Vayikra Twenty-Six: Promises and Curses

This chapter opens with two commandments from God. “You shall not make idols for yourselves, nor shall you set up a statue or a monument for yourselves. And in your land you shall not place a pavement stone on which to prostrate yourselves, for I am the Lord, your God. You shall keep My Sabbaths and fear My Sanctuary. I am the Lord (Leviticus 26:1-2).” These seem to be pretty straightforward, basic statements for the people to adhere to. However, these are followed by what seems to be a negotiation. If the people do what is asked of them, they will be rewarded with rain, agricultural success, and peace in the land. It seems odd for God, an all-powerful deity, to need to resort to bargaining and bribery in order to demand obedience from His people. However, one of the verses from these promises is one of my favorites: “And I will grant peace in the Land, and you will lie down with no one to frighten; I will remove wild beasts from the Land, and no army will pass through your land; you will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you (Leviticus 26:6-7).”

Another verse in this chapter that fascinates me is, “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be My people (Leviticus 26:12).” What does it mean for God to walk among us? Does this continue to happen today? Does it mean that He exists within us, and within the people and the land, or is it meant to signify that literal manifestations of God walk among us?

After the promises, we have the threats, just in case the people don’t follow the rules. God will curse the people with disease, depression, agricultural failure, and by setting enemies upon them. If all of this doesn’t serve to scare the people enough, it gets even worse. “You will eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters you will eat (Leviticus 26:29).” The cities will be destroyed, and, worst of all, we will be exiled from the land and scattered among the nations. “You will become lost among the nations, and the land of your enemies will consume you (Leviticus 26:38).” In this case, it’s clear that exile is the worst of the punishments. This is how the Jewish people lived for generations, and now, we have returned to the land, and to a state of dignity amongst the nations. It’s a blessing to live in this generation, one that I hope I never take for granted. We have seen the worst of these curses come to pass as a people, and now we are blessed once again.

Vayikra Twenty-Five: Shmita and Jubilee

We recently heard about the biblical holidays, and how on many of those days the people were obligated to rest, treating the days as sabbaths. Now, we are told about another kind of sabbath. “Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Sabbath to the Lord. You may sow your field for six years, and for six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce, but in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest, a Sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor shall you prune your vineyard (Leviticus 25:2-4).” In a nutshell, this is the commandment of shmita. This is a commandment that is specific to the land of Israel, and happens to be one that we are observing this year. Being in Israel during shmita is a unique experience, and I think it’s fortuitous that I am reading this chapter while in the midst seeing the ritual come to life. If I hadn’t seen how seriously people take this commandment, until today, I think this would have been a chapter that I would have passed over as irrelevant. Instead, it directly speaks to experiences that I’ve had in 2015, everything from shopping for produce in the markets of Jerusalem to figuring out if I can plant herbs in my window boxes.

While shmita is immediately relevant to me, the second year described, the Jubilee year, is not one that we still keep. It occurs in the 50th year, but we have lost count, and no longer know when exactly it happens in the cycle. “And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all who live on it. It shall be a Jubilee for you, and you shall return, each man to his property, and you shall return, each man to his family (Leviticus 25:10).” It’s interesting that shmita is so present in Israel, and the Jubilee year is something that isn’t even thought of as a possibility. How was it determined what stuck, and what was lost with time?

We are given the many laws relating to Jubilee. What really speaks to me aren’t the official laws, but rather the overarching concept of allowing time for renewal, of people, relationships, and the land.

Vayikra Twenty-Four: An Eye For An Eye

This chapter opens with the Israelites being commanded to use olive oil to continuously keep the lamps inside the Tent of Meeting lit at all times. We are told that this is an eternal statute, meaning that it is meant to be followed throughout all generations. Today, in a time without the Temple, we follow an approximation of it. Many synagogues have an “eternal light” above the ark that is meant to stay continually lit. I wonder, how did we choose which traditions to adapt, which ones to leave as is, and which ones have we abstained from once the Temple was destroyed?

