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Torah Sparks

March 24, 2012 – 1 Nisan 5772

Annual: Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26 (Etz Hayim p. 585; Hertz p. 410)
Triennial: Leviticus 3:1 – 4:26 (Etz Hayim p. 592; Hertz p. 415)
2nd Sefer: Numbers 28:9-15 (Etz Hayim p. 930; Hertz p. 695)
3rd Sefer: Exodus 12:1-20 (Etz Hayim p. 380, Hertz p. 253)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16-46:18 (Etz Hayim p. 1291; Hertz p. 1001)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser

Parashat Vayikra begins the biblical book of the same name. Leviticus – Vayikra – is the shortest book of the Torah. It is the third of five, and therefore the middle book of the Torah, thus reflecting the central role of the priestly cult and of ritual law in the worldview of both the Torah and biblical Israel. The Book of Leviticus is indispensable reading for people who would trace their religious experience and link their spiritual enterprises to scriptural origins. It is thus essential to avoid the temptation to dismiss the book's detailed description of the sacrificial cult as of importance only to a bygone age. This tendency is lyrically described by political journalist David Plotz in his bestselling reaction to the Bible, Good Book:

“Some of my friends doubted that my Bible reading would last past Exodus. Oh, it’s all thrills and giggles when you’re dealing with the ten plagues and the Tower of Babel – but wait till you get to Leviticus! They mentioned Leviticus in the same hushed, terrified way that mariners mutter, ‘Bermuda Triangle,’ or Hollywood executives whisper, ‘Ishtar.’ Leviticus, I was warned, makes even learned pastors weep with boredom, and turns promising young Talmudic scholars into babbling US Weekly subscribers. What would it do to an amateur like me?”

In contrast, Jewish tradition prescribes that Leviticus be the first text to which young students of scripture should be exposed: “Children are pure. Therefore, let those who are pure come and study matters of purity!” (Vayikra Rabbah 7:3). In that spirit... Parashat Vayikra outlines the principal types of sacrificial offerings and accompanying ritual procedures: the burnt offering (olah), grain or meal offering (mincha), and well-being or peace offering (zevach shelamim – described as “sacred gifts of greeting” by Professor Baruch Levine). These voluntary offerings constituted the regular religious expression of everyday Israelites, their leaders, and their collective community. Obligatory expiatory sacrifices (chatat and asham) were of a more limited scope and intended to effect reconciliation between the sinner or the community, and God in the wake of a religious offense or specific transgression.

Theme #1: “A Bloodless Revolution”

“It is a law for all time throughout the ages, in all your settlements: you must not eat any fat or blood.” (Leviticus 3:17)

Derash: Study

“Human beings can curb their violent nature through ritual means, specifically, a dietary discipline that will necessarily drive home the point that all life … shared also by animals, is inviolable, except – in the case of meat – when conceded by God.” (Jacob Milgrom, Anchor Bible Commentary)

“The regulations prescribed here regarding fat and blood are not restricted to the cult of the sanctuary but are obligatory, as well, in the homes of the Israelites, in the conduct of their private lives.” (Baruch Levine, JPS Commentary)

“The reason for these laws is that blood and fat were believed by our ancestors to be our most vital substances. According to Hebrew thinking, it was in the blood and fat that the life force was contained. As such, blood and fat belonged to God. By prohibiting the consumption of blood and fat to human beings and by demanding that the blood and fat be dashed on the altar, the writers of the Torah imbued the ancient practice of sacrifice with new meaning: Only God has control over the force of life.” (S. David Sperling)

“Eating flesh with blood is compared to shedding blood – to taking life.… Avoiding the life-blood, which is life, symbolizes the sacredness of life and the shunning of death … the prohibition of ingesting blood (symbolizing life), will ‘teach the Israelite reverence for life.’” (David Kraemer)

“Enough of blood and tears. Enough. We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred toward you. We, like you, are people — people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, to live side by side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free men.” (Yitzchak Rabin)

Questions for Discussion

Professors Milgrom and Kraemer stress that the prohibition against ingesting blood teaches us the sanctity of life. How else does the observance of kashrut sensitize us to moral issues and concerns?

