Our reading today begins in Leviticus and discusses some of the precepts and ordained instructions for the Passover holiday. The first two aliyot readings detail how long you must wait between the birth of an animal and its sacrifice, the appointed times of the holiday and its various prohibitions and precepts. The aliyot of our reading explains at length about each offering, while our fourth and fifth aliyot will discuss prohibitions against work during hag. For the most part, our readings will focus heavily on sin offerings and their purpose during the holiday.
In the middle of today’s aliyot readings is a list of moadim, appointed times on the Jewish calendar for a festive celebration of our bond with G-d. They include the mitzvah to Count the Omer, and the obligation to journey to the Beis HaMikdash as part of the three annual pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. In the absence of the Beis Hamikdash, many of these descriptions may seem irrelevant to Jews.
I would like to suggest otherwise today. Although we do not and cannot continue with the sacrificial system today, we do continue with our tradition. To illustrate this note one example in this week’s parsha. Just focus for a moment on the words from Leviticus 22:26-33. Our scriptural tradition indicates not to slaughter the offspring of a sheep or goat until it is over eight days old. Rabbinical commentators argue greatly about this verse. Most focus on the grammar of the verse, but a few focus on the ethical dimension. Rabeinu Bahya, in particular, suggests that there may be an ethical dimension to verse 22:28. He likens the cruelty of killing a calf within its first few days of birth to Haman.
I would like to suggest that the ethical dimension Rabeinu Bahya picks up upon should be the direction we gravitate toward in this verse. Although many of us may have trouble connecting to the sacrificial language, at the very least we should gravitate to the ethical dimension picked up upon from this commentary. I believe this commentary is something we need to read from the text. We live in a world of immense exploitation of natural life. This exploitation has recently caused humanity great harm. We need voices like Rabeinu Bahya. We need to be more concerned about ethical conduct towards the treatment of animals.
Our haftorah portion today describes a world undergoing immense change and in-flux. The Kingdom of Babylon rebelled against Assyria in 626 BCE, leading to the fall of Assyria in 614 BCE. The weakening of nations around his own empowered Judah. Shortly following the demise of Assyria, there was a religious awakening in the eighth year of Josiah’s reign. During this period, the Temple was purified and a new book of the Torah was found, said to be Deuteronomy at its core. The latest book is canonized in our tradition.
In this week’s haftorah, Josiah will encourage the people to celebrate Passover. The text also describes part of the recommitment to faith, in which a public covenant ceremony is made between the people of Israel and G-d. The language used by Josiah in the verses, at times, evokes the She’ma’s proclamation of faith.
In many ways, the recommitment to Pesach is something we may all relate to this Pesach. In years past, I have heard again and again, “Next year I will be at the Seder. Next year I will do a Seder.” The world we live in today is riddled with challenges created by COVID-19. However, I am also seeing something very few of us expected. The isolation many of us are experiencing has led more of us to step outside of what we are accustomed to doing. I am familiar with more people engaging in Seders this year than in years past. For many, the ease of signing into something online and seeing people face to face through zoom or Facebook is easier than making a drive somewhere and arranging a large meal. Yesterday, many of my classmates held Zoom Seders. They averaged more people on a call than they would in person. In many ways, the circumstances of this year have enabled new segments of our community to engage with Judaism, to recommit themselves to our traditions by virtue of a means that is friendlier to themselves. May their commitments outlive this pandemic, and may next year we be joined together in Jerusalem!