117/929 Redemptive Profanity. Vayikra 27 and last!

No, this can’t be right at all. Last chapter’s awe-filled crescendo of promises and threats, with its finely crafted closing sentence, was the perfect ending to the book of Vayikra. Why does chapter 27 need to come along and ruin it with a dry, technical explanation of various types of oaths? As we’ve suggested before, if it’s not the work of a drunken editor, we can only understand that the Torah is emphasizing something significant through the apparent misplacement of this chapter.

What is the focus of chapter 27? The book of Vayikra ends not with the holiness that God creates, but that people can choose to create, simply with a word. “Ish ki yafli neder“- the word the Torah uses to say ‘to vow’ is a strange one, which is related to the word ‘pele’, a wonder. It’s a wondrous and profound ability that Vayikra speaks of in this chapter. A person can take anything in this world, and transform it into ‘the holy of holies’, literally (see verse 28!). This transformation is so powerful that it can’t always be reversed.

But there is a paradox here. For if people have the power to make things so holy, why does it seem that true holiness is only achieved by dedicating something to the Mishkan? Why can’t the item remain holy in the person’s possession? Why does it seem that an item that is consecrated lives a more ‘ideal’ existence?

Actually, a recurring phrase in this chapter seems to suggest the opposite. To buy something back from hekdesh is called ‘redemption’. It’s strange, when you think of it. To free someone from slavery, to return a land to its original owner- that’s easier to think of as redemptive. But to take an item that was holy and to profane it? Why would the Torah uses the word ‘ga’al’? It would seem more appropriate to speak of ‘lechalel’- to profane, or secularize. What the Torah seems to suggest here is exactly the point made above. Removing an item from being Temple property is redemptive, because it is then granted the chance to reach true holiness. The message that Vayikra ends with is that the ultimate expression of holiness is not that of a select group of people in a select place. These are merely a necessary means to build towards the thick, day to day holiness of Parshat Kedoshim, of being ‘anshei kodesh’, a ‘mamlechet kohanim‘ and a ‘goy kadosh’.

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3 books down! The 929 project started learning Bamidbar this week- it’s a great time to join the journey. This is a daily blog of my reflections on the chapter of the day.

About the Author
Avidan Freedman is the rabbi of the Shalom Hartman Institute's Hevruta program, an educator Hartman Boys High School in Jerusalem, and an activist against Israeli weapons sales to human rights violators.
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