of G-d that sets the tone for what comes next.
Remember how we ended Shemot? “The cloud covered the tent of meeting and the glory of YHVH filled the Tabernacle. Moshe could not enter...” The Zohar explains the beginning of Vayikra this way. Moshe had raised the Tabernacle, why should he remain outside? So G-d called to his good friend and told him to come in. After all, fellowship between G-d and man was the whole point. Then Moshe and G-d had a conversation regarding the dedication of this new home. How was this to be accomplished? With a banquet! So the next verse begins a discussion of how one brings an offering, an animal of grain sacrifice to the altar, the table set before G-d.
What is the reason for the sacrifices and offerings? The key here is the word itself, ‘qarban’ from the root ‘qrb’ which means ‘to come near’. We know that G-d needs nothing from us so the sacrifices and offerings add nothing to Him. The point of these things is to establish intimacy with our Creator, to come close to Him. It is like brining a gift to a king when one is granted an audience. It is an acknowledgment of our position before Him (humility) and our gratitude for His mercy. He wants us to come to Him and has provided the way it is done, proper throne room etiquette. These procedures are not dry priestly ritual but a wonderful and amazing method by which the Creator of the universe fellowships intimately with his people.
This parasha includes many of the offerings that may be brought to the altar. Included are offerings just for worship or thanksgiving, offerings for unintentional sin for the priest, the ruler, the nation or the individual and offerings for intentional sin. Instead of looking at any individual offering, we are going to explore the idea of offerings in general as they relate to how we understand Torah.
Many of us who came from Christian backgrounds were taught something like the following about ‘the law’. “God gave the law to Israel as a way to demonstrate that no one could possibly keep it. Therefore ‘Jesus’ came to free us from even attempting to do so and if you try to do the law you are just putting yourself under condemnation because ‘no flesh is justified by the law’”. It will be familiar to many of you as a summation of dispensationalist theology in particular. And as you have talked to your Christian friends about the Torah, you have, no doubt, heard a similar line.
First of all, what does such an assertion make about God? It says that he took one group of people and stuck them with a list of impossible rules and let them suffer under condemnation until he saw fit to bring about a different way as an object lesson to everyone else. Now that does not sound like the kind of God I want to get to know for fear of being made some kind of new ‘object lesson’. But aside from the fact that it make Israel some kind of experiment by a mad scientist, it horribly distorts the purpose and nature of Torah itself.
Our parasha dispels the notion that the ‘law’ is a method of salvation that cannot be attained by anyone. If, as Christians claim, one transgression separates a person from God forever and until ‘Jesus’ came apparently everyone went to hell, then there is no need for all these offerings. If sin separated one from God and only the sacrifice of Messiah restored fellowship, then why all these sacrifices? A Christian will probably say they are a picture of His sacrifice but they are more than that. The Torah says they do provide atonement, that they their offering does provide forgiveness and that such sacrifices are pleasing to Him. They are substantive.
To understand some of the ‘why’ we have to understand the purpose of Torah. Most of us know that the word ‘Torah’ is better translated as ‘teaching’, not ‘law’ although it does contain legal material. Teaching for what? At the most basic level, Torah teaches us how to have proper relationship with YHVH and each other. On an expanded level, the Torah provided the guidelines for the establishment of the nation of Israel as a place where people would interact with each other and YHVH according to the eternal principles God established for the universe. It is not an either/or method of salvation, it has little to do with eternal destiny. What it is concerned with is how fallible human beings can live together in an environment that encourages righteousness and holiness. One of the reasons for the sacrifices is to establish a way people could return to fellowship with God and one another because God knew that people would fail. We all fail and if that failure is unintentional or without permanent consequences then there must be a method of restoration. If on the other hand it is serious and intentional, it is an attack on the very foundation and ideals of the system; treason with the intention of abolishing Torah and there is no restoration.
Torah is not oppressive, it is a very realistic way to establish justice, righteousness and proper relationships between man and God. When human beings fail, there is restoration and that method is provided for in the Torah itself. The more we pattern our lives and societies after the principles and directives contained within the Torah, the more peace, harmony, justice and righteousness we will have. It is our duty as the people of God to work toward such an end.
The majority of this parasha is about offerings for ‘unintentional’ sin. Whether it be the people, a priest, or a ruler, various offerings are prescribed for people that inadvertently sin against the holy things or commandments of God. Often we take comfort in the fact that although we may sin through ignorance, a lack of knowledge of the commandments, or because we ‘forgot’, there is some remedy for such things. Willful sin, or rebellion, on the other had, is a different matter. We have understood such sin to be a trampling of the Torah for which there is no remedy.
One of the verses that talks about such unintentional sin is 5:15. “If a person commits treachery and sins unintentionally against YHVH’s holies....” (Stone’s translation). We may often just read over such things but there is a glaring contradiction that throws a wrench into our understanding of sin and forgiveness as outlined in the previous paragraph. There are three words which we must concern ourselves with in this verse. They are in order of appearance, ma’al (treachery), shagagah (sins), and chatah (sin unintentionally, miss the mark).
Let’s start with ma’al which Stone’s translates a ‘treachery’. Ma’al is usually used in a spatial sense, as in up, above or over. It is used in the sense of treachery or falsehood in Job 21:34 and in Joshua 7:1 to describe how Achan took prohibited things from the enemy camp and hid them in his tent. If we look at the ancient pictographic Hebrew, we come up with the idea of being yoked to chaos. The mem is water or chaos, the ayin is to see or experience and the lamed is a staff or yoke. Treachery is to position oneself above for advantage or to work, as in Achan’s case, covertly to put oneself in a good position for an evil purpose. All of this requires planning, forethought. It is the complete opposite of ‘unintentional’. The question is how can one commit ‘treachery’ unintentionally?
The simple answer is you can’t. Therefore, our understanding of ‘unintentional sin’ needs to be modified. We are familiar with the idea of ‘chatat’ which means to miss the mark, to err, make a false step, to stumble. ‘Shagagah’ has a similar meaning. It is to wander, go astray, to do something twice because of a mistake. We have been conditioned in our culture to avoid responsibility. Things we don’t intend are accidents and we are not expected to be held responsible. I would postulate there are no such things. There is always fault, there are no ‘unintentional' mistakes as we think of them. If we miss the mark, if we stumble, if we wander off the path, there is a reason for it. We were not careful, we were not paying attention, we were negligent. That is our fault. Not only is it our fault, it is treacherous. It is a treacherous attitude. Now that seems kind of harsh, doesn’t it. But it is true. It is treacherous because we have chosen or willed a mentality that makes us wander. We have adopted a mindset that does not concentrate on the moment, on what is happening now. Instead we let our mind out of it’s cage and allow it to wander and distract us from what is going on now. When that happens, we mess up. We stumble, we do not concentrate enough to hit the mark, we make mistakes. It is ultimately our fault. The only way to avoid it is to learn to live in the moment, to take control of our mind which bounces around in our head like a caffeinated monkey and put him in a straightjacket. When we have control over our mind and learn to live in the here and now we will stop walking a treacherous path and stumbling all along the way.