Vayikra Five: Guilt Offerings

Following up on the issues of collective sin, now we have some individual sins to consider. “If a person sins, whereby he accepts an oath, and he is a witness by seeing or knowing, yet he does not testify, he shall bear his transgression; or if a person touches anything unclean, whether it is the carcass of an unclean wild animal, or the carcass of an unclean domestic animal, or the carcass of an unclean creeping animal, and it was hidden from him, he incurs guilt (Leviticus 5:1-2).” Issues of cleanliness and purity pervade much of Torah, and I wonder if this is reflective of the legitimate fear that an ancient culture would have had of the spreading of disease. When thinking of unclean animals, does this refer to specific breeds, or to diseased animals? If it’s the latter, this makes a lot of sense to me, particularly given the danger that disease and “uncleanness” posed at the time. Of course, we also hear about people becoming defiled from touching the uncleanness of a human. Once again, does this refer to the ill, or to those deemed ritually impure?

If a person swears, he can also be considered guilty. For all of these sins, a person needs to admit that they are guilty and bring the requisite offering to God. Interestingly, in this case the Torah specifically references a situation in which a person can’t afford to make the necessary offering. “But if he cannot afford a sheep, he shall bring as his guilt offering for that [sin] that he had committed, two turtle doves or two young doves before the Lord, one for a sin offering and one for a burnt offering (Leviticus 5:7).” It’s so interesting to me that when it comes to the sin offering, it’s so important that a person be able to make it that stipulations be made for cheaper categories of sin offerings in order that he be able to assuage the guilt. The Torah is clearly concerned with no one being incapable of eradicating their personal sins, and wants to give everyone the opportunity to do so, regardless of their circumstances.

“If a person sins and commits one of the commandments of the Lord which may not be committed, but he does not know, he is guilty and he shall bear his transgression (Leviticus 5:17).” I have a lot of questions about this verse. If a person has sinned unintentionally, and truly doesn’t know that he has done so, how can he be held accountable, because how would he be able to make the necessary sacrifices and atone? How can we judge someone who doesn’t know any better?

Vayikra Four: Collective Sin

So we have the sacrifices, and now we move towards the regulations about what needs to be done in order to atone through sacrifice. “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If anyone shall sin through error, in any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done, and shall do any one of them (Leviticus 4:1-2).” We hear about the different ways that a person can sin that will require sacrifice.

Specifically, the categories given are:

1. What to do if a priest sins and therefore brings collective guilt on the people

2. What to do if the whole community sins

3. What to do if a ruler sins

I struggle with these concepts, because they all seem to play into the idea of collective guilt, and by extension of that, collective punishment. There are so many tragic cases in the world today where a whole population is punished or blamed for the actions of a few. On the one hand, in an ideal world, judging the collective based on the deeds of the individual would lead to people being more mindful and intentional in order to not bring pain upon their community. However, in reality, whole groups are routinely forced to suffer because of extremist factions within them that don’t necessarily represent the desires or beliefs of the collective. Should a whole people suffer because of their leaders? Are they guilty by default because of the actions of those who represent them? How does this carry out in populations where the people aren’t responsible for electing their leaders, but have them forced upon them?

Vayikra Three: Peace Offerings

“And if his offering be a sacrifice of peace-offerings: if he offer of the herd, whether male or female, he shall offer it without blemish before the Lord (Leviticus 3:1).”

In the ongoing conversation about sacrifices, we now hear about sacrificing for a specific purpose, the purpose of peace offerings. We aren’t told what exactly would have been the motivating factor behind such an offering – did the person in question want to make amends for something? Was it a prayer for peace? Is peace here referring to between men, personal peace, communal peace, or peace between humans and God? I’m trying to think of this in terms of how I would see a peace offering today. I hear the term and think of a gesture of good faith used to solve an argument or achieve a reconciliation between parties. However, I can’t imagine what a peace offering to God would be. Is it a promise, that I won’t do whatever was done that caused the conflict? An offering to apologize and make amends? What could a person have done to God that would be bad enough that they need to apologize to God?

I think it’s important when thinking of peace offerings today that we not just give it up to God – that we make amends directly between men, in order for the peace to be authentic. In a time and a region that is tragically devoid of peace, I would love to have a deeper understanding of what it means to offer peace, and to have that offer be accepted. If only it was that easy today.

Vayikra Two: Meal Offerings

Continuing the laws of sacrifices, we are now taught that there are meal offerings, as well as animal offerings, that the people are commanded to bring to God. These include flour and oil and spices, and like the animal sacrifices, this too is ritualized and must be done in a specific way. There are different variations about how the meal offering can be baked, what it can consist of, and how much of it must burn.

