You are here

Vayikra 5774

by Rabbi Yaakov Grunewald

Our medieval rabbis had strongly divergent views on the reasons for the sacrifices. In his book, The Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides, the greatest Jewish philosopher of all times, maintained that their purpose was to keep us away from idolatry.  The Almighty allowed Israelites to continue to serve Him in the way they had been used to throughout the patriarchal period.  This was the spiritual world which they recognised and were familiar with. At that time of the giving of the Torah, the abandonment of the sacrifices was unthinkable. However, says Maimonides, the sacrificial system was a concession, in recognition of the fact that the Israelites would be unable to change quickly. In other words, the physical form through which the Almighty would be worshipped, remained the same as the pagan mode of worship. Only the worshippers’ beliefs and intentions, as well as the abstract ideas which each of the sacrifices represented, were transformed. Maimonides was of the opinion that, whilst it is true that the Torah is divine and eternal, its teachings guide us through life as we experience it here on earth, at any given time.  The Torah’s teachings were absolutely revolutionary, but they had to be given a chance to mature within the recipients’ spiritual universe.  The very concept of monotheism also took a great deal of time to be understood and accepted.  Our rabbis say that the Israelites accepted the Torah voluntarily only in the days of Esther. Before that it had been forced upon them. Rav Shlomo Aviner, a most influential Rabbi in Israel, illustrates the concept of graduality in the Torah with an interesting example. When the Almighty took Israel out of the Land of Egypt, His purpose was to bring them into the Land of their Fathers as soon as possible.  However, he realised that the shortest route was unacceptable to the people because it was hazardous, so He took them on a much longer route, through the depths of the desert. Thus, their journey was much longer.  As a result of this, however, the Israelites developed an inner strength which enabled them to overcome the challenges, which faced them when they reach the age 

Many scholars were critical of Maimonides for implying that the sacrifices had only been given as a temporary measure. However, even Maimonides maintained that the sacrificial system it was a permanent and unchangeable institution, since it had become part of the Israelite religion. Like all Halachists, he maintains that when the Messiah comes, sacrifices will be restored to their former glory in the newly built the Temple. We have no idea how this will happen, but this does not mean that it will not happen.

In chapter 4 verse 22, the Torah speaks about a situation in which one of the Nesi’im, leaders of the tribes, commits a sin or a crime.  Our rabbis noted that the paragraph has an unusual opening, which is not found when referring to any other sinner, listed in our Sidra. It opens with the word ASHER, which in this context, means 'when'.   Our rabbis observe that, due to the remarkable coincidence that it has the same sound as the word Ashrei, meaning happy, they can extract an important teaching which is: “Happy is the generation whose leader recognises the error of his ways, confesses his sin and make amends by offering a sacrifice”.  One of the greatest tragedies, nowadays, is that great leaders tend to deny their wrong doings and then lie in order to get out of trouble.  There have been a few extremely tragic and worrying instances of this behaviour in Israel in recent years.  

Judah, Jacob’s fourth son, is one of the greatest Biblical examples of a leader who committed a sin and admitted it, without any hesitation, as soon as it was pointed out to him. The story about him is found in the Book of Genesis chapter 48. It narrates the story of Judah’s departure from his family, and his decision to live amongst the Canaanites. He married a Canaanite woman and became the leader of his clan. His daughter-in-law was called Tamar. She became pregnant. As the leader, he ordered Tamar to be executed for an act of immorality.  But, as she was being taken out to the town square to be burnt at stake, she produced evidence which proved that she was innocent of any wrongdoing and that the man who had made her pregnant was no other than Judah himself. Judah admitted his mistake at once. Since it was a public execution and, therefore, a public admission, it must have been extremely difficult for him. Yet, he did so with courage.  He proved himself to be a most conscientious leader who was determined to pursue justice, even at great personal sacrifice. Our rabbis praised him for this worthy action. The Torah deliberately devoted an entire chapter to this episode in Judah’s life, in order to explain the reason that he subsequently became the leader of his brothers and the ancestor of King David. Jacob prophesied that the Kings of Israel, whose rule would endure for ever, would stem from the tribe of Judah.

The second famous example of a leader, who admitted to a terrible crime, immediately and without any excuse, was King David. We find the story of his crime in the Book of Samuel. His crime was of a horrific nature, nevertheless, the moment that he confessed to it and repented was surely one of his finest hours. The crime was  that he enticed Batsheva, who was Uriah’s wife, to come and be with him. He then ordered that her husband be drafted to the army and be given a very dangerous position on the battle lines, where he was certain to be killed.  David’s plan succeeded. Uriah was killed in action.  David, then, lost no time in marrying her and she became his wife.  The Prophet Nathan came to the palace and harshly reprimanded the King. He told him that he was guilty of an act of gross  injustice for which he deserved the death penalty.   In ancient times it was usual for kings to behave in this ruthless manner. King David thought that he was entitled to do this. But, as soon as he heard the prophet’s dire words, he confessed at once and asked to be forgiven. It was unique in the ancient world, for a king of his stature to admit to such a grave error. Our rabbis decreed in the Talmud that anyone who claims that David sinned is mistaken,. His repentance was done with such great sincerity and piety, that it is forbidden for any Jew to mention his sin again. This act of repentance, as well as his many other extraordinary deeds of piety, earned King David the reputation of having been the greatest King of Israel. He was not only the most successful king in military and diplomatic terms, but was also a religious leader of unsurpassed genius and excellence.

More documents on this Parshah: