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Rabbi Francis Nataf

The Book of Vayikra focuses on laws that will make the Jews a nation of priests. The idea is to transcend basic morality and become a spiritual conduit and inspiration for the rest of mankind. Many aspects of holiness are dealt with in this book and one senses a certain order as well. It starts with a method to atone for sins, without which a person cannot really stand in front of God. This is followed by a discussion of various impurities that must be discarded in order to reach higher levels of connection with the Divine. Another impediment to this connection is what we eat, and so we read about the laws of kashrut. The Torah then deals with more general guidelines required for holiness and seems to culminate in last week’s parsha, with the extra laws required for the higher echelons of religious ministry, notably the priests and the high priest.

Yet the book does not end there with Parshat Emor, nor is Emor immediately followed by Parshat Bechukotai. The latter essentially reinforces the rest of the book, by spelling out the consequences of following or not following the laws previously set out. But before we get to this fitting ending, the order of the book is interrupted by a parsha that is not an obvious fit, Parshat Behar.

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Behar is primarily about ways to prevent Jews from descending into cycles of poverty. In it we read that land is something not meant to be sold and that it generally always goes back to the original owner every fifty years. Likewise, selling oneself to pay off one’s debts cannot be open-ended, and is structured in such a way as to rehabilitate the debtor. The Torah’s lesson here, as it is in many places, is that there must be opportunities for new beginnings.

Two important