Vayikra: Hope and healing underlie Leviticus sacrifices


Shabbat HaChodesh

Leviticus 1:1-5:26

Numbers 28:9-15

Exodus 12:1-20

Ezekiel 45:16-46:18

Once, it was common for Jewish children to begin their formal Jewish education by studying Leviticus, the book we begin to read this Shabbat. This pedagogic tradition goes as far back as the ancient midrash.

"Rabbi Asi taught: Why do we begin children's [biblical learning] with Leviticus and not with Genesis? Because children are pure, and the sacrifices are pure. Let the pure ones come and study pure things" (Vayikra Rabbah).

In the days of the midrash, this logic made sense. For most of us, Leviticus is a problem: at best, a bore; at worst, it can be seen as opaque, irrelevant, obsessively detailed. We moderns don't understand the spiritual logic of the sacrificial system. We are uncomfortable with the focus on sin, and with the remarkable level of detail. The book speaks a foreign language that we cannot penetrate, and so we groan our way through the segment of the Jewish year when this book is read.

Recently, I learned that some friends of mine have a beautiful family custom called "the parashah plate." Each week, as they set the table for Shabbat dinner, someone in the family (generally, their 4-year-old son) needs to put on the parashah plate an object that is connected with that week's Torah portion, to be discussed at Shabbat dinner. The first year that they introduced this custom, the parents worried that the weeks devoted to Leviticus would be difficult. What could be put on the plate? A sacrificial sheep? Some blood? The priest's thumb?

To their surprise, the weeks of Leviticus turned out to be much easier to symbolize on the parashah plate than the weeks devoted to more lofty, abstract portions, including those in Deuteronomy. Besides, their child — an extraordinarily bright and insightful little boy — seemed to understand the issues of Leviticus very well. He was not offended by the concreteness of the rituals described. He was fascinated by the notion that ritual could help us feel better after we had done things wrong. It seems that he did not share the prevalent adult notion that there are right and wrong ways to feel close to God.

Leviticus has much to teach — to small children and to adults — about ritual, about worship that includes the body as well as the mind, about ways to make contact with God, about wrongdoing and atonement and about community. Perhaps this is a place where we adults have much to learn from children, who have not yet learned to regard the body as primitive, the concept of sin embarrassing, the search for God foolish.

Consider, for example, the "childish" elements of the seder. For we think about Pesach this week, as the month of Nisan begins and the maftir reading announces that Pesach is coming.

Consider the tradition of Elijah's presence at the seder. When my daughter was small, we loved to play the Elijah myth to its fullest. We would be sure that the children's attention was distracted for a moment, so that someone could surreptitiously shake the table, then "prove" from the movement of the wine in Elijah's cup that our invisible guest must have come through and taken a quick drink. The tradition is delightful on this level alone.

But Elijah's presence at the seder is about far more than making the children laugh. Elijah is a symbol of divine protection (hence his presence at the brit milah-circumcision ceremony)and a hint of some future time when the world as we know it will be transformed. The figure of Elijah invites us to see the story of redemption as an ongoing process — not something that happened once to our ancestors, but as something real that can and will happen for us again. To really imagine Elijah as a guest at our seder is to open the door to hope, to possibility, to transformation.

Nisan is the month that we devote to celebrating redemption, hope, rebirth and possibility. As we rid our homes of chametz, perhaps we can cleanse ourselves of habits of mind that no longer serve us well. This year, may we be helped to fully welcome Elijah into our midst.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at