2006A B C B A
Please Pass the Salt
The five books of the Torah
A = Bereshit; B = Shemot; C = Vayikra; B = Bamidbar; A = Devarim.
If we view the five books of the Torah as a whole entity, we find interesting parallels.
Bereshit is a tale of a family and an evolution over generations from an individual's faith to a community's embrace of that belief. There were many bumpy roads traversed along the way but the core family emerges intact at the end of the story. Bereshit is a chronicle about the past
Shemot is about the blossoming of this family into a people. Shemot records the Jewish people's exodus from Egypt and their transition into a nomadic nation wandering the desert. Shemot is a chronicle of the present.
Whereas the other books are replete with stories, Vayikra has few stories and little character development. Its primary focus is on priestly laws with detailed attention given to animal sacrifices and personal purity. The culminating chapter, 19, focuses on "Kedoshim tihiyu – you shall be holy" by loving your neighbor as yourself.
Bamidbar picks up Exodus' trail. Through the desert, the Jewish people meet both internal dissent and external foes along the way. It is a book of complaints and hope as the people transition from the exodus generation to their children who will enter the Land of Israel. Bamidbar is a chronicle of the present.
In Devarim, the mitzvot are given for life during Temple times in the Land of Israel but upon receiving these commandments the Jews are still a nomadic people who can only dream of owning land. The Temple is yet to be built, and so Devarim is a chronicle of the future.
Bereshit and Devarim both focus on the land of Israel, past and future. Shemot and Bamidbar take place largely in the desert in the present. But if these four books cover the past, present and future, where does that leave Vayikra? It is left standing all alone as the timeless book of eternity focused on the service of the divine through purity and holiness.
The Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah asks, "Why do we begin teaching children the book of Vayikra and not Bereshit? Because children are pure and sacrifices are pure. Let the pure come and involve themselves with purity." A child, innocent and wholesome, was said to be worthy of partaking in this learning.
Vayikra is not simply a passage about obscure levitical rules or leprosy. Purity and holiness are the book's main focus, with the Torah providing the road map of how to achieve them. Vayikra endeavors to close the gap between humans and the Divine. But this relationship needs work. As the Underground in London admonishes us, one has to first "mind the gap" to understand how to narrow it.
In his biblical commentary, the Ramban (1194-1270) advises us to view sacrifices, korbanot, as a means of getting closer to God. Not as an ancient cultural ritual but rather as a timeless path to reach God. Korban, sacrifice, stems from the Hebrew root karov, to get close. Today, post-Temple, we have developed alternative methods of finding God. The rabbis instituted prayer and it opens up a communication channel for many.
A spiritual journey needs divine assistance and demands personal effort to ensure success. The Torah provides us with tools, and one such guide is the command to use salt on sacrifices. In Vayikra 2:13 - "All your near-offerings of a grain gift you are to salt with salt, you are not to omit the salt of your God's covenant from atop your grain-gift, atop all your near-offerings you are to bring-near salt." Salt is repeated four times for emphasis. Salt in ancient times was used as a preservative as well as a taste enhancer. Our relationship with God needs salt: eternal support as well as an infusion of taste, understanding and reason. One can simply go through the motions on autopilot, but eternal experiences need to include passion and salt!
Youth, who represent our past, present and future, are first taught the book of purity and spirituality. Children, filled with optimism, can readily look at the world with hope.They start out sans any preconceived biases. God is pure. Children are pure. Leviticus is pure. Let them all find each other and holiness can spring forth. God's presence can certainly be found in the other four books, but no other book has a central theme of God's holiness and the people's holiness as its pinnacle message.
Hillel acts as a wonderful preservative for our religion. Judaism has been around for thousands of years and we constantly need to make religion relative. Bland ritual will be tasteless and eventually abandoned. Reason-filled and salt-infused understanding will enhance and preserve Judaism for generations to come. The Jewish people are at a critical junction where the other four books of the Torah are threatening to pull us apart. We argue time and time again about whether we should return to our past, live in the present or only plan for the future. Vayikra's message of eternal purity and holiness can enable us to combine the best of the rest. We must not forget to please pass the salt, the spice of life!
Prepared by Rabbi Ari Israel, executive director, Hillel at the University of Maryland, College Park
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Vayikra at MyJewishLearning.com.