A 1907 postcard depicts the Israelites gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai.
A 1907 postcard depicts the Israelites gathered in awe at the foot of Mount Sinai for the revelation of the Ten Commandments.

How can we all live together amicably? Leviticus explains.

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Leviticus 1:1–5:26

This week, we begin the third book of the Torah — Leviticus, or Vayikra.  It’s the book all about sacrifices and laws, with a different tone from the preceding books.

The first book of the Torah, Genesis, is a compilation of narratives taking us from the creation story to Egypt. The book ends with Joseph’s brothers making their way to Egypt to survive the famine.

Then, the second book, Exodus, tells the story of our people’s centuries of slavery in Egypt — and the miraculous Exodus through the parted Red Sea. This is the Jewish people’s foundation myth — the fundamental story that gives us our identity.

Now we come to Leviticus — and a very different part of our history.

In this book, our people wander. Practically speaking, we wandered only a few miles over the course of 40 years, as we headed to the Promised Land. But our journey was one of necessary development and growth.

We had to build an identity.

We had to become a free people.

After years of slavery, the laws, values and culture which would one day define the Jewish people would take time to develop.

And so we wandered and wandered, as we built a society and learned how to live together.

Just last week, as we came to the end of Exodus, we read these words: “It came to pass in the first month, in the second year, on the first day of the month, that the Mishkan was set up.” (Exodus 40:17)

God gave clear, detailed instructions about the Mishkan — a portable holy space that we would carry with us on our journey to the Promised Land. It would inspire us and remind us that God traveled with us.

Throughout the book of Exodus, we read many detailed instructions by God about what the Mishkan should be like. God promised us v’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham — If you make for me a holy space, I will dwell among you.

That promise kept us going on a long, challenging journey.

The Mishkan would hold the instructions — the Commandments and laws given by God — in a special ark at the center of our community. It would travel with us through the desert.

The Mishkan would be a symbol of commitment and hope.

We built the Mishkan according to God’s detailed instructions, and lovingly carried it with us throughout our journey. At the end of the book of Exodus, the Mishkan was finally constructed in its entirety.

In Parashat Vayikra, the opening portion in the Torah’s third book, there is a palpable shift. With the Mishkan set up, with our people’s wandering happening in earnest, we are ready to learn how to create a society. We need laws; we need morals, values, detailed instructions about how the big ideas of freedom and autonomy will play out.

Having experienced the thrill and terror of crossing the Red Sea, our people left behind all that they knew — hundreds of years of slavery. It was time to create a brand new society — from scratch.

In these weeks leading up to Pesach, we read from the book of Leviticus. We are instructed about many details of day-to-day life, starting with sacrifices in this week’s Torah portion.

But even as we focus on the details of our newfound freedom, in just a few weeks, we’ll sit around our seder tables and retell the dramatic story of our Exodus. We are always reminded of the miraculous beginnings of our freedom. Even as we work to build a practical society.

The 20th-century architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is credited with having said, “God is in the details.”

How appropriate that these words were uttered by an architect — an artist who constructed spaces in which society could function.

It seems an appropriate quotation to consider here, as we read Parashat Vayikra.

The Book of Leviticus is filled with detailed laws about what it really means to form a society. And how to live together.

Up until now, the Torah’s instructions to us have been grand. Now we come to part of the journey where the details come into focus. Surely, God is in the details.

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf
Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf is the senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. She is a participant in the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship, which inspires, educates and trains American rabbis to become national advocates for human rights.