"And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."
When we first began our yearly reading of the book of Vayikra - Leviticus - the third of the five books of Torah, we asked the question, "Why now?" After all, the preceding book of Exodus concludes with the assembly of the newly fashioned Tabernacle, and the book of Numbers, which follows Leviticus, picks up where Exodus leaves off, and describes the journeys and adventures that accompany the children of Israel throughout their forty year desert sojourn. Why take a time out right in the middle of the slavery-to-liberty-to-servants-of G-d narrative, in order to deliver esoteric details concerning the laws of animal offerings at the altar of G-d, information, which, in any case, is only relevant to the few who make up the Temple priesthood?
The book of Vayikra does indeed begin with a close focus on the animal offerings, describing the strict physical requirements of the animals themselves, and the manner in which the priest is to perform the offering. It also offers insight into the Torah's unique understanding of the meaning of the idea of holiness. To make something holy, Torah teaches us, means to set it aside, to distinguish it, to dedicate it to a purpose that is holy. This is what the priests are taught in Vayikra concerning the nature of the offerings they are performing, and also concerning their own thoughts, actions, and even dress. But as the book of Vayikra progresses we learn what we non-priests are to eat and not to eat. We learn that the words which leave our lips have a direct bearing on our spiritual-physical health. Finally we are commanded to "be holy." Being holy, we learn, is being able to distinguish between permitted and forbidden, good and bad, pure and impure, acceptable and unacceptable. By accepting distinctions we learn the responsibility of making choices: choosing right over wrong, adherence to G-d's word over rebellion. Rather than tie us down and limit our freedom, as many voices in today's society will try to convince us, accepting limitations and distinctions serves to enhance our own sense of responsibility toward ourselves, our neighbors, toward G-d and the world that He created. This responsibility, and the acquired ability to make the right choices truly empowers us as individuals. In this way, by understanding the world around us as possessing holiness, we too, like the Temple priests, become holy.
Modern society says "tear down distinction, there is no right or wrong, pure or impure. Everything is relative and therefore there are no necessary choices between good and evil, right or wrong: all is holy." This contemporary mindset is little more than a throwback to ancient paganism. Life without distinctions is life without choices, (other than what color ipod I want today). Life without choices is life without freedom: slavery.
So Vayikra comes along when it does to teach us about holiness and the true freedom contained within the dynamics of holiness. It begins with a focus on the priests and on the high priest - the man of holiness in the ultimate holy setting. But then it proceeds to teach the rest of us what holiness is and how to attain it. But Vayikra doesn't stop there. It goes on to tell us that time and space are also sources of holiness, if we only learn how to delineate and utilize time and space in accordance with the rules of holiness. Ultimately, Vayikra teaches us that even the earth is holy, and the holiest land on earth is the land of Israel. In order to nurture and realize this holiness, the laws commanding the sabbatical cycle and the Jubilee are presented. This way of life called by Torah holiness has come full circle: Just as the way in which we manage the world around us effects our own holiness, so does the world around us rely on our ability to regulate our own actions for the sake of the holiness of the world around us.
Far from the modern celebration of ego which places man at the center of an exploitable and disposable world, the Torah prescription of holiness allows for us to become full partners in realizing the holiness of G-d's world. We are truly a "kingdom of priests," and the pursuit of holiness within the fullness of creation is our holy task.
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK to hear Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven discuss the shmitta - the Sabbath of the Land, the time-earth-space nexus and the nature of holiness.
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