When I helped guide a young Christian through a spiritual crisis, little did we know that it would result in a life-altering book. The Weight of Gold brings out the Torah’s universal messages for personal growth and social justice, showing that the Torah is indeed the User’s Guide to the human soul. Follow this blog each week for new insights into this ancient text. The book is now available through Amazon and in select bookstores. All profits from book sales are contributed to charity. See at: https://tikkunolam613.com
If it weren’t for the sins the holy book would’ve been smaller.
– Mahmoud Darwish, A State of Siege
The one lamb thou shalt offer in the morning; and the other lamb thou shalt offer at even.
– Exodus (29:29)
This week we begin the Book of Leviticus. As we have seen, storytelling both conveys and interrupts the Torah’s flow of lawgiving. Conveys, because our human consciousness is based on narrative – we can’t make sense of the world without our stories. Interrupts, because the transmission of the laws is repeatedly thrown off course by human actions, forcing the text – and God – to switch course. Eve and Adam eat the fruit, capsizing the project of Creation. Cain kills Abel, which boggles God’s mind; it is not until after Noah emerges from the Ark that God explicitly prohibits murder – anticipating Abraham’s argument over Sodom. After the sin of the Golden Calf, God instructs Moses to build the Tabernacle, providing the means of atonement.
The stories also provide broad frames of reference – a “Torah’s-eye view” of history. Genesis lays out the fundamental nature of the characters whose descendants populate the Bible; a biological human family that will become the nations of the world, but also a core of infinite possibility – Adam – that will fragment into a multiplicity of identities. We experience these identities as fundamental character types. More than mythic archetypes, real people embody ways of seeing the world and behaving in the world, and the differences between them give rise to the very human conflicts and – fewer – triumphs that fill the Bible’s pages.
Exodus introduces the problems of revelation. Humans need an intellectual experience of the world, as well as an emotional and imaginative one. We need both faith and fact; the head, as well as the heart. Science, to describe the world; faith, to teach us how to act in the world. When God stands revealed at Sinai, the faith part of the brain is confounded: God is no longer “religious,” but “scientific.” No longer believed in, but tangible. As much as the direct experience of the miraculous ratifies our faith, it undercuts it too, because of the impossibility of replicating spiritual experiences. How are we to bring together fact and faith? How serve God in the physical world?
We come now to the central book of the five books of the Torah, where we find compact lists of highly specific instructions for the priestly rituals in the Tabernacle. The name Leviticus signifies that this book contains the Laws of the Kohanim – the priestly clan: Aaron and his descendants. Here the Torah retreats from the flow of storytelling and marches resolutely into listing the ritual laws.
It may be that ritual laws need to be seen purely in their own terms. Illustrative stories about offerings of incense and slaughtered bulls and goats will all come down to images of God enjoying food, drink and pleasurable smells, and the rabbis fight long and hard against the anthropomorphic view of God. Also, perhaps by now the reader is used to the Torah as a book of laws and doesn’t need as much storytelling to stay engaged. At all events, it is less challenging to take in this flow of ritual laws in a purely mechanical retelling. The moral quandary of Adam – who truthfully says, “God, you gave me the woman, and the woman gave me the fruit…” – or of Cain, who says, “I didn’t know that I am my brother’s keeper” – these do not plague us now as we slog through lists of livestock and the details of the sacrifices.
There are, in fact, two stories later in Leviticus, one of which is a shocking depiction of the Torah’s world. But for the most part, the book breezes by without incident. As an (almost!) uninterrupted recital of rules, Leviticus is arguably the most “Torah-like” of the five books.
Still, humans need more than rules. We need reasons. And we do not understand reasons from explanations; rather, we internalize them through observing behavior, and through narrative. Leviticus is just short enough to hold our attention and manages to end before we lose interest entirely. Yet, because it focuses on ritual, Leviticus goes to the pure core of our relationship with God. If organized religion is a dangerous behemoth – as we saw in the latter portions of Exodus – it is also a unique vehicle for individuals to craft an intimate personal relationship with the Divine. Within the Tabernacle, we meet God in the most intimate of terms, in the void of the Sacred Space. Finally, God is invisible once again, and perhaps that is enough for mystery to return.
