Vayikra ~ Why such a book? | Adath Israel

Triennial – Leviticus          3:1-5    to 4:24-26       Etz Hayim p. 592

Haftarah           Y’sha’yahu 43:21-44:23                   Etz Hayim p. 607


Our reading deals with the burnt offering, the cereal offering, the well-being offering, the purification offering and its gradations and it ends with the reparation offering. The reparation offering text is different from the other offerings’ texts because it gives us examples: someone is able to testify but pretends not to, touches something tameh and realizes only later; swears to do something but does not complete it, misuses sacred things, lies about finding other people’s possessions, commits robbery or fraud or transgresses “any of the mitzvot”.


As we begin what probably is the most difficult book for moderns, Vayikra, I would like to ask you about your thoughts regarding the book. What bothers you? What feels alien? How do you deal with it? Ismar Schorch says that this is his favorite book. Can you guess why?

Our triennial focuses on the well-being offering and the purification offering. Look closely to those two offerings. What is the most basic difference between the two?


The first thing I want us to have in mind, the framing of our discussions about Vayikra, is what Jacob Milgrom wrote in his commentary to Leviticus published in 2008. “Behind the seemingly arcane rituals lies a system of meaning that we can draw into our own, modern lives.” He knows what he is talking about, given that he published an enormous quantity of papers and books arguing exactly that – that there is a much deeper meaning in this system.

Ismar Schorch, likewise, says that this is his favorite book because he likes “literature that doesn’t yield up its meaning at a glance, that doesn’t resemble the contours of my mind but rather expands and alters them. Profound ideas can be articulated in different ways. Leviticus chooses to do so through the prosaic and concrete language of law and ritual, without benefit of much explanation. We need to slow down to fathom this teeming canvas, and when we do, we discover views and values that still address the conundrums of our own lives with refreshing power.”

The first thing I want us to see is that there is a difference between the sacrifices, a basic one. First, the book opens with the optional offerings. That is the basic difference between the well-being offering, shelamim, and the hatat offering, translated as “sin offering” but that Milgrom calls “purification” offering.

The Hebrew term for the offering is hattat, which tends to be translated as “sin offering” (see Leviticus 4:3, 14, 24, 29). Understanding the Hebrew word in this sense suggests that we are speaking of a sacrifice to atone for a violation of God’s will, even if done without intent. And the term hattat is certainly related to the Hebrew word for sin, het, which runs through the Yom Kippur service.

But Jacob Milgrom firmly rejects this interpretation. He translates the term hattat as “purification offering,” a verbal form which has precisely the opposite force of “to sin,” namely, “to cleanse from sin.” The theology of Leviticus is changed by that attention to the construction of the word – because this term, “purification” forces us to focus on the people, on the community – and not, as we are trained to do, on God’s honor or perceived slight.

Milgrom wants us to understand that what is being cleansed with the offerings is not the person – but the sacred space itself. The actions of a person affect the community as a whole, and the presence of God specifically. Remember that the promise is “veshachanti betocham” – I, says God, will dwell among them, the people. Not betocho, in it, NOT in the sanctuary’s walls, not in the construction itself. The building is a mere symbol for the presence of God within the community.

The hatat is called a purification offering by Milgrom and not a sin offering because its goal is not to cleanse the inadvertent sinner, but the damaging consequences of the act. The sacred space is damaged by the acts of humans because those actions weaken the connections with God’s presence.

The transgressor does not go through a ritual of purification because the remorse, the feeling of guilt when he or she discovers, is enough for that. What needs to be purified is the space of the Tabernacle – and that is why the blood is sprinkled on the space seven times “before the Lord in front of the curtain of the Shrine” and “on the horns of the altar of aromatic incense, which is in the Tent of Meeting, before the Lord (Leviticus 4:6-7).

Notice that none of those are effective for willful acts of bad faith.

Our actions are what make or break the sacred space. Individually, our own guilt is enough. Remorse – presumably accompanied by personal reparations if needed and stopping the behavior – is enough for the individual’s process. But collectively there is a mark, a stain that remains, much like air pollution – and the purification offering, according to Milgrom, addresses that.

The ultimate source of impurity for Leviticus (and the Torah) is human behavior. We, our actions, have the capacity to pollute the sacred space – and not external forces. Later in the book of Leviticus that pollution by our actions extends itself to the very land. And here is an interesting parallel: the land vomits out the inhabitants that are acting basely, and God’s presence also leaves the Mishkan.

Now if we step back, and admit that the community is affected by our behavior, we also have to admit that the text of Leviticus has another thing right, something we learn from the environmentalists: our individual actions affect the earth as a whole. Even inadvertent actions can render our planet uninhabitable. And maybe we have not, as a whole human race, tried to destroy the planet – but our actions are there. As individuals, it is enough that we feel remorse and change course, as humans we have an enormous challenge ahead.

Now speaking for a moment into more current events – I want to address a little what happened this week, with the massage parlors. The act in itself is despicable, the ability of someone just to buy a gun and go around shooting people is an enabling law that only in America. But this – an attack that has the contours of hatred towards people of Asian heritage – has given rise to voices within the Jewish community regarding how we treat someone who is not necessarily White.

Rebecca Kuss is a writer who lives in New Jersey. Her mother is Korean, her father Jewish. She was brought up in our American Jewish community since birth. Her mother converted 4 years before she was born. And because she looked biracial, she can tell you stories of how is it really like to live among us. How her mom tried to pick her up from JCC preschool, only to have the teacher refuse to let her take me home, as no one had called ahead to tell her “the maid” would be coming to get me. How at 11, she earned a full scholarship to the Jewish day school – because she read Hebrew like a pro – and how her mom, bursting with pride, spent the weekend making kimchi for lunch for Rebecca’s first day — only to be called into the principal’s office and shamed when other students accused Rebecca of eating “baby embryos” in the cafeteria. How at her bat mitzvah her mom — who had worked three jobs for months to afford the dress and the luncheon — was denied a seat on the bimah. [You can read her entire piece by clicking here, and I urge you to do so ]

Each and every one of those actions was done by one individual. Standing alone, they may seem small. But the effect they had on Rebecca is undeniable. And I want to say that the effect on the community – the perpetuation of a subtle bigotry, a quiet prejudice – is corrosive and destructive. Wouldn’t we be glad to have a ceremony to cleanse us, as a community, of such acts? To have something saying – we know that this individual did this unthinking, not out of badness of heart, just inadvertently, but we are sorry and we want our community safer, better, more inclusive?

I myself would tell you – I wish we had something like that, a clear, obvious way of saying – this was done inadvertently, but we are committed not to see this done again.

So may this week we remember that our actions make or break our sacred spaces – our Jewish communities and our planet, and may we take steps to admit our wrongs and make them better, even if collectively, as the American Jewish community, we don’t have a way of cleansing us from those inadvertent sins.

Shabbat shalom