Light from the Sidra

Vayikra ('And he called...'') 20 March 2015. 1st Nissan 5775

Torah: Leviticus 1:1-5:26. Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16-46:18.

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)


The dignity of responsibility

I’m staggered that so many Jewish people are influenced by the ideas of the arch-atheist Richard Dawkins and the many other materialist scientists and philosophers who argue that humans are nothing more than ‘survival machines,’ living robots’ blindly programmed by their genes. It makes no sense, says Dawkins, to hold humans responsible for what they do. ‘When a computer malfunctions,’ he says, ‘we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it.’ When someone pressed him on the issue after a public lecture, Dawkins had to admit that, personally, he does hold people responsible for their actions. ‘Don’t you see that as an inconsistency in your views?’ the questioner asked. ‘I sort of do,’ Dawkins admitted,’ but it is an inconsistency we sort of have to live with, otherwise life would be intolerable.’

Anyone who believes the Bible, of course, is free from the cognitive dissonance that afflicts Professor Dawkins and his chums. The very first chapter of the Tanakh reveals that the universe and everything in it was created by an infinitely wise and loving Creator who made man in his image. Human beings are not machines; they possess dignity because they are made in the image of God and God holds us all responsible for our actions.

Something is wrong with humans but it’s not the kind of malfunction that can be put right by the ethical equivalent of a computer programmer. Vayikra is a manual for priests, the people in ancient Israel who were responsible for dealing with human failure. Thirty six times in Leviticus we encounter the phrase, ‘HASHEM spoke.’ If God did not speak, as Moses claims, Moses was either a liar on an epic scale or else he was delusional. In which case we should reject not only the Torah but also Prophets and the Writings because the writings of Israel’s prophets and poets are inextricably linked to the Pentateuch. But if HASHEM really did speak to Moses and Vayikra consists almost entirely of his words as spoken to Moses, we should pay the utmost attention to the book.

Leviticus makes it abundantly clear that God holds us all responsible for our actions. If Exodus is about the Israelite nation being constituted as the people of God, Leviticus reveals what Israel had to do to make it possible for a holy God to continue dwelling in their midst. How can morally flawed people approach HASHEM? How should they express their love and gratitude to him? Above all, how may they find forgiveness not only for their deliberate sins but also their inadvertent moral and ceremonial shortcomings?

If you are Jewish and religious, your instinctive answer will probably be that you can approach God directly without the need of a mediator or sacrifice and that you will be forgiven on the basis of your sincere repentance. That is of course what you’re taught to believe and it seems to make sense. But if you belonged to the generation that came out of Egypt you would have given a completely different set of answers because HASHEM verbally revealed to Moses how everyone in the nation – from the High Priest to the humble artisan – was to approach him.

If you wanted to give thanks to God and express your gratitude to him, chapters two and three say you must do so with a grain offering or a ‘shalom’ offering. If you sinned in ignorance, after you became aware of your guilt and before you could be restored to fellowship with HASHEM, according to Leviticus 4 you had to present a hattat, a sin-offering to him. According to chapter 5, if you became ceremonially defiled you had to offer an asham, a trespass offering.

So vital were these instructions that the Creator of the universe dictated them to Moses. But the principle behind those laws was not new; it had been in effect since God covered the nakedness of Adam and Eve with animal skins. In the first recorded act of worship in history, Cain and Abel both approached HASHEM with sacrificial offerings. Cain’s offering of fruit and vegetables was rejected while Abel’s lamb was accepted.

I once discussed this with a knowledgeable Jewish gentleman in Golders Green, London. He told me that sacrifice was required for sins of ignorance alone; deliberate sins required only repentance. Neither of us had a copy of the Scriptures to hand but I put it to him that if he was correct, was it not strange that the more serious offences against God required only repentance while the lesser offences required the death of sacrificial victims? He was, in fact, wrong because in Leviticus 1 the whole burnt offering was accepted as an atonement for sin. True, Israel no longer has a temple; but that does not mean the principle of sacrifice is no longer valid.

According to some rabbis, when it is not possible to offer sacrifices God will accept repentance as a substitute. But the Haftarah, in Ezekiel 45:17, tells us, ‘Upon the prince shall be [the responsibility for] the burnt offerings, the meal offering an the libation, on the festivals, on the New Moons, and on the Sabbaths, on all the appointed times of the House of Israel: he shall prepare the sin-offering, the meal-offering, burnt-offering, and the peace offering, to atone on behalf of the House of Israel.’

According to Rashi, the prince in Ezekiel 45 is the high priest because only the Levitical priests could offer sacrifices, whereas in the Haftarah, the prince prepares the atonement offerings. The roles of king and priest were mutually exclusive but the passage in Ezekiel suggests a merging of the two roles.

In 1 Samuel 13:13-14, King Saul lost his kingdom because he offered sacrifice to HASHEM: ‘Samuel said to Saul, “You have acted foolishly! You did not keep the commandment of HASHEM, your God, that He commanded you… HASHEM has sought a man after His own heart, and appointed as ruler over His people, because you have not observed that which HASHEM has commanded you."’

The Haftarah looks forward to a different kind of system under which the roles of king and high priest would no longer be exclusive. It should not surprise us then that in Isaiah 53 God makes his righteous servant King Messiah an asham – a sin offering – to bear away the sins of Israel. In Messiah alone the roles of King, High Priest and sacrifice are combined so that through his sufferings Israel’s sins, transgressions and iniquities might be fully and finally removed.

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