We begin the book of Vayikra this week, the book of Leviticus, with the portion of the same name, Vayikra…called, that is, God called to Moses. People tend to cringe when you tell them you’re writing about Leviticus because the perception is that it’s either all about cutting up animals, very gory and cruel, or it’s about (in)famous “abominations” and incomprehensible admonitions about guilt. Simplistic, but somewhat accurate. Leviticus is all about rules and boundaries, distinctions and differences, and most important, Leviticus is about what is “holy” and how do we keep “holy” around us? Where are the lines between the two, and what do we do if we cross them? Because we are, according to the Torah, an am kadosh, a holy community, the dance between individuals and the group, between being close to God (holy) and distanced from God (less holy) is delicate and ongoing. The ability to discern those lines becomes crucial, so that Israel remains in a good relationship with God. Got to know the rules so you can stay in the game.
The Hebrew word for “holy” is kadosh, and it also carries a sense of separateness, set-apart-ness. We keep things, people, moments, places set apart in our lives and so they remain special. The less special people,moments,places, etc. aren’t “unholy”, they’re just not kadosh. “Un-holy” isn’t a great translation, by the way. Better to say, “not apart” or “far from God”, because in Leviticus, when you’ve done something that would require you to rectify a situation, an action, an omission, (and Leviticus is full of those well-delineated situations), you aren’t inherently and forever tainted or cursed. You just need a time-out, away from the community, to restore your balance.
This portion begins to list situations when people mess up, and what they have to do to make things right. Exodus introduced us to the concept of categories within the community – Priests, Levites, tribal leaders, and everyone else – so Leviticus maintains those distinctions in laying out situations. First, we read about Priests making mistakes, and what they need to do because, “if it is the anointed priest who has incurred guilt…blame falls upon the people” (Lev 4:3) Leadership may have its privileges, but it has its responsibility, too. The text goes on to describe what’s to be done when others err, and there is an interesting hierarchy: Priests (as noted), then community leadership as a group, then an individual chieftan/leader, then any “regular” person from the populace.
Leaders get the most attention in the list. It would have been easier, and used up far less ink, to just say, “When anyone does this wrong, do this to make it right.” But the text has a deeper message here. This is a fledgling, new-born community here, making baby steps in the wilderness. Just out of slavery, they have no idea how to function as a society. In Exodus, parasha Yitro, they got a bunch of laws, complete with the drama of Divine Revelation. They messed up big time with that Golden Calf. They have no clue how to function as a “holy community.” So, God set up a leadership structure.
The leadership is not infallible. The Priests will make mistakes, as will other leaders. The Torah lays out the instructions for guilt-offerings for the leadership first, and even though it reads much like what an ordinary person has to do, by listing the Priests, Elders and Chieftans first, the people see that those in charge really are subject to the same (if not more) regulations as everyone else. Unlike the taskmasters or even Pharoah that used to rule over this people, these leaders are accountable in a very real way to the community they serve.
The Priests, Elders and Chieftans are separated out specifically because they are kadosh and now we can read back in the “holy” component of the word. Would that so many of our leaders were aware of the nuances of their “separate-ness”. Rather than seeing themselves as separate-elite, we would be better served if they saw themselves as separate-accountable. Rather than applying the consequences for stepping over the line only to the community, we would be better served if, as presented in Vayikrah, the application of the consequences were taken on by them first, not last. Then, we could be closer to living as an am kadosh.