“And the priest shall take off from the meal offering the memorial part from there, and shall make it smoke upon the altar-an offering made by fire, of a sweet savor unto the Lord. But that which is left of the meal-offering shall be Aaron’s and his sons’; it is a thing most holy of the offerings of the Lord made by fire (Vayikra 2:9-10).” This is interesting to me when one literally thinks of what the word sacrifice means. A great deal of my understanding of the term sacrifice is that it’s supposed to be something that it very dear to you that you give up for a greater purpose. Thinking about my knowledge of the ancient Near East, I would assume that livestock was much more valuable and important than flour and grain to the ancient Israelites. Therefore, it seems odd that the sacrifice described as most holy is not the animal, but the meal. What does this say about what was valued in Israelite society? What does God value from us today?

Vayikra One: Sacrifices and Prayers

The tabernacle is constructed, and the instruments made, and now it’s time to figure out what to do with all of them. “The Lord called to Moses, and spoke to him out of the tent of meeting, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When any man of you brings an offering to the Lord, you will bring your offering of the cattle; even of the herd or of the flock (Leviticus 1:1-2).” Here, we have the introduction of prescribed sacrifices, and some of the first instances of the ritualization of worship in Torah. Today, our regulated prayer services and cycle has become the replacement for the sacrificial cult of biblical and Temple times, but in Torah, sacrifices were how the people connected with God. Therefore, as the medium for communication between humans and the divine, it was imperative that each sacrifice adhere to the standards set forth.

Animal sacrifices had to be made without blemish in order to be pleasing to God. We are told repeatedly that God enjoyed the smell of the burning sacrifices. “And he shall rend it by the wings of it, but shall not divide it asunder; and the priest shall make it smoke upon the altar, upon the wood that is upon the fire; it is a burnt-offering, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savor to the Lord (Leviticus 1:17).” At this point, my understanding therefore is that sacrifices are made to God for His enjoyment and appreciation, because He likes receiving them and the smell that they provide. How does this line up with our current form of worship, prayer? Does God enjoy hearing our words as He once enjoyed smelling our animals? Once the medium of worship has changed, do we assume that God’s reaction to it has changed as well?

Shemot Reflection

So, I’ve come to the end of the second book of Tanakh. In some ways, I can’t even comprehend how much there is left to go in this challenge that I’ve set for myself. It’s been almost five months, and I haven’t missed a day. But so far, it’s still been easy – most of the chapters are pretty straightforward, and are following a chronological order of events. Therefore, the story-telling aspect of Tanakh is still intact, and will be for a while longer (luckily). Some of the new challenges that have come up in this book have been trying to find meaning every day, even when the content becomes seemingly repetitive, and pretty dry, particularly with regards to the mishkan design/building, which took up more than a few days of reading. Additionally, as some of the most meaningful days in the Jewish calendar (for me) have fallen during the reading of this book, I’ve actively tried to find meaningful connections between the seemingly random daily chapters and the backdrop of the Jewish and Israeli calendar. This period in particular, the Yomim (Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, and Yom HaAtzmaut), has been particularly meaningful, because for the first time, I’ve been truly feeling the emotions of these various days as an Israeli, not just a Jew. My Israeliness is what motivated my participation in Project 929, but it is largely my Judaism that is growing as a result. I do feel the connection to my fellow Israelis who are participating in the project, as I wrote about in my last reflection, and I feel myself thinking about the content from a growing Israeli mindset. But it’s as a Jew that I’m largely benefitting from the experience of reading each chapter carefully, and exploring the words that are our heritage. I look forward to the next book, which I know contains many laws. As someone whose Judaism isn’t fully bound by halakha, I want to see what meaning I can find for myself and my own life by reading the original laws given to our people.

Thank you all for joining me on this journey. Right now, 90 chapters down, 839 to go!

Shemot Forty: Yom HaAtzmaut

The tabernacle has been built, and God instructs Moses on what to do now, including lighting the lamps, burning incense, and anointing Aaron and his sons as priests. The mishkan is finally put into use, and the ark is put inside, everything having been prepared accordingly. The work that the people, instructed by Moses and put into practice by Bezalel, have been doing for the last several chapters, is complete. They are now able to utilize that which they have created.

“Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud was there, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward, throughout all their journeys (Exodus 40:34-36).”

Today is Yom HaAtzmaut, the 67th anniversary of the independence of the modern State of Israel. It seems fitting that this is the day that we read this chapter of Tanakh, the culminating chapter of Exodus. In this book, the people have become free, and have gone from being slaves to experiencing their first steps of self-determination. Today, the Jewish people mirror this. The greatness of having an independent state is that for the first time in 2000 years, the Jewish people are able to enjoy self-determination. Just like in the desert, where the Israelites had to figure out what it means to be a people, now, in Israel we must figure out what it means to be a country.

