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Mordechai Silverstein

The Search for Authenticity

A couple of bibliographical details are in order. Even a cursory look at Sefer Vayikra, the book of Leviticus, reveals it to be quite technical in nature, with its detailed coverage of the laws concerning the sacrificial order and of ritual purity. This explains why the earliest rabbinic midrash on the book, from the period of the Mishnah (the Tannaitic period), the Sifra, thrashes out from Scripture the laws on these subjects. Comes the Amoraic period, the period when the Talmud was composed, and the task of mining the text of Vayikra for law has more or less been accomplished, and so, the next “midrashic work on the book, what we call Vayikra Rabbah (Leviticus Rabbah) is almost completely homiletical or message oriented.

This helps explain why the opening chapters of Vayikra Rabbah can focus on the opening sentence of the book before it contends with the religious meaning of the substantial content of the integral issues of the book. Sefer Vayikra opens with the verse:

The Lord spoke to Moshe and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: (Leviticus 1:1-2)

The whole second chapter focuses on the words: “Speak to the children of Israel”. This phrase opens the door to an in-depth discussion of a question which apparently greatly concerned the rabbinic sages, namely, why was the revelation of the Torah directed to a single people rather than to all humankind. If modern scholarship is correct, this question likely arose for a number of reasons: 1. The biblical wisdom literature assumes that wisdom was given to all of humankind and sometimes draws a link between wisdom and the Torah; 2. This same literature presumes that God taught Adam and Hava (Eve) to distinguish between good and evil; 3. This question developed from interaction between the Greco-Roman world that the sages lived in as well as an apparent debate between the sages and nascent Christianity. Rabbinic literature never makes explicit that this debate is going on, but the polemic nature of the sources would seem to suggest it. (See M. Kister, “The Commandments – Between Israel and the Nations in Mehqerei Talmud 4 – Heb.)

This puts into perspective why, on the one hand, the sages composed a system of obligation for non-Jews which was inclusive (the seven Noachide laws), while, on the other hand, established a serious defense of Jewish uniqueness and the preciousness of the Torah and its message.

The following midrash gives us a window into how the sages viewed Jewish uniqueness:

Speak to the children of Israel – Rabbi Yudan in the name of Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥman: A parable. [This is likened] to a king who had an inner garment. He would command his servant and say to him: Fold it, shake it out, and pay close attention to it.’ His servant replied to him: ‘My master the king, of all the inner garments that you have, you command me only regarding this one.’ The king said to him: ‘[It is this one] which I wear it directly on my body.’ So too, Moshe said before the Holy One blessed be He: ‘Master of the world, of the seventy independent nations that You have in Your world, You command me only regarding Israel: “Command the children of Israel” (Numbers 28:2), “Say to the children of Israel” (Exodus 33:5), “Speak to the children of Israel”’ (Leviticus 1:1-2). He said to him: ‘It is because they are attached to Me.’ As it is written: “For just as the belt cleaves to the waist of a man, [so I have attached to Me the entire house of Israel and the entire house of Judah]” (Jeremiah 13:11) … (Vayikra Rabbah 2:4, Margulies ed. pp. 40-41)

This midrash expresses the uniquely intimate relationship between God and the children of Israel. One can only conclude that this emphasis is founded at least, in part, on an environment where others are attempting to claim this role.

The following midrash views the mitzvot (commandments of the Torah) as a sign of God’s parental concern for the children of Israel, assigning to God the role of a “nurturing Jewish parent”:

Said Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai: [This is likened] to a king who had an only son. Each and every day he would command a member of his household [concerning his son,] and he would ask him]: ‘Has my son eaten or did my son drink? Did he go to school? Did he come from school?’ So too, on each and every day, the Holy One blessed be He would command Moshe and say to him: “Command the children of Israel,” “Speak to the children of Israel.” (Ibid 2:5, Margulies ed. p. 43)

One can only imagine that this parable was born of a caustic environment where the uniqueness of Jewish observance was being derided!

One thing is certain. For the Jewish tradition, the search for divine truth is a tedious road constantly filled with the tensions of real life, where one must come to terms with successfully living in the larger world while still struggling to maintain one’s authentic identity even, or especially, in an environment bent on quashing it. The rabbinic sages talentedly remained balanced in this struggle. Can we?

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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