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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Parashat VaYikra - Closeness

Updated: Jul 12

Parashat Vayikra marks the beginning of a new book, the third in the Torah. The book of Leviticus - VaYikra in Hebrew - is composed primarily of God’s speeches to Moses. In these speeches, God instructs the Israelites about the ritual practices they will implement around the newly completed mishkan. The laws found in VaYikra emphasize the ritual and legal practices expected of Israel. Besides these, we also find a great deal of moral instruction woven into the mitzvot given to the Israelites that will shape the future society that they are to build. 

In the first portion of Vayikra, the basic principles of the ritual sacrifices required of b’nei Yisrael are laid out by God: how the priests are to carry out the act of sacrifice as well as when and what reasons cause someone to be liable to bring a sacrifice before God. But in the second half, the Torah changes focus and deals with the topic of incurring guilt for a certain action. What do we do if we incur guilt unwillingly? Who and what can cause someone to incur guilt? 

There are all sorts of ways to incur guilt that would cause someone to have to bring a korban chatat - a sin offering, before God. We learn that there is a special procedure if the hakohen hagadol - the High Priest, the person responsible for the proper carrying out of ritual sacrifice and the religious leader of the Israelites, is the one who incurs guilt. “If it is the kohen gadol who sins, so that blame falls upon the people…” (Leviticus 4,3) 

This idea should challenge us. How can it be that the sin of one person can cause the blame to fall on an entire nation? None of us want to be blamed for the sins or errors of our representatives, our friends and family - so how can we understand this principle that the Torah is teaching us in this portion? 

We see that even the rabbis were puzzled by this idea. In the midrash Vayikra Rabbah, a parable is brought to help explain this idea of collective guilt:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai taught: It’s similar to this story. A group of people were on a boat. One of them took out a drill and started drilling underneath himself. 

The others said: What are you doing?! 

The person replied: Why do you care? Aren’t I drilling underneath my own spot?

The others replied: But the water will rise and flood us all! 

The rabbis suggest that the lesson from VaYikra is greater than who bears the guilt from any one action. Rather, this portion and all of Leviticus is discussing our collective responsibilities, both before God as well as between one and other. If we take imagery from the midrash above, even when we think our actions are only affecting our small portion of the boat, they can have unanticipated consequences for the people around us. 

This idea connects us back to the practice of ritual sacrifice that will be discussed throughout the book of Leviticus. The Hebrew word for sacrifice is le’hakriv, which is constructed from the three letter root ק,ר,ב (k,r,v). From this same root we can build the word kirva, meaning both ‘closeness’ as well as ‘relationship’. 

I think you would agree that we are not interested in reestablishing ritual sacrifice as our primary method of communication with God. But we can take inspiration from the underlying idea behind it: that God is not really looking for sacrifices (korbanot). rather God is seeking to teach us about closeness (kirva) - between ourselves and the divine, between ourselves and other human beings. 

The book of Leviticus, for me, was a mystery for a long time. The laws of the priesthood, ritual sacrifice, purity and impurity all seemed like customs and practices that had very little connection to my life and the lives of those around me. But I hope that this journey together through this, the third book of the Torah, will offer a new perspective for these ancient precepts. 

We should hold fast to the idea that what God is expecting from us as human beings is kirva, closeness, creating deeper connections between one another. This awareness, this connectedness to both human and divine, has the potential to foster a more thoughtful, more purposeful existence. One in which we see not only ourselves and the good we can do for us, but we see the other from up close and can measure how our actions are part of creating the world in which we live. 

May you all be blessed with kirva - to yourselves, your family, your friends, God and all humanity. Shabbat Shalom!

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