Professor Levine observes that our verse extends beyond the cultic center to our “settlements” – our homes, our private lives. How is this specific commandment an apt nexus between the priestly cult and the Jewish home? How else do we turn our homes into temples, our tables into altars, and ourselves into heirs to a priestly tradition?

How is Prime Minister Rabin’s famous appeal (and specifically its vivid imagery) deeply rooted in Jewish text and tradition?

What are the limitations – if any – to the principle articulated by Professor Sperling: “Only God has control over the force of life”?

Theme #2: “Sin Rise, Sin Set”

“If it is the whole community of Israel that has erred and the matter escapes the notice of the congregation, so that they do any of the things which by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt – when the sin through which they incurred guilt becomes known, the congregation shall offer a bull of the herd as a purification offering, and bring it before the Tent of Meeting.” (Leviticus 4:13-14)

Derash: Study

“‘The whole congregation’ – This refers to the Sanhedrin, should it rule permissively regarding any one of the prohibitions of the Torah, and the whole community conducts itself on their erroneous instructions.” (Rashi)

“It is possible for an entire community to be misled or swept away by prejudice or emotion. The voice of the people is not necessarily the voice of God.” (Chumash Etz Hayim)

“The ancient Israelites had a strong sense of communal solidarity; they believed that the misdeeds of some members of the group, especially the leaders, could bring guilt upon all.… Certainly, it was not necessary for every member of the community to violate the law before a chatat was required.” (W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary)

“There are only two kinds of men: the righteous who think they are sinners and the sinners who think they are righteous.” (Blaise Pascal)

“Many of the insights of the saints stem from their experience as sinners.” (Eric Hoffer)

Questions for Discussion

The biblical presumption that “the whole community” can be in the wrong, together with Rashi’s assertion that the highest religious authorities also can err, is at the root of the Jewish rejection of the moral relativism inherent in the adage vox populi vox dei (see Chumash Etz Hayim). How are we to identify those occasions when the vast majority is in the wrong, and when our (albeit earnest, sincere and well-meaning) religious leaders have misled us? How are we to respond in such cases?

Chumash Etz Hayim applies our verse to instances when an entire community is “misled or swept away by prejudice.” Is it possible to be misled by more admirable motives, by the desire for – say – peace or inclusion or equality?

Is the “strong sense of communal solidarity” a matter exclusively of our ancient forbears (see Plaut)? Or is it evident among 21st century Jews as well? Is the belief that “the misdeeds of some members of the group” reflect upon the entire community a virtue or is it a social and moral stumbling block?

Is Pascal’s quip a valid Jewish perspective on sin and morality? Is there another category you would add to Pascal’s analysis?

Historic Note

Parashat Vayikra, describing in considerable detail the rites and sacrifices at the cultic core of Israelite worship, is read on March 24, 2012. On March 24, 1930, a religious service was telecast for the first time in history – by W2XBS in New York City.

Halachah L’Maaseh

It is considered forbidden to eat blood found in an egg – blood spots, known in Yiddish as blutstruppen. This practice is not based in the general prohibition against ingesting blood (see Leviticus 3:17, above and Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 66:1), but because the blood in a fertilized egg indicates formation of an embryo, the consumption of which is prohibited (Ibid, 66:8; see also Talmud Chullin 64B). The Rema (YD 66:8) establishes the requirement that someone cooking with eggs (eggs alone, or eggs added to other ingredients, as in baking) should check each egg to make sure no blood is present. This typically is done by breaking the egg into a glass and examining it from all sides. The Aruch Ha-Shulchan says that this is a universal Jewish practice (YD 66:32). Checking eggs is especially important in rural areas -- when you buy eggs at roadside farm stands or from “humanely raised” or “free-range chicken” sources -- where the likelihood that they are fertilized is greater. Industrially produced eggs today generally come from egg farms where there are no roosters in coops, the chickens do not mate, and fertilization is impossible. According to many rabbinic authorities, therefore, any blood found in the egg may be excised and the egg still used (see Responsa Yechaveh Daat 3:57, Yabia Omer YD 2:5, etc.). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein suggests that such an egg be discarded, though he acknowledges that its use is technically permissible (Responsa Igrot Moshe YD 1:36).

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