After four and a half parshas dealing with the building of the Tabernacle we now carry on to chapter after chapter dealing with the sacrifices to be offered in it. Indeed the Rabbinical name for the whole of Vayikra (Leviticus) is the ‘Torah of the Priests’. From this book, especially, we receive a vision of a society aiming for an ideal of holiness and closeness to God, with that ideal both being symbolised and actualised by sacrifice in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple.
This week, as well as the sedra of Vayikra, we have a Maftir from Devarim 25:17-19.
This Maftir – and therefore this Shabbat - is known as parashat Zachor – Remember.
We are to remember Amalek, and to ‘wipe out Amalek utterly’ – but who is, or was, Amalek?
According to the Torah, in Bereishit, he was an actual person: the son of Eliphaz, grandson of Esav. His descendants became a nomadic tribe who notably attacked the Israelites very shortly after the miracles of the Plagues, the Exodus from Egypt, and the crossing of the Reed Sea.
This week's Sedra – Vayikra - marks the start of the 3rd - and therefore central - book of the Torah. The Book of Vayikra concentrates on the laws of the Priestly Service by the Levites - hence the English name 'Leviticus'.
The Torah is never shy to discuss the mistakes of righteous people, and in fact, in Judaism we consider a person who makes a mistake but corrects himself thereafter a tzaddik (righteous person). “A tzaddik falls seven times but still rises”. In this week’s sidrah, the Torah states “if the Nasi (prince/ruler) commits a sin unintentionally….he shall bring his offering”. The word ‘if’ translates into Hebrew as ‘Asher’, which comes from the root ‘Ashrei’, which means ‘to praise’.
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.
The Torah is never shy to discuss the mistakes of righteous people, and in fact, in Judaism we consider a person who makes a mistake but corrects himself thereafter a tzaddik (righteous person). “A tzaddik falls seven times but still rises”.
The Book of Vayikra is devoted almost entirely to the laws of the sacrifices and the conduct of the priests who served in the sanctuary. For this reason our ancient rabbis called the book TORAT KOHANIM and it is this name that became known in the Greek speaking world and in other European languages. The Jews, who lived in Egypt and spoke Greek, called it Leviticus, because they used the name LEVI to refer not only to the Levites but also to the Kohanim, were also from the tribe of Levi.
Vayikra is the middle book of the five books of the Torah – a central pivot supporting the others. There were five kinds of korbanot, three (Olah, Mincha and Shelamim) were brought as thanks and celebrations, and two after committing any kind of sin or even a mistake (Chatat and Asham). But the word “sacrifice” is an imperfect translation of the Hebrew “korban.” Nearer to the true meaning is “closeness” or “gift” or “offering” and which is understood today as “religious practice.”
Good Shabbos – today my talk is extremely unstructured, for which I apologize. There are many varied and interesting comments on the Sidra, and I will only cover a few of these (hearty sighs of relief from the back!)
Firstly, let us look at the very first word …
Said Rav Assi: “Why do young children begin [the study of Torah] with the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), and not with B’reishit (Genesis)? Surely it is because young children are pure, and the korbanot are pure; so let the pure come and engage in the study of the pure.”1 Midrash Rabah