Light from the Sidra

Vayikra ('And he called...')

Torah: Leviticus 1:1-5:26. Haftarah: Isaiah 43:21-44

Torah and Reason

September 28, 1791 was one of the most monumental dates in modern Jewish history. After centuries of persecution and isolation, the Jews of France were declared to be equal with everyone else. But there was a catch. Clermont-Tonnerre, who had fought ardently for Jewish rights, made it clear that their emancipation from the Ghetto was on the condition that they became Frenchmen first and Jews second. ‘To Jews as human beings – everything,’ declared Clermont-Tonnerre, ‘To Jews as a people – nothing!’

The Jews had been despised and treated with contempt. The ‘Enlightenment,’ as its adherents immodestly labelled it, was humanistic. Man was the measure of all things.

Mankind had come of age. Reason was king. All the Jews had to do to be accepted was to leave their primitive superstitions and the notion of Torah hashamayim behind and step out of their ghettos into the glorious light of Reason, and all would be well for them.

But while, in one sense, Emancipation was a blessing to the Jewish people, it was a mixed blessing. It set in motion a a process that would result in the widespread atheism that now exists among Jewish people today. The trade-off of identity for freedom for was tempting and many French Jews opted for it. But how were religious Jews to live in the brave new world of Rationalism? Enter the Reform movement; a dilution of Judaism which payed lip-service to the Torah while reading the Torah through Enlightenment eyes.

An atheist Jewish lady once told me that Moses had such a hard time controlling the Israelites that he went up Mount Sinai, chiselled the Ten Commandments into two slabs of stone and fooled the Jews into believing God had given the commandments. If she was right, then Judaism is founded on a gigantic lie because in the 27 chapters of Leviticus, starting with the first verse, the phrase ‘HASHEM spoke’ occurs no less than 39 times.

In this book we have the words of God literally dictated to Moses. Either that, or the man who gave us the greatest law code in history, was a fraud and a liar.

What could be so important that HASHEM would personally dictate his words? The answer in the first five chapters of Leviticus is,Sacrifice. Since the destruction of the second temple, some of Israel’s greatest sages and teachers have taught that sacrifice was no big deal. But sacrifices and offerings were was so important that God personally dictated the Priests manual which is Leviticus to Moses.

Israel had been redeemed from Egypt by sacrificial blood smeared in the form of a cross on the doorposts and lintels of the homes of Israelites to protect God’s people from the Angel of Death. Having been redeemed by blood from Egypt, how were the Israelites to maintain their new relationship as the people of HASHEM? The same way they had entered the relationship:

by blood. The very first type of offering, the burnt offering or – as Jewish scholar Everett Fox translates it in The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary and Notes – the ‘near-offering’ (from the Hebrew word korban, ‘near’) was offered ‘to atone’ for the offender (1:4).

It is common to hear Jewish teachers claim that blood atoned only for unintentional sins. However, in a footnote on Leviticus 1:4, the Artscroll Tanakh, states:

A burnt-offering may be brought by one who has intentionally committed a sin for which the Torah does not prescribe a punishment, one who failed to perform a positive commandment, one who had sinful thoughts. . . (emphasis added)

The korban did what it said on the tin; it brought the guilty offerer near to God by providing an innocent animal victim to die in his place as an atonement. Even approaching God to give thanks involved the shedding of blood as the ‘Shalom’ offering reveals in chapter 3. Chapter 5 is full of deliberate wilful sins for which atonement had to be made and they all required the shedding of blood. From the lowliest of the am haaretz to the holiest man in the nation – the high priest – drawing near to God required the shedding of blood.

In the Haftarah, God complains about Israel’s offerings. Though Jewish people today find the thought of ritual slaughter repellent, the people of Isaiah’s day had become blasé about such things; they had become used to the continual smell of smoke and blood that hung over ancient Jerusalem. God was not telling his people that offerings were unnecessary; he was rebuking them for their casual attitude to worship .

If a people could become laid back in their attitude to God when they had constant reminders of his holiness and the seriousness of their sin, how much more do we need to be shaken up! If Isaiah were addressing Israel today, he would not be rebuking them for their offerings but for the lack of them!

A few years ago, just days before Yom Kippur, I found myself sitting next to a Hasidic Jew on a flight to Israel. When I asked if his name was in the Book of Life, he said he hoped so. When I asked how I, as a Gentile, could find a place in the Book, he told me I should do ‘good things.’

Once again it struck me how much the Jewish people fell victim to the Enlightenment lie that Reason is supreme. ‘Do good things.’ A Muslim, a Hindu, or a Roman Catholic could have given the same answer. Judaism today is like every other religion and the Jewish people have become like everyone else; only more so.

I pray that as the Parasha is read in shul this Sabbath, the eyes of the Jewish people will be opened to the holiness of God, the seriousness of sin and the need for blood atonement.

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