It is to this aspect of religion that Leviticus speaks. It opens with a highly detailed list of sacrifices and offerings and begs the question of why we engage in such practices at all. It is to this fundamental question that we now turn: if we can begin to formulate an understanding of the sacrificial offerings, we will find within them the key that unlocks the door to a direct intimacy with God. Who knew that organized religion could provide such a thing? Obviously, the Torah does know, and it is bursting with the desire to teach us.
The sacrificial offerings detailed in Leviticus are the human key to our intimate relationship with God, a relationship predicated on giving.
The human need to share lies at the basis of relationships, of society and all its institutions. It lies at the heart of art and invention – and certainly at the heart of organized religion. It is by no means the only component of these social structures, but it is an indispensable driving force in all of them. The Talmud says the most important verse in the Torah is (Ex. 29:39 and also Num. 28:4) “The first sheep you shall offer in the morning, and the second sheep you shall offer at twilight,” elevating the repeated daily ritual of giving to God to the status of a be-all of Jewish practice. (Similarly, the Hebrew word Tzedaka, meaning the giving of charity, is referred to in many places as the single all-encompassing religious commandment.)
What purpose do the sacrifices serve? Benjamin Franklin wrote that whenever he came to a new place, he would seek out the most important and influential man in the community and ask him for a favor. Franklin understood the profound and counter-intuitive psychological truth that people would rather give to others, than take from them. We would rather have others in our debt than be in debt to others. The moment we contemplate giving a gift or providing assistance, our emotional engines kick in. We begin formulating an emotional attachment to the person – even a complete stranger – building a positive opinion of them, such that we actually want to do the favor, give the gift, offer the charity, and such that we feel good about it afterward.
The Hebrew word for love – ahava – comes from the verb “to give,” and numerous commentators have observed that more than the love encourages the giving, the act of giving generates love. We are bound in love to those who depend on us – the more helpless, the stronger our emotional bond. We dissolve with aching love at the tears of our newborn child, we melt with poignant delight as we fondle a kitten or a puppy. The more we give to others, the more we draw close to them. The ultimate closeness, teaches the Torah, the ultimate intimacy is with God. If the act of giving generates love, how much must God love us, having given us our very lives, this whole world? And the Torah, to teach us our place in it?
Yet, offerings to God look like the ultimate example of “What do you give to the man who has everything?” The answer is that our offerings are not for God. They are our training in gratitude, in opening ourselves to the relationship that our own soul desires. A visible God is spiritually problematic; but our own need to give remains a mystery, enabling us to ground our spiritual work in the exercise of freely giving. In our own practice of compassion and generosity, we find the source of our own gratitude, our personal connection to the Eternal. Today the rituals of the Tabernacle and the Temple are replaced by daily prayer; by the daily giving of charity; by the weekly observance of the Sabbath and by the seasonal and annual round of the holidays. And not least, by the annual cycle of reading the Torah. Through joining together in ritual, and through selflessly giving to the stranger, we devote our time, our energy and our money to our relationship with God, thereby creating within ourselves a sense of attachment. It is a way of opening our own hearts.
Just as a world-class athlete must train each day, a spiritual practitioner must engage in daily observances. This is why it is called religious “practice.” The Talmud teaches that, through constantly performing religious observances even by rote, over time one internalizes the values and the message and ultimately comes to observe the practices for their own sake. We connect to our own unique relationship with God.
Leviticus is an instruction manual. If the Torah is the User’s Manual for the human soul, Leviticus is the guide to installation and maintenance. In our daily search for spiritual connection, we need all the help we can get, and ritual, well applied, is an important tool. Each action taken in isolation seems weary and stale. Flat and unprofitable. But taken together and repeated over time, our constant offering of ourselves to God strengthens the soul within us, teaching us to discover new depths within, and enabling us to reach out to support others and to fully contribute to the world.
Let us make of ourselves an offering – every day. Each morning and each afternoon. Constantly.
Yours for a better world.