Parashat Vayikra 5774 – The Mishkan, the People, and the Land – Holiness, Inside and Out

וַיְדַבֵּר יְ-הוָה אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Sefer Vayikra[1] is certainly the most law-oriented book of the Torah. While most of the books of the Torah include a significant narrative section, Vayikra has only a few scattered narratives, all directly connected to the laws of Vayikra. Adding to the uniqueness of this characteristic, most of the laws are very ritually oriented. While this section does include plenty of ethical laws, the vast majority are concerned with rituals and worship. This peculiarity led Julius Wellhausen, the founder of modern biblical criticism, to say that Vayikra is actually a very late addition to Tanakh, a ritualistic corruption of earlier prophetic ideals. More recent scholars have concluded that this was largely a manifestation of Wellhausen’s anti-Semitic beliefs, an intended denigration of what he considered to be the most Jewish part of the Torah. In this one facet, he may have been right. Vayikra is ostensibly the most Jewish book of the Torah. Much of the laws and rites we follow on a daily basis have their roots in Sefer Vayikra. Moreover, the entirety of Sefer Vayikra, down to its very structure, expresses characteristically Jewish ideas.

Sefer Vayikra can be very neatly split into two parts, Chapters 1-16 and Chapter 17-27. These two sections each deal with their own unique subject matter, and where there is overlap, the overlapping law or idea is discussed in two very different ways. The topic of the first section is fairly easy to determine, namely the Mishkan, the Korbanot, and the people responsible for both. This also includes the various persons that are not allowed to enter the Mishkan due to temporary “impurity”, and the ways those people acquire that status. The second section,  however, is a little more complex.

The second half of Vayikra jumps rapidly from topic to topic[2]. It starts off with the laws regarding animals slaughtered outside the Mishkan, moving quickly to forbidden sexual relations and the requirement not to live like the nations that previously inhabited the Land of Israel. It also discusses the laws of the Shabbat and the Holidays as well as the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. Surprisingly, peppered throughout the expected ritual laws we find an unexpected amount of moral laws. Finally, near the end of the Sefer we find the punishments awaiting those who fail to live up to the laws of the Torah.

While the laws of the first half of  Sefer Vayikra focus on the Mishkan. the proper way to act therein, and who may enter and who may not, the second half focuses on the life of Bnei Yisrael outside the Mishkan. It covers most, if not all, aspects of life. It deals with the sanctity of the People, the Land, and the special designated times of the People in the Land. Quite beautifully, the switchover from the first section to the second (in chapters 17 and 18) centers on A. The laws of slaughter outside the Mishkan, and B. The command to live differently than the nations that once lived in the Land of Israel. Slaughter outside the Mishkan means taking something that normally occurs inside the Mishkan and moving it outside. That external movement brings us outside the Mishkan and into the land, upon which Bnei Yisrael must behave according to certain moral laws.

These two sections are not simply two sets of laws put side by side, however. On the surface one might think that they both ended up in one book simply by virtue of each being too small to merit its own book. But in fact the first half of Sefer Vayikra very delicately and deliberately sets up from the second half. There are many linguistic and literary connections between the two sections, but the most significant by far are the usages of the words “מעל”, “טמא”, “טהור”, and “נדה” (in their various conjugations). All of these words possess great significance in both sections of Vayikra, but their meanings are not the same. While there are many words simply repeated in the two sections, these words are repeated with entirely different meanings. While in the first section they have an explicitly ritual connotation, in the second they assume very moralistic intentions[3]. “Impure” becomes “Morally Corrupt”,  and “Purification” becomes “Forgiveness”. Ritualistic terminology becomes Moralistic analogy. The language of the Mishkan becomes the language of the Nation in the Land.

The function of the second half of Sefer Vayikra is to take the first half and apply it to the rest of the life of Bnei Yisrael. It essentially analogizes the concepts of the Mishkan to the daily life of the people. The first half of the sefer describes the Mishkan as the dwelling place of ‘א and what that means for the people who go there. The second half of Vayikra describes the People and the Land as the dwelling place of ‘א and what that means for the actions of the people on an individual and collective basis. Just as certain actions mean that a person cannot share ‘א’s space in the Mishkan, so too certain actions mean that ‘א cannot live in the daily life of the people[4]. The laws of Sefer Vayikra are not simply complex ritual laws. They are a description of what it means to try to live in ‘א’s world and to have Him live in yours.

[1] This essay draws heavily from ‘Introduction to Sefer Vayikra’, a lecture by Rav Menachem Leibtag easily locatable on www.yutorah.org, and the Jacob Milgrom’s Introduction to his commentary on Sefer Vayikra, part of the Yale Anchor Bible Series.

[2] Note: This paragraph is just a quick summary. There are plenty of other laws in this section, but these are some of the big ones.

