Last Shabbat after the Torah reading, when we chanted the words, “chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik” – be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened – I wasn’t thinking about the fact that we would begin the book of Leviticus this week.
Leviticus is not my favorite book of the Torah. Outside of the Holiness Code (Chapter 19), and maybe a few other sections, I don’t find the material very interesting. I can’t seem to focus on the long descriptions about animal sacrifice and how the priests fulfilled their jobs. Every year, whether in sermons or Torah Study, I struggle to find ways the text is relevant to our lives.
This year, my reflections on my struggles with the book of Leviticus brought me a couple of insights – or reminders of why the content of Leviticus is valuable.
I may consider animal sacrifice and the role of the priesthood outdated, but their inclusion in our sacred text and the historical evidence of their centrality in Judaism shows that they were extremely valued. I may not value them, but someone did, and those “someones” are my ancestors. Reading the details about the priests’ job made me think about a friend or a family member who recounts all the details of their job. We might find the job and the description boring, but because we care about them, and hopefully don’t find the person boring, we care about what they have to say. For these reasons and more, I can find value in the text.
My second reason the text is valuable is because our worship structure is based on the sacrificial system. When the ancient rabbis realized that animal sacrifice was not the only way to worship God, and perhaps may not be available as a practice at all, they adapted the sacrificial worship into a liturgical structure – prayers – that continues to be the basis of our services today. Additionally, most of our ritual and ethical commandments are grounded in the text of the Torah, which of course includes the book of Leviticus. And the rabbis knew how difficult Leviticus was, so they created some of the most inventive midrashim – explanations – based on Leviticus. I remember studying a midrash based on Leviticus that was actually all about Purim!
So, as we begin the book of Leviticus this week, with a hint to the celebration of Purim that will take place in the coming days (see below), I hope to take my own advice and value the struggle with my least favorite yet still valuable sacred text.