Shemot Thirty-Nine: Yom HaZikaron

I’m not sure that I believe in fate, or that things happen simply because they’re meant to. Too often, I think people use fate as a cop out, a means to keep them from having the responsibility to act. The chapter that falls on each day isn’t meant to be. Rather, we must take what is given and make meaning out of it. To that end, today is Yom HaZikaron. For me, it’s one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. It’s the day when we remember the soldiers who have given their lives for the State of Israel. We mourn, as individuals, families, and a nation, for the incomprehensible loss that we have suffered for our freedom. Twice, once last night and once this morning, a siren tears across Israel. The world stops, just as it must have when each of the bereaved mothers cried at the news of the loss of their sons. Israel stands together at these moments, acknowledging and crying for our lost children – because the soldiers belong to all of us. So many are too young, and they are all of our children.

When I started reading today’s chapter of Tanakh, I wasn’t sure how to find relevant meaning in it. The mishkan is still being built, and today focuses on the garments made for Aaron and his sons, the kohanim. We are told of the blue and purple cloth used, and the gold that made the breastplate. On the breastplate of the priests, there were 12 stones, representing each of the 12 tribes.

“And they made the plate of the holy crown of pure gold, and wrote upon it a writing, like the engravings of a signet: Holy to the Lord (Exodus 39:30).” The priests were designated as being holy to God. For so many of us today, it’s the soldiers, the boys and girls in green, who are holy. Personally, I hold it to be an unequivocal truth that nation-building is the holy work of this generation of the Jewish people. It is our honor, and our burden. In the desert, in the chapters that we read in this section of Tanakh, the people are becoming a nation, and joining together in their first national project: the construction of the mishkan. Today, the Jewish people are engaged in the continual work of building once again, only this time we’re building a country. Every person contributes in some way, and too many have done so with their lives. May all of their memories be a blessing.

Shemot Thirty-Eight: Meritocracy in Ancient Israel

Bezalel continues his work. He makes the altar, which is of acacia wood, and all of the ritual vessels. He makes pillars, and wall hangings, and and screens for the gates of the court of the tabernacle. We are told all of the minute details of the construction, including the materials used, the size of each object, and the distances at which they were placed.

“These are the accounts of the tabernacle, even the tabernacle of the testimony, as they were rendered according to the commandment of Moses, through the service of the Levites, by the hand of Itamar, the son of Aaron the priest (Exodus 38:21).” Bezalel, the chief architect, isn’t of the priestly family. He is of the tribe of Judah, and his assistant, Oholiab, is from Dan. All of the work that they were doing was for the dominion of the priests, something that their own families wouldn’t get to participate in. So my question is twofold: why were they the ones chosen? How did they, and how did the priests, who weren’t chosen, feel about this appointment? On the one hand, it seems to be evidence of a meritocracy existing amongst the ancient Israelites. Bezalel and Oholiab weren’t chosen because of their lineage, or their proximity to the leadership class. They were chosen because of their skills and talents, and their ability to complete the mission set before them. However, it seems that their roles were short lived. They did their job of constructing the tabernacle, and then most likely went back to their lives as undistinguished members of their respective tribes. Were they rewarded for their work? It was definitely important, indeed integral to the culture and religion of ancient Israel, and is remembered until today. But was it appropriately appreciated in their lifetime? Or were they seen as instruments of God, no different from the instruments that they constructed for the priests, merely tools for doing God’s will?

Shemot Thirty-Seven: Cherubim

Picking up right where we left off, Bezalel is building the ark itself. He makes it out of wood, covered in gold, which seems to be the theme of this chapter. The ark cover is gold, and so are the cherubim that sit on it. “And he made two cherubim of gold: of beaten work he made them, at the two ends of the ark-cover: one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other end; of one piece with the ark-cover he made the cherubim at the two ends thereof. And the cherubim spread out their wings on high, screening the ark-cover with their wings, with their faces one to another; toward the ark-cover were the faces of the cherubim (Exodus 37:7-9).”

It’s interesting to me that we have such an extensive description of statues of angels on the ark. So much of the imagery that many of us have of angels comes from Christian literature and art, and for me at least, corporeal angels are not things that I associate with Judaism. I understand the concept of an angel as a messenger of God, as is described in different stories, such as the man who points Joseph towards his brothers, and the men who come to tell Abraham that he will have a son with Sarah. However, winged angels are much more foreign to me. I’m not sure what their place is in my understanding of Judaism, but I like the idea of winged angels guarding the ark. The two cherubim seem like they were the companions of God by virtue of their presence on the ark, and their wings served as covers to the ark and its contents. As I continue with my reading of the Tanakh, I’m eager to see where else they’re mentioned, and what forms they take.