[3] This division isn’t necessarily 100%, rather it is general trend.

[4] It’s worth noting that of its 51 appearances in the sefer, 49 of the uses of the phrases “אני י-הוה” are in the second half of Vayikra.

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Parashat Tazria 5774 – “And the Kohen Sees..”

וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת הַנֶּגַע

Parashat Tazria contains the procedural instructions for dealing with occurrences of Tsara’at[1]. The Torah’s description of Tsara’at is a malady that affects the skin with scaly lesions, but that’s about all that is made clear from the text. The symptoms don’t seem to match up with any known dermatological conditions in existence today[2]. This fact, far from being inconvenient, makes perfect sense in terms of the context in which Tsara’at appears in the Torah. Tsara’at in the Torah doesn’t show up in a section about the curing of ailments, rather in the context of Tumah and Taharah. The Torah is not concerned with the medical issue of Tsara’at, rather with the religious implications. The focus in the discussion of Tsara’at is not on the healing of the disease, but on the responsibilities of the Kohen.

The Kohen’s responsibility in a case of Tsara’at essentially amounts to confirming whether or not it is indeed Tsara’at. The blemish is shown to the Kohen and then the Kohen pronounces it Tsara’at or not, or isolates the person for a week or two until a determination can be made. When the Kohen pronounces it Tsara’at, the person becomes Taamei until their purification can be completed. If the Kohen determines that it is not Tsara’at then the person is Tahor. This seemingly simple process actually depicts one of the most unique characteristics of the Jewish religion.

In most ancient cultures, the priesthood was greatly involved in the medical issues of the community, much like the Kohanim and Tsara’at. However, in other religions the priests were involved in the actual healing process, as opposed to the Kohanim. The Kohanim simply examine the diseased area to determine if the blemish actually is Tsara’at. In other ancient religions the priests would recite incantations and perform rituals to cleanse and cure the affected area, something not found in Judaism. The Kohanim are, in fact, never involved in healing. In Tanakh, that job falls to the “man of god”, the prophet.

Prophets throughout Tanakh heal people from a variety of illnesses. Tsara’at itself is a disease often healed by a prophet[3]. In Bamidbar 12 Miriam is struck with Tsara’at as punishment for speaking ill of Moshe, and is only healed after Moshe prays for her. In Shemot 4:6-7, Moshe causes his hand to become afflicted with, and then healed of, Tsara’at. In II Kings 5, Na’aman is healed of Tsara’at by a procedure he is instructed to perform by the prophet Elisha. These are only some  of the biblical examples of prophets healing people. While both the prophet and the priest are men of God, only the “Man of God” is a healer.

While both serve the religious needs of the people, the Prophet and the Priest have very different roles. The priest is responsible for the continuing routines of the Jewish Religion, for the things that do not change in the service of ‘א. The prophet is a vehicle for change, a fiery response to an untenable norm. The prophet receives prophecy suddenly, while the priest is part of a chain of service starting before him and continuing after. The priest carries out and conveys the timeless will of ‘א that stretches through eternity. The prophet receives and relays the timely will of ‘א that is needed in that second.

This distinction is critical for understanding the assignment of the role of healer to the prophet rather than the priest. The occurrence and curing of Tsara’at is a function of the will of ‘א. While priests fulfill the will of ‘א in a general sense, they cannot compare to the prophets. The unique feature of Israelite prophecy is the status of the prophet as a “messenger  of ‘א”. Thus it is not really the prophet who does the healing, it is ‘א. The prophet merely conveys and out carries out His will.

Judaism today is much more a religion of priests than of prophets. We cannot hear ‘א’s timely will, what He thinks needs to be fixed on a day to day basis. Instead, we cling to the Will of ‘א as given in the Torah, we grab on to the Eternal Word. Instead of ‘א telling us what to do and when, we keep his Halakha and let it guide our lives. The Metsora, the person afflicted with tsara’at, does not go to the Prophet to ask why they have been afflicted; they go to the Kohen to ask what this means for their ability to approach ‘א. So too in the struggles of modern life. There are no prophets today to explain why things happen, and we ought not look for them. Instead, we should take time to examine who we have been, and see who we can be from this point forward.

 [1] This Devar Torah has been Influenced throughout by The Religion of Israel, Y. Kaufmann, and the Anchor Bible Commentary to Vayikra, J. Milgrom.

[2] The problem of identification is  two-fold: Firstly, the symptoms. Psoriasis is close, but it still doesn’t fit perfectly. Secondly, and more importantly, the treatment. There’s no such skin condition that would get noticeably better in just a week or two. (J. Milgrom, Chapter 13, Comment A)

[3] While these cases have been used to explain that Tsara’at is received for sins against Man or sins against God, most of them can really be read either way. (J. Milgrom, Ibid.)