I grew up thinking that the Bible consisted only of stories – Adam and Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah at Sinai. So, as I got older and started studying more of the bible, it was hard when the cycle of Torah reading reached the point of the year that we begin this Shabbat. This week, we start reading the book of Vayikra, the book of Leviticus. Except for the brief narrative describing the death of Nadav and Avinu who offered up their unauthorized incense, much of the book is consumed with technical details about sacrifices that we don’t even offer today. So, I often wonder what it means to read the words that, as Ramban (Nachmanides - 13th century Spanish commentator) points out, are the crux of the entire book: “You shall be holy, for God, your God, is holy.” (Vayikra 19:2)
Ironically, the word Vayikra means ‘And he (God) called.” It is sometimes hard to imagine how it is that we could hear God’s call today in the simple recounting of the miniscule rules and regulations of the tabernacle. Yet, the book of Leviticus itself tells us the Torah was given for the sole (and soul) purpose of creating a nation of holy people. Because God is holy, we too should be holy.
But, what does this mean and how do we find it?
Modern Commentator, Jacob Milgrom reflects: “Holiness means not only “separation from” but also “separation to.” It is a positive concept, an inspiration and a goal associated with God’s nature and his desire for man. “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” That which man is not, nor can ever fully be, but that which man is commanded to emulate and approximate, is what the Bible calls ‘holy’. Holiness means imitatio Dei–the life of godliness.”
In other words, holiness is not simply about abstaining from certain things through adherence to negative commandments of “you shall not”, but is about positive commandment to act with deeds of justice and mercy. That is, I believe, what Leviticus is telling us is the key to creating structure in society and is why at the very center of this book comes the commandment: "you shall love your fellow human being as yourself. I am the Eternal your God." This is the essence of our quest for holiness and godliness in our world and many a commentator over the centuries has tried to understand what it means to truly love one’s neighbor as one loves oneself. Yet, sometimes we are fortunate enough that the commentaries are not needed and the words simply leap off the pages (or scroll) in the moment of a real life experience.
Such was the case for me last week as I participated in a rabbinic mission sponsored by Jewish Federation of North America to Georgia (the country formerly part of the Soviet Union where Jews have lived for 2600 years with no anti-Semitism) and Israel. While in Tbilisi, Georgia, we visited an elderly woman, Tonya. A woman in her mid-80’s Tonya is housebound, has no family in the country, and lives by herself in an apartment that still shows damage effects from an earthquake ten years ago. Thanks to the work of Federation’s partner, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Tonya has food, her apartment was restored to more livable conditions, and she has an aid for several hours each day. As we sat in her one room that serves as her living area and bedroom, she told us the many losses she has suffered, the experiences she has lived through, and of her love of Jewish life and Torah. I chanted Torah for her from prayer books she has preserved from her father and grandfather. And, as we sat together, I no longer knew which of us was the giver and which was the taker, but I knew this was a moment of God manifested in my world. Thanks to the work of the partnering agencies, Tonya and so many others like her have food, medicine, shelter, social services that they might not otherwise have. They are our neighbors whose proximity transcends physical boundaries as we demonstrate love by helping insure their safety and security. They are all over the world and they are part of us just as we are part of them.
Even more remarkable, I believe, was the coincidental timing of this visit against the backdrop of the unfolding events in Ukraine, the location of last year’s rabbinic mission. As we traveled through Georgia, we were being given regular updates on the situation in Ukraine and the impact on the 300,000+ Jews who live there. Despite the dangers and the risks to their own personal safety, JDC staff remains committed to their clients, continuing to deliver food, money, alternative heat, and other resources to those affected by the ravages of war.
One more experience for the moment (though there are many more I could share) - this one from our time in Israel. We met with representatives from the Jewish Agency who are responsible for bringing Jews from other countries to build a life in Israel. They spoke not of the major waves of immigration that gained so much publicity when they happened, but of the care and concern that is placed on bringing individuals and particular families to safety and security, helping restore hope and freedom to any Jew from any place. To make this happen, however, there are those who put themselves at tremendous risk to help someone else and it is through the resources of the collective community that this is made possible. No interpretation needed – it is simply a loving act that recognizes that our neighbors are indeed worthy of what we would want for ourselves and we are responsible!
Surely, that is what it means to love our neighbor. And, I am proud to be part of a people that puts such high value on the dignity of human life and on the values of caring for one another in such a holy manner. I am grateful for the inspiration from those who do this holy work and for experience of God in this world. And, I am invigorated to support the work of Federation, JDC, and the Jewish Agency as a partner in demonstrating love to our neighbors and to creating holiness!
In the end, just as Genesis and Exodus, the book of Leviticus is indeed about the stories – the stories we live and the stories we create with each other. Vayikra – God is calling and is summoning us to be part of the unfolding divine narrative.
For more information on the work of these three organizations and/or to support their important work, you can visit their websites: