Vayikra 5779 – Judaism and Instruction Manuals

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

A couple of weeks ago, a box came to our door. A very large box. I mean really, the box was taller than me! Lucy, it seems, has outgrown her overnight “pack and play,” and she will be visiting soon. The large box contained her new crib. And not only a crib mind you, but when the time comes, it converts to a small bed.

Assembly required. Uh-oh.

Now in fairness, Nancy offered to hire someone to put this together, but no – I told Nancy this was something I should be able to do. And so that very night, I unpacked this large piece of furniture and looked at all the parts. One word came to mind: OY! Of course, it came with a set of instructions and diagrams. The barrel bolt goes here, be sure to put the hex nuts around each screw, part A slides over part B, etc. And heaven help me if one step is done incorrectly, as I found out the hard way.

I can read the minds of our newest grandparents in the shul – yes, Mike and Rachelle, when the time comes, I will gladly help you assemble a similar overnight dwelling for Henry.

I got to sleep later than usual that night, and awoke much earlier than I expected, with soreness in muscles I never even knew I had, but with a revelation – I had an idea for my D’var! Having read today’s parashah with dismay – and wait until the rest of you who have D’vars following mine in Leviticus – I was now on my way.

You see, the instruction manual for the crib needed to be followed exactly if the job was to be done right. And what is our parashah? A very long instruction manual about ritual sacrifices.

Here’s part, somewhat shortened and clarified, of a portion of today’s parashah:

“And if his offering is a goat, he shall lay his hand upon its head. It shall be slaughtered before the Tent of Meeting; its blood shall be be dashed against all sides of the altar. He shall present the fat that covers the entrails; the two kidneys and the fat that is on them; and the protuberance on the liver, which he shall remove . . . had enough?

OY . . . So there it is. An instruction manual by any other name.

And it doesn’t get much better. In coming weeks, we’ll read about skin diseases, mold in the home and, well, you get the picture. All of this seems quite alien to us. But we can’t do without it. It was our ancestors’ early attempt to find Gd and to walk in Gd’s ways. So let’s go on an abbreviated and selective journey across several millennia and discover what has become of the manual we find in today’s parashah.

A couple of millennia after Leviticus was written, along came Isaiah. First chapter!

“What need have I of all your sacrifices?” says the Lord

“I am sated with burnt offerings of rams

I have no delight in lambs and he-goats

You come to appear before me – who asked that of you?

Bringing offerings is futile!

incense is offensive to me

Your new moons and fixed seasons fill me with loathing

They are a burden to me. I cannot endure them

And when you lift up your hands, I will turn my eyes away from you.”

Whoa! I guess there should be no Judaic instruction manual for Isaiah.

Perhaps a century or two after Isaiah wrote his words, the first Temple was destroyed. The Temple was replaced by synagogues. Sacrifice was replaced by prayer. Centuries later, the Talmud was compiled. In the first chapter of Mishna Brachot, the questions are not about sacrifice but rather, it is asked: “From what time can the evening Shema be recited?” Certainly far removed from finding a protuberance on the liver!

The debate rages in the Talmud about this prayer and that ritual, until Rabbi Eliezer denounces the whole exercise: “When prayer is fixed – made routine – it is no longer genuine prayer,” he says. Prayer that becomes fixed and statutory, with no feeling is like the instruction manual for the crib. Like just another technical manual that we can get online. Isaiah would have been proud of Eliezer.

Those ways – those ritual sacrifices – have now been replaced by other rituals. Long ago, we became more comfortable around a holiday table than around an altar of sacrifice. Our davening, our prayers are now the ways many people draw closer to the Divine. The text might be challenging, but there are lessons hidden within, and it’s up to us to find them.

From Leviticus to Isaiah, to the Mishna, to Abraham Joshua Heschel.

In his book, “Gd in Search of Man,” here are a few of Heschel’s quotes: “It is a distortion to reduce Judaism to a cult or a stream of ceremonies.” And this: “No religious act is properly fulfilled unless it is done with a willing heart and a craving soul.” No other area of observance required such strict adherence to formalities as the ritual at the Temple in Jerusalem. But he also writes, “Gd asks for the heart, not only for deeds; for insight, not only for obedience, for understanding, not only for acceptance.” Quite a change, over millennia, from Leviticus.

If we looked at old papers we wrote in our youth, we would probably cringe a bit, just as we cringe when reading Leviticus. But that very act of cringing when reading papers from our youth shows that we’ve grown, and cringing when we read some sections of Leviticus shows that we’ve grown as a people. After the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and the Jewish people was dispersed, synagogue services replaced the sacrificial rites that we read about still. Our current day rabbis are in many ways, derived from the priests of the Bible. Modern-day Judaism began with what we will read this week. May we always remember our roots – personal and religious.

And by the way, by late that evening, the crib was fully assembled.