As this law is being given, we have a stranger interlude. “Now, the son of an Israelite woman and he was the son of an Egyptian man went out among the children of Israel, and they quarreled in the camp this son of the Israelite woman, and an Israelite man. And the son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name and cursed. So they brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomith the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan (Leviticus 24:10-11).” So, we have the child of an intermarriage fighting with a full Israelite, and cursing using the forbidden name of God. Drama! We are told that he was placed under arrest, and God decreed his punishment.

“Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and all who heard shall lean their hands on his head. And the entire community shall stone him (Leviticus 24:14).” This was meant to serve as an example to the whole community, that anyone who blasphemes using the Name of God would be put to death by the community, regardless of whether this person is a convert or a born resident. I’m wondering why, then, the example had to be of someone who was probably already an outsider in the community, rather than an inner member of the tribes who had done this. It seems like the people didn’t hesitate at all in carrying out the punishment, and I have to wonder if this was because they felt less affinity for the man.

Death is also the punishment for a man who kills another human. Additionally, if a person kills an animal, he must pay the value of it. We are also given one of the classic pronouncements of the Torah in this list of regulations. “And a man who inflicts an injury upon his fellow man just as he did, so shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Just as he inflicted an injury upon a person, so shall it be inflicted upon him (Leviticus 24:19-20).” This verse, about the punishment literally fitting the crime, is famous. It is mirrored in many ancient law codes from the Near East, including the famous Code of Hammurabi. To me, this shows its prevalence in that time period, and the value to which this idea was held. How does it apply today? It’s not like we punish criminals by inflicting the same sin upon them. We have fines, jail times, community service. We don’t go around cutting off limbs or stealing money in response to crime. In some ways, it seems so primal. Yet, like many things in Torah, it’s also enduring, and appeals to something raw within the human spirit.

Vayikra Twenty-Three: The Jewish Calendar

In this chapter, we are given the foundations of the Jewish calendar. As many people know, we Jews love our holidays. It seems like every month (at least), there’s some day set aside for celebration, mourning, or some other kind of acknowledgment, and this chapter is where that stems from. Personally, I love all of the holidays that we have. They provide things to look forward to, themes for the different seasons of the year, and specific occasions to acknowledge the many different aspects of our history and religion.

The first holiday, of course, is Shabbat. “Six days, work may be performed, but on the seventh day, it is a complete rest day, a holy occasion; you shall not perform any work. It is a Sabbath to the Lord in all your dwelling places (Leviticus 23:3).” Luckily for us, holidays don’t have to be rare occasions. We have one day set aside every week to rest from our work, and to remember and acknowledge the blessings in our lives.

The second holiday is Pesach. “In the first month, on the fourteenth of the month, in the afternoon, the Passover offering to the Lord. And on the fifteenth day of that month is the Festival of Unleavened Cakes to the Lord; you shall eat unleavened cakes for a seven day period (Leviticus 23:5-6).” The rules set forward for Pesach are making the sacrifice, eating unleavened bread, and abstaining from work on the first and last days of the holiday.

The third thing we hear about is the omer. “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When you come to the Land which I am giving you, and you reap its harvest, you shall bring to the kohen an omer of the beginning of your reaping (Leviticus 23:10).” This verse tells us about the counting of the omer, something that we do from Pesach until Shavuot, which ironically just passed. We are told about the sacrifices of Shavuot,, and that it should be designated as a holy day for all generations.

The fourth holiday is Rosh Hashana. “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, on the first of the month, it shall be a Sabbath for you, a remembrance of the shofar blast, a holy occasion. You shall not perform any work of labor, and you shall offer up a fire offering to the Lord (Leviticus 23:24-25).” This is followed immediately by Yom Kippur. “But on the tenth of this seventh month, it is a day of atonement, it shall be a holy occasion for you; you shall afflict yourselves, and you shall offer up a fire offering to the Lord (Leviticus 23:27).” Just like in the calendar itself, these days come together. For us, they make the season of the High Holy Days, so it makes sense that one immediately follows the other in the text as well as in reality. Yom Kippur is the only holiday to have some special designations. “And any person who performs any work on that very day I will destory that person from amidst its people (Leviticus 23:30).” Many of the holidays require an absence of work, but only this one brings in the threat of excommunication.

