By Rabbi Aron Tendler
Following the sin of the Golden Calf and the construction of the Mishkan, the
Torah devotes an entire book to the laws and services of the Bais Hamikdash.
Although at first glance one might think that this compendium of laws and
ceremonies has no contemporary application, the truth is that Vayikra presents
our most fundamental orientation for integrating sanctity into our lives.
Sanctity is the recognition and fulfillment of divine intent in all
things. To the extent that we understand G-d's intent in creating all things
will be the extent to which we can willfully sanctify G-d's world. If we use
the world as G-d intended, and the other nations support our doing so, then
all of humanity would be serving G-d. Such a utopian world would be the age of
If not for the sin of the Golden Calf, every Jew would have been a Kohain,
and every non-Jew would have been our supportive partner in sanctifying the
world. Every Jew would have been obligated to maintain the highest standards
of Taharah - ritual purity, and life would have been totally devoted to
serving G-d and humanity. Regarding the actual Bais Hamikdash, it is obvious
that it would have been impossible for every single Jew to personally serve in
the Temple. Therefore, the first born in each family would have been
designated to serve as priests and represent the rest of the nation in
administrating the ritual functions of the Bais Hamikdash.
Following the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d reassigned the priestly
functioning and obligations so that only the tribe of Layvie and the family of
Aharon would serve as attendants and priests in the Bais Hamikdash. No longer
was the entire nation obligated to maintain the highest standards of purity.
No longer would each family send their first born to represent them in the
service of the Temple. No longer would the non-Jewish world immediately
appreciate the macro-intent of G-d in choosing the Jews to be His kingdom of
priests and holy nation. In other words, the messianic age was pushed off to
some future time when the Jews would willfully embrace their obligation to
sanctify the world in the service of G-d.
The sin of the Golden Calf forced G-d to secret Himself within nature. G-
d would still reveal Himself within the confines of the Mishkan and through
prophecy, but He would no longer speak to the entire nation. The singular
experience of Mattan Torah would never again happen. At Mattan Torah the
entire nation heard the voice of G-d. After the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d
spoke only to Moshe. At Mattan Torah the entire nation heard the voice of G-d
in a state of total consciousness. After the Golden Calf only Moshe would
ever receive the word of G-d in a full state of clarity and understanding.
Yet, the mission of the Chosen People remained the same. We were still
responsible to sanctify the world and society by revealing G-d's intent in all
aspects of creation.
How do we reveal G-d's intent for the universe and humanity? How do we
recreate the age of Mashiach and fulfill the mandate of being the world's
priests? In other words, how do we sanctify our existence?
This week we begin the study of Sefer Vayikra. The book known as "Torah
Kohanim - The Way of the Priests," is far more than a manual of temple service
and ceremony. It is far more than a directory of unique commandments and
restrictions for the Layvie and Kohain. Vayikra is a symbolic presentation of
the ideal life of the Jew as intended by G-d. It is a "how to Manual" for
Sanctity is the recognition and fulfillment of divine intent in all
things. The Mitzvos in the Torah are each a clear statement of G-d's
intention. Therefore, each Mitzvah is a means toward sanctification. Those
whom G-d intended to be more responsible for sanctifying His world, or
teaching others how to sanctify His world, were given more commandments. The
non-Jew was given seven Mitzvos. The Jew was given 613 Mitzvos. The majority
of those Mitzvos apply to all Jews; however, a significant number of them only
apply to Kohanim. If not for the Golden Calf, all Jews would have been
equally responsible for sanctifying G-d's world. After the Golden Calf the
Kohain remained more responsible for sanctity than all other Jews. Therefore,
we must study Sefer Vayikra - The Way of the Priests as the most complete
expression of G-d's expectations for humanity.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that all Mitzvos are both practical
as well as symbolic. The practical focus is accomplished by doing exactly
what G-d commanded. (In contrast with other stated ideologies that Mitzvos
are only symbolic and suggestive rather than exact divine instructions.) The
symbolic value is in understanding the underlying intent of each Mitzvah and
how it both reveals and projects G-d within nature and society.
What general lesson can we glean from the Mitzvos detailed in this week's
Parsha that will enable us to fulfill our mandate as G-d's priests? Among the
offerings described in this week's Parsha is the Chatas - sin offering, and
Asham - guilt offering. The belief is that every action has a profound affect
upon the balance of spirituality in the universe. Therefore, the Torah had to
provide the means for correcting any deficiency in the spiritual balance
caused by our actions. That mechanism was the process of Korbanos -
offerings. In addition to the fundamental requirement for a sinner to change
his attitude and behavior, the sinner had to also bring the appropriate
Korban. The bringing of Korbanos demanded the ministrations of a Kohain. As
the Pasuk states (4:31), "And the Kohain shall provide him atonement for the
sin that he committed, and it shall be forgiven him."
As G-d's priests, the Jews are responsible to emulate G-d's actions. We
believe that all of G-d's actions are acts of goodness and kindness,
regardless of whether or not we understand His methods of justice. In
general, we refer to G-d's actions as "acts of Chesed." When G-d created His
word He did so on a foundation of Chesed, "Olam Chesed Yibaneh - the world is
built upon Chesed." Therefore, if we are going to emulate G-d, all of our
actions should also be acts of Chesed.
The greatest Chesed that one can do for another is to create an
environment that facilitates closeness with G-d. The greatest Chesed that one
can do is to help another correct the balance of spirituality in the world.
The greatest Chesed that one can do is to reveal G-d's intent in the world.
The greatest Chesed that one can do is to facilitate sanctity.
The example of the Kohain in this week's Parsha teaches us that all of us
can do the work of revealing G-d's intent by doing acts of Chesed. Acts of
Chesed do not always demand self-sacrifice. In fact, a life of Chesed is far
simpler than many would think. Treating each other with respect, not talking
during davening (prayers), greeting each other pleasantly, not speaking Lashon
Horah (slander etc.), and spending time with a spouse or child are all acts of
Chesed. Just as the Kohain's ministrations were acts of Chesed because they
facilitated our complete Teshuva (repentance, return to G-d), so too our every
day interaction with each other can be acts of Chesed that facilitate
sensitivity and sanctity.
Copyright © 1999 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.