WHAT CREATION HAS TO DO WITH LEVITICUS
The first chapters of Genesis tell a story about the creation of the world. It’s easy to read the story as a fanciful tale of a world without death, a world in which all of nature lives together in beautiful harmony. All needs are satisfied until something goes wrong.
It’s also possible to read the story on other levels and to find other messages. It is a theology and an anthropology, telling us something about the nature of G-d and the nature of human beings.
There are two trees in the Garden, one the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and one the Tree of Life and Death. Adam and Eve eat of the first and gain moral judgment and with it the responsibility for making moral decisions. They are cast from the Garden with keruvim (cherubs) barring the gate so they cannot reenter:
“And the Lord God said, ‘Now that man (ha-Adam) has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!” So the Lord God banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was taken. He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the keruvim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.'” Genesis 3:22 – 24
We learn that human beings are like G-d in having moral judgment, but they are unlike G-d in being part of nature, subject, like everything in creation, to death. What an amazing statement! Human beings differ from other creatures in just one way, the one way in which they are like G-d: they have the potential for moral reasoning and decision-making, for acting in the world on the basis of morality.
APPLIED THEOLOGY AND ANTHROPOLOGY
Just as we can read Genesis on more than one level, so we can read the Book of Leviticus, which gives concrete form to the theology and anthropology presented in Genesis. Leviticus appears to be a mere “how-to” manual for offering sacrifices, a natural next-step in the narrative we began in Exodus with building the tabernacle and ordaining the priests. More than that, though, it deepens our understanding of our nature as human beings and how we stand in relationship to G-d and nature. It is a treatise on conscious moral choice.
Leviticus is also a “how-to”manual for “drawing close” to G-d, connecting the finite and infinity. The root of the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, means “come close.”
The Israelite comes close to G-d in two ways that reflect the Genesis narrative: by being holy and pure. Leviticus as a whole defines through ethical and ritual practice the relationship described in Genesis between God, human beings and nature. This definition centers around the idea that God is both holy (makes the right moral choices) and pure (does not have a body and consequently is not subject to death and organic processes).
Conversely, the human being, like God, knows right from wrong and freely chooses; but the human being, unlike God, has a body that is subject to death and decay. Holiness is essentially a moral category and a representation of similarity. Impurity represents difference.
In approaching G-d, an Israelite should be “holy” as G-d is holy. This means they should make those moral choices that the Torah describes as holy. But how can a person become “pure” like G-d in order to come close, karov? And this is one important function of sacrifice, to remove ritual impurity, making the worshiper temporarily both holy and pure in the ritual space, ready to come close to G-d.
This portion shows us the close and inextricable link between body and soul, keva (routine) and kevannah (intention). We approach G-d as whole people, body and soul, both pure and holy, through the routine of ritual and through our intentional action in the world.
The portion deals with both voluntary sacrifices (burnt, meal and peace offerings) and required sacrifices. Required sacrifices occur in response to sins of two kinds, intentional and unintentional.
Intentional sin, making a conscious choice to sin, requires a conscious process of the mind and soul to rectify the relationship between G-d and human beings or between human beings and other human beings. One heals a relationship damaged by intentional sin with intention (kevannah) as well as a “routine” or ritual (keva).
But how do we understand unintentional sin? Why would we be held morally accountable simply because we were careless or unaware or forgot or didn’t know something? Of seven types of sins listed, the fourth and fifth are unintentional sins:
Lev 5:4 – “or if any one swear clearly with his lips to do evil, or to do good, whatsoever it be that a man shall utter clearly with an oath, and it be hid from him; and, when he knoweth of it, be guilty in one of these things…” (אוֹ נֶפֶשׁ כִּי תִשָּׁבַע לְבַטֵּא בִשְׂפָתַיִם לְהָרַע אוֹ לְהֵיטִיב, לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יְבַטֵּא הָאָדָם בִּשְׁבֻעָה–וְנֶעְלַם מִמֶּנּוּ; וְהוּא-יָדַע וְאָשֵׁם, לְאַחַת מֵאֵלֶּה).
Lev 5:17 – “And if any one sin, and do any of the things which the LORD hath commanded not to be done, though he know it not, yet is he guilty, and shall bear his iniquity.” (וְאִם-נֶפֶשׁ, כִּי תֶחֱטָא, וְעָשְׂתָה אַחַת מִכָּל-מִצְוֹת יְהוָה, אֲשֶׁר לֹא תֵעָשֶׂינָה; וְלֹא-יָדַע וְאָשֵׁם, וְנָשָׂא עֲוֹנוֹ).
In the first case, a person makes an oath carelessly, then because of his/her lack of intention, forgets the oath and fails to fulfill a promise. The second case is a restatement of a well-known principle of law, that ignorance of the law is not an excuse for failing to follow it.