The sixth holiday is Sukkot, coupled with Shemini Atzeret. With that, the calendar ends, and we are told of all of the days and times when we are required to sacrifice in these ways. As a calendar lover myself (I’m very into planning ahead), I enjoyed seeing how this chapter lays out the order of the year. I appreciate the cycle of the Jewish calendar, and loved seeing the original mentions of the holidays that I love participating in each year.

Vayikra Twenty-Two: Physical Purity

In addition to the kohanim being restricted in terms of their personal relationships, they also need to separate themselves from the rest of the community in order to maintain their unique holiness. It is this holiness that enables them to do their work worshiping God, as long as they maintain their purity. Whenever they are in a natural state of impurity, they cannot perform their duties as priests. This includes times when they have touched animals, or had ejaculations, or touched the dead, or anyone who has come into contact with any of these people. They can’t eat the sacrifices until they have become clean once again. “They shall keep My charge and not bear a sin by [eating] it [while unclean] and thereby die through it since they will have desecrated it. I am the Lord Who sanctifies them (Leviticus 22:9).” We are told that only kohanim in a state of purity can eat the holy things. They are bound to their roles as priests, and this is part of them.

Just like the kohanim need to be physically fit in order to serve God properly, the sacrifices made to God also need to be physically perfect in order to be acceptable. “[An animal that has] blindness, or [a] broken [bone], or [a] split [eyelid or lip], or [one that has] warts, or dry lesions or weeping sores you shall not offer up these to the Lord, nor shall you place of these as a fire offering upon the altar to the Lord (Leviticus 22:22).” It’s clear from these two examples, about those who can serve Him and what can be offered to Him, that God demands perfection, which is somehow equal to purity. While I understand this desire, and can see the validity in making sure that only the best is put forth before God, I don’t think this is only a physical issue. It should also be used to ensure that the inside is pure, as well as the outside, both of those who serve God and that which is brought before Him.

Vayikra Twenty-One: Kohanim and Disabilities

This chapter opens up with a list of rules specific to the kohanim. The kohanim are not allowed to come into contact with the dead, because this defiles them, with the only exceptions being their parents, children, brothers, and virgin sisters. However, they cannot defile themselves for their wives though, which to me seems very sad for the wives. In addition to interacting with the dead, shaving their heads or beards, or cutting their flesh, is also forbidden to the kohanim. Instead of doing these things, which are all considered defilements, “They shall be holy to their God, and they shall not desecrate their God’s Name, for they offer up the fire offerings of the Lord, the food offering of their God, so they shall be holy (Leviticus 21:6).” I’m not clear on what the direct connection between these basic actions and being holy is, but it’s obviously important enough to be able to make or break the ability of a kohen to perform his rituals.

In addition, a kohen can’t marry a prostitute or a divorced woman. If his daughter commits adultery, she shall be burned in fire. Specific to the kohen gadol, the high priest, he additionally can’t tear his garments (in mourning), or touch any dead bodies, even those of his close relatives. He can only marry a virgin, and cannot leave the Temple.

All of these things are fine. Restrictive, maybe, but not objectionable. However, the next part becomes more difficult for me to swallow. “Speak to Aaron, saying: Any man among your offspring throughout their generations who has a defect, shall not come near to offer up his God’s food. For any man who has a defect should not approach: A blind man or a lame one, or one with a sunken nose or with mismatching limbs; or a man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or one with long eyebrows, or a cataract, or a commingling in his eye, dry lesions or weeping sores, or one with crushed testicles (Leviticus 21:17-20).” These verses are really upsetting. Coming from a culture that strives to not discriminate against people with disabilities, or to limit people because of their physical attributes, to hear God saying that anyone who is less than perfect is not fit to serve Him is directly contradictory to these values. In the ancient Near East, maybe there was the belief that the physical was the manifestation of the internal, meaning that a person who was impure on the outside was also impure on the inside. But today, how could this apply? Our leaders, including our spiritual leaders, come from all walks of life, and aren’t limited by any of these things. Does this mean that we’ve evolved past the restrictions of Torah in this case? Or are we simply not going based on the kohanim model, and therefore we’ve been able to modify to meet our current circumstances?

