Connecting Through the Laws
This week’s parsha marks another new beginning in our public reading and
personal understanding of the Torah. Whereas the first two books of the
Torah are mainly narrative in nature and content, the book of Vayikra is
mainly a book of laws and commandments and of the nature of purity and
impurity, sacrificial offerings and priestly obligations.
Vayikra not only offers us a change of content, it offers a change of tone.
It is less personal than were Bereshith and Shemot and it concentrates on
the halachic and detailed aspects of Judaism rather than on the broad scope
of Jewish national experience. In this way the Torah teaches us that Judaism
is an all-encompassing faith, both public and private in nature and
observance, general and particular all at one and the same time.
This becomes a large order for the Jewish people to handle and balance
properly. We see throughout the works of the prophets of Israel that the
people and the priests themselves unduly emphasized the public nature of the
commandments. They also emphasized the sacrificial nature of the service of
the Temple at the expense of the private and social commandments of the Torah.
We see the strong condemnation in the prophetic words of Yeshayahu and
Yirmiyahu, of reliance on the Temple public worship, of the sacrifices and
altar-offerings of Israel and the priests, as an assurance of Godly favor
and national salvation. The absence of the private nature of Torah service,
without the observance of the detailed personal commandments and the
emotional connection to God and sensitivity to others that only the private
side of Judaism can convey, led to the destruction of the Temples - no
matter how grand and generous the public offerings of the Temples were.
When the Jewish people were forced into their long exile, when public Temple
services were no longer possible, much of the contents of the book of
Vayikra apparently were no longer particularly relevant to daily Jewish
life. Our faith and our national preservation then lay almost exclusively in
observance of the private commandments of the Torah and in the study of
Without a land of our own and with no central temporal power base, Jews
turned inward to connect with their past and their Creator. The entire
nature of defining purity and impurity atrophied in Jewish life and
education, and the Temples and their glory became a distant point in a
clouded memory of Jewish nationhood.
The public nature of the Book of Vayikra faded into being only historical
recall. This was due to the length and bitterness of the millennia-long
exile. But the Jewish people in our time has miraculously rebuilt itself and
regained a national power and its ancient homeland. The debate over the
relevance of the book of Vayikra has returned to the fore.
The Temple has become a living force once more in Jewish life and
scholarship – especially in certain yeshivot devoted to the study of its
laws and commandments. This is happening even though practically there is,
as of yet, no physical Temple existing on Mount Moriah. Nevertheless, the
book of Vayikra now speaks to us in a way that it has not done for many
centuries. Let us concentrate on understanding its contents and absorbing
its tone into our inner selves.
Rabbi Berel Wein