Naomi Graetz

A Dangerous Game of Chicken: Parshat Vayikra

How to begin a blog about parshat Vayikra which is all about sacrifices (karbanot). Our whole nation is at a crossroads; are we to be sacrificed to the reigning government’s greed for power? Are we to be the victims of the game of “chicken”? If those who are driving this country dangerously do not swerve before it is too late, our entire country will be hurt. It’s a dangerous game they are playing and even those who should know better are not willing to back down, to compromise or “sacrifice” their ideals. We are at the mercy of those engaged in this dangerous game of brinkmanship. There are already stories about people who are planning to leave the country because of fears of what will happen after the democratically elected government pushes through an anti-democratic agenda. Those who are left behind, who choose to stay and fight will have to make all sorts of sacrifices. We can only guess at what kind of actual sacrifices will be demanded of us.

The word sacrifice in English is very limited, it has one meaning and is not nuanced like the Hebrew korban with its root קרב.  Since Hebrew is a root-based language, there are many associations with the k-r-v/b root. To name just a few: relatives (kerovim); near or close to (karov); battle (kerav). To bring near (le-karev); soon (be-karov); innards of animals/people (kirbayim) gizzards (kurkevan). And if you want you can play around with the roots and letters, something called sikul otiot, and then you get grave (kever) and rot (rakov).

In a small country like Israel, we are all expected to make sacrifices (le-hakriv); we send our kids to the army. We are all related (kerovim); we often do not give the other space or time to express his/her views and stand too close (karov). We are perennially involved in battle (kerav), both external and internal. And if we are not careful, we will dig ourselves early graves (kever) for each other as the country rots (rakov).

Dark Humor aside, there is one verse in the parsha which caught my eye and is relevant to what is happening today. This verse is as follows:

If it is the anointed priest who has incurred guilt, so that blame falls upon the people, he shall offer for the sin of which he is guilty a bull of the herd without blemish as a sin offering to the LORD (Leviticus 4:3).

When I read this verse, I immediately asked “Why should the blame fall upon the people if it is the priest who is the guilty party?” Is this descriptive, the way the world runs? Our leader is guilty and we suffer? But this verse is not merely descriptive! Is it also prescriptive!  This is the way it should be.  When a leader sins, the blame falls upon the people. For sure, it is the priest who sacrifices (hikriv) an unblemished bull as a sin offering. But the blame still falls on the community.

Rashi on this verse writes:

When the High-priest sins this is the guilt of the people (i. e. it results in the people remaining under a load of guilt), because they are dependent on him to effect atonement for them and to pray on their behalf, and now he himself has become degenerate and can thus not expiate for them, wherefore they remain under guilt (here).

A priest who sins, causes the people to incur guilt. How? By causing them to follow his lead and then also inadvertently to sin. A sinning priest, who is impure (not through a deliberate act but because of some accident) puts the entire community at risk. His impurity/is catching and infects everyone. That is why he has to expiate his sin. He is responsible and accountable for what he has done. In its commentary on the verse “So that blame falls upon the people”, The Jewish Study Bible writes:

Corporate guilt for the crimes of leaders is assumed elsewhere in the Bible. In this case, because the high priest is the representative of the people, his sins of commission are accounted to the people as a whole, and since he serves on their behalf in the innermost sphere of sanctity, his misdeeds contaminate the Tabernacle interior by his very presence there (p. 212).

My interim hope is that we can interpret this verse descriptively and not prescriptively. It is time that our leaders take responsibility for their crimes, so that their sins of commission will stop contaminating all of our society. And who knows, in some rosy future, hopefully, not too far from now, when the wolf will share a bed with the lamb (see Isaiah 11:6), perhaps this verse will not even be descriptive!!

Shabbat shalom.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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