Vayikra Twenty: Distinguish Yourselves

After the list of laws of relationships and human interactions, we come back to Molech. “And to the children of Israel, you shall say: Any man of the children of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among Israel, who gives any of his offspring to Molech, shall surely be put to death; the people of the land shall pelt him with stones (Leviticus 20:2).” Thus, this chapter opens with the consequences for many of these major transgressions. Mainly, we have lots of examples of being put to death, and stoning. You can be put to death for cursing your parents, committing adultery, multiple iterations of incest, sex between two men, and sex with animals. Smaller transgressions, such as ‘seeing the nakedness’ of a close relative or having sex with a menstruating woman, simply lead to being ostracized and cut off from the community.

“And you shall observe all My statues and all My ordinances, and fulfill them, then the Lord, to which I am bringing you to dwell therein, will not vomit you out (Leviticus 20:22).” According to this, the promise of the land is conditional, and the people will not be able to remain in the land if they do not observe the laws of God. Thinking about this today, as a citizen and resident of the modern State of Israel (which is in the Land of Israel), I wonder how this continues to apply. We are, of course, a modern society with many components that are secular, or are Jewish in spirit, but not necessarily according to halakha. I would never want Israel to be a theocracy – so how do we remain worthy of being in the land by keeping it Jewish, while also being modern and democratic?

God reminds the people that they are distinct from the rest of the people of the world. “And you shall distinguish between clean animals and unclean ones, and between unclean birds and clean ones; thus you shall not make yourselves disgusting through animals and birds and any which crawls on the earth, that I have distinguished for you to render unclean. And you shall be holy to Me, for I, the Lord, am holy, and I have distinguished you from the peoples, to be Mine (Leviticus 20:25-26).” Just as God has chosen us, we must act in His ways, by choosing the clean creatures of the world. It’s hard to see some of the clear lines and divisions that Tanakh provides. I’ve been taught for years that just because we as Jews are chosen, it doesn’t mean that other peoples are not chosen. Rather, we have our mission, and others have theirs. But to see the parallel drawn between people and clean/unclean animals is much more black and white. Thus, I have to look at it in the same way. Just as every nation has its purpose and ours is distinct, so too does every creature of the world have its purpose, and those that are clean are designated for this one.

Vayikra Nineteen: The Poor, the Blind, the Deaf, etc.

It is now reiterated that the people of Israel are holy, and are designated as such because God is holy. It’s interesting to me that this is the reason for the people being holy. It’s not because of us, or our actions, or even explicitly as a result of the covenant. Our holiness comes directly from God, and His innate holiness. Does this concept transfer because we are said to be made in the image of God? But then it would apply to all human beings. So I wonder, where does this connection come from?

“Every man shall fear his mother and his father, and you shall observe My Sabbaths. I am the Lord, your God (Leviticus 19:3).” This seems to be such a convoluted verse, with so many different components put together. What is the direct link between fearing ones parents, Shabbat, and the reiteration of God being God? Is God the binding tie that is why we need to do these things? Does fearing parents and observing Shabbat lead to worship of and acknowledgment of God?

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not fully reap the corner of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you collect the individual grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. I am the Lord, your God (Leviticus 19:9-10).” I love verses like this, when the Torah expresses concern for the weak members of a community and sees to their care. This is a commandment that is carried out until today, especially here in Israel. There are organizations devoted to gleaning the corners of fields, and donating the food and/or money to the poor. In this commandment, the Torah is laying out the rules of a welfare based society, a value that extends to modern day Israel.

“You shall not curse a deaf person. You shall not place a stumbling block before a blind person, and you shall fear your God. I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:14).” This is another verse that fascinates me. While not abusing the handicaps of both the deaf and the blind is of course a good thing, I don’t see the two as equivalent. If you curse a deaf person, they won’t know. But if you place an obstacle in front of the blind, it will hurt them. Is this telling us that physical and mental injuries are the same? That even if a person doesn’t know you’ve been cruel to them, the sin is in no way less than if they did?

We are given more laws. The people are cautioned against taking revenge against others, or feeling hate – pretty straightforward. We are also told not to crossbreed different species of livestock or seed, or to cut the edges of ones beard, which are much more bizarre. This is where we learn that Jews can’t get tattoos, or sell their daughters into prostitution. We have to stand in the presence of the elderly and others deserving of respect, and to care for the strangers in our land.