As Rabbi Jonathan Saks points out in The Dimensions of Sin, “Regardless of guilt and responsibility, if we commit a sin we have objectively transgressed a boundary. The word chet (Hebrew for “sin”) means to miss the mark, to stray, to deviate from the proper path. We have committed an act that somehow disturbs the moral balance of the world.”
In the case of unintentional sins, carelessness and forgetfulness, lack of mindfulness we might say, and ignorance of the law do not change the fact that a deviation occurred, and it has consequences. The unintentional sin, too, must be addressed. The unintentional sin is treated in the ritual frame with just as much weight as the intentional sins against one’s neighbor in Lev 5:21-22: keeping a deposit, failing to keep a pledge, robbery, oppression, keeping a lost item instead of returning it. The sacrificial routine is the same for both sets of sins, unintentional and intentional.
What an amazing thought, that carelessness and ignorance are as sinful as robbery, that not only intentional sins but unintentional sins, lack of mindfulness, disturb the moral balance of the world. Our lack of conscious intention in any moment has an impact! There are consequences, and we must do something to address our carelessness before we can acquire the wholeness of mind and body required to approach transcendence.
The structure of this portion provides a path for the Israelite, bound by his/her own finite nature, to connect to transcendence, a path by which the Israelite becomes both holy and pure, becomes like divinity for a space in time, in order to “draw close.”
The portion reminds us of our potential as human beings for moral consciousness and of our responsibility to make moral decisions. Even when we fail to exercise our unique characteristic for viewing the world through a moral prism and living responsibly in that dimension, we are responsible for the tears in the fabric of creation and in our relationship with G-d and must set it right.
Finally, we learn again that only in our capacity for moral consciousness and our responsibility to make moral decisions are we different from other life in creation. To be human, we must be morally aware, making moral decisions. That is our defining characteristic, the one thing that makes us G-d-like. In every moment that we fail to exercise our moral judgment, make fully aware conscious choices, we are animals, sentient beings experiencing a desire to live, love and feel compassion, fear and anger.
Nowhere is our failure more apparent than at the table when we eat without full awareness of the source of our food. Meals are a constant reminder of inadvertent sin, the sin of inattention that tears a hole in the fabric of creation as we carelessly take life. The details of the sacrificial “meal” demanded attention and awareness, and that full awareness had the potential to jolt a person into full awareness, to bring about repair.
NOTES: STRUCTURE OF VAYIKRA
There are some themes I’d like to follow-up on in this portion but won’t in this post. I’ll share the structure here and point to some things that take my attention, though:
Speech #1 (Lev 1:1)
Burnt Offerings (Olah) How-To
Meal Offering (Minchah) How-To
- No Honey or Leaven (offer as First Fruits)
- Yes Salt (Salt of the “Covenant”)
- First Fruits – Parched Corn ) with Honey & Leaven)
Peace Offering (Shlemah) How-To
- Flock: Lamb
- Flock: Goat
- (Note: Lev 3:17 – Eat neither fat nor blood)
Speech #2 (Lev 4:1)
Sins by class
- Priest – Bullock – blood sprinkled 7x
- Congregation of Israel – Bullock – blood sprinkled 7x
- Ruler/Nasi – Goat
- Common People – Goat/Lamb – female
Sins by type
1. If begged not to report something witnessed and don’t
2. If touch something unclean
3. If touch an unclean human being
4. If make a careless oath and forget about it
Speech #3 (Lev 4:5-14)
5. Touch or use the Holy Things of the Lord inadvertently
6. Break a law you don’t know – certainly guilty
Speech #4 (Lev 5:20)
7. Deal falsely with neighbor (transgress against the Lord) with regard to:
- Keeping a lost thing
These things take my attention, and I’d like to explore them more fully:
- The number 7, which in the context of the Bible refers to creation. Blood is sprinkled against the altar seven times in the course of a required sin offering for a priest who sins or when the whole Congregation of Israel sins. In addition, the inadvertent sins enumerated through Speeches 2, 3 and 4 number seven.
- Certain sacrifices require a male animal and others a female animal.
- The owner of the sacrificial animal performs smicha, laying on of hands, in four instances, Lev 1:4, 3:2, 3:8 and 3:13. These passages augment the idea that the sacrifice is a stand-in for the owner or sinner.
- The location and use of the phrase, “sweet savor to the Lord” (אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ-נִיחוֹחַ לַיהוָה) – Lev 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2; 3:5, 11, 16.
- The location and use of the phrase, “and the priest shall make atonement for him as concerning his sin, and he shall be forgiven”(וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו הַכֹּהֵן מֵחַטָּאתוֹ, וְנִסְלַח לו) – Lev 4:26, 31, 35; 5:6, 10, 13, 16, 18, 26.
- Why salt in particular is associated with “covenant,” why salt and honey are not part of regular voluntary offerings, only First Fruits, and I’d like to fill in the significance of reserving the fat and blood for G-d (in addition the biblical statement that “the life is in the blood.”)
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