After promising (at least to myself, and to the best of my ability) to return to Chumash Shmos again next year and relive the redemption, I got to revisit Vayikra, and relive the enormous glimpse of what holiness really means.
It is my favorite Chumash (if you're allowed to have one. If not, I’ll go into denial). It is like a table that is just groaning with goodies. There are piles and piles of laws. There are those that are somewhat arcane and esoteric. I like them the best. They don't let me fall back into platitudes. They look back at my blank expression and demand that I pick up a serious commentator and read what isn’t so visible between the lines. At the risk of being repetitious, no one explains the most difficult concepts the way Rav Hirsh does (at least not in English). Some of the more familiar laws are resonant with my moral sensitivity while others, like kashrus, are part of my life so seamlessly that I hardly have a sense of how much is happening on a spiritual level. There are main dishes, deserts, drinks and anything else that you may require at your average lavish feast.
This week’s Parshah is all about sacrificial offerings. They are often misunderstood. I have heard people (who have no trouble wearing leather shoes or eating steak) speak sincerely about “the poor animal”. Even worse, I have heard people call it “bloody and primitive”, as though the 21st century and the one that preceded it can be called anything less than barbaric. Like all mitzvos, you have to begin your assumptions that you are not worshipping yourself; you are worshipping Hashem. If this is true, you serve Him on His terms, not yours. You have to stretch, and move beyond your limited reasoning and go into another world, one in which Hashem’s will is the only relevant factor. Chazal (the sages) call this accepting mitzvot as Divine decrees. The underlying idea is that you go beyond yourself and move towards Hashem’s vison of what a human being can become. The word for decree is “gzeirah”. It is related to the world, ”gizra” which means pattern (as in a dress pattern for instance). It is used to see that the material you use is cut to size. Similarly, the mitzvoth are there to fit every aspect of what being human is all about. Ramban tells you that even though the mitzvot are gzeirot, and go beyond anything we could really grasp, at the same time they have effects that you can’t help but see. You never saw the Pattern Maker, but the glove fits your hand….
One category is mitzvot that improve your character. When the Torah tells you that telling an innocuous lie is still a sin, it is giving you far more information than you may know. It is simultaneously telling you that truth is a value. It is telling you that living with integrity and seeing life as it is, is part of a larger plan. The second category is mitzvot that keep you from wasting your life in the pursuit of spiritual fulfillment that is made up of nothing real. The Torah says, "Don’t worship idols"-they are just your aspirations and hopes translated into arbitrary rituals that can’t take you further than you. Don’t fall into the trap of superstition to give you a sense of control. Think how many lives were wasted because they either didn’t know, or couldn't bring themselves to let go, of the comfort of idolatry or the safety of superstition!
The third category is mitzvot that make you aware of how much Hashem cares for you, and is involved in your life. This includes mitzvot such as Pesach that tell you that He can get you out of even the most impossible situations, mitzvot like Shabbos that tell you that the process of creation is ongoing, and mitzvot like Purim and Chanukah that bring His presence into the historical process.
The final category include mitzvot that change your relationship to your body, and to your animal soul. Sacrificial offerings relate to your animal soul. You have one. Your appetites, drives, and desire for control and domination are its hallmark. In some ways, the animal soul is more significant than the spiritual soul. The spiritual soul is unchanging and holy. It’s the animal soul that needs to be dealt with. Everything about the sacrifices take you in that direction.
The main idea is that the life force, the blood, must be collected into a sanctified vessel. That means that there is a place for your drives and desires, your aggressive energy and your longing for being number one. You just have to have the Torah’s guidance to find the right vessel…
Purim is around the corner. Focus on how the desperation that the Jews felt (which could have led to the primitive fight or flight alternative, either which would have been ineffective at best, and fatal at worst) was placed in the “right vessel”; they turned to Hashem and changed their lives. It's not for nothing that Purim celebrates life force itself! The sages say that returning to Hashem when He was least "interpretable" is what accepting Torah with love is all about.
Start getting ready! Make plans. The big day is coming in just over a week!