“You shall observe all My statutes and all My ordinances, and fulfill them. I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:37).” All of the rules in this chapter govern the interactions between people and within society, and provide us with examples of what it means to live together in a way that reflects what it means to be a holy nation.

Vayikra Eighteen: Forbidden Sex

It seems like God thinks (or knows) that the Israelites are pretty dense at this point, and emphasizing His role requires a lot of repeating. Even though they’ve seen His miracles, experienced Revelation, and built the mishkan, they still need to have the point driven home repeatedly. “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: I am the Lord your God. Like the practice of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelled, you shall not do, and like the practice of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you shall not do, and you shall not follow their statutes. You shall fulfill My ordinances and observe My statutes, to follow them. I am the Lord, your God (Leviticus 18:2-4).” This emphasizes the idea that the Israelites are meant to be a separate nation, not like any other minority group within a larger population, but fully immersed in their own world and laws, not subject to those of their neighbors.

So, what are these laws that the Israelites have follow, instead of those of the nations that they live in? For starters, there’s a lot about nakedness, and specifically, forbidden nakedness. A man is forbidden from uncovering the nakedness (having sex with) his father, his mother, his father’s wife, his sister, his nieces, his aunts, his daughters in law, and his sisters in law. All of this is because the connection between them is too close: these women belong to his family, and therefore are not permitted to him in this manner. Good to know. Additionally, a man can’t have relations with both a mother and her daughter/granddaughter, because this constitutes evil counsel. Personally, I just think it sounds gross, so either way I’m glad to hear that it’s not an acceptable practice.

After the list of forbidden sex partners, we hear a seemingly unrelated law. “And you shall not give any of your offspring to pass through for Molech. And you shall not profane the Name of your God. I am the Lord (Leviticus 18:21).” What does this mean? Who (or what) is Molech, and what kind of ritual is being referred to here? Apparently, Molech is the name of a god of the Ammonites, a tribe in the region at the time. Being that this prohibition follows immoral acts that are done by the tries of the region, but are forbidden from the Israelites, we can infer that sacrificing children to Molech was a practice at the time, which is also forbidden for the Israelites. This odd interlude is followed by more forbidden sex acts though. Therefore, can we infer that there was some kind of sexual rite regarding Molech that is being prohibited here?

The list continues. We are warned against sex with animals, and sex between men. I’m not going to touch on those things right now, because for me homosexuality is such a hard topic to deal with in Judaism and I don’t feel qualified to offer my own commentary on it at this point.

The chapter ends with the reminder: I am the Lord your God. I think this repetition is meant to remind us and invoke in us an understanding that the rules of God apply even in our most private, intimate moments. We must remember Him in our private acts, because He is part of all of them, no matter what.

Vayikra Seventeen: Consuming Blood

After giving the laws of Yom Kippur, God now gives more of the laws of sacrifice. “Any man of the House of Israel, who slaughters an ox, a lamb, or a goat inside the camp, or who slaughters outside the camp, but does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to offer up as a sacrifice to the Lord before the Mishkan of the Lord, this shall be counted for that man as blood he has shed blood, and that man shall be cut off from among his people (Leviticus 17:3-4).” I take this stipulation to mean that we can’t kill senselessly, and need to treat animals with respect by offering them to God, and not just killing them for our own sake.

We learn a great deal about our treatment of animals in this chapter. Although there are many who say that because of the animal sacrifice that pervades Tanakh it is inherently cruel to animals, all of the laws about how we treat them emphasize the care taken to minimize the suffering of the animals and to respect them. We are forbidden from eating blood, for example. “For the soul of the flesh is in the blood, and I have therefore given it to you upon the altar, to atone for your souls. For it is the blood that atones for the soul (Leviticus 17:11).” Blood is therefore sacred, and is designated for God, and not for people. It’s comforting for me to see this separation, and to know that blood is so respected that it is seen as tied to the soul, and God is the only one who can consume the soul of another – we as human beings may be made in the image of God, but we are not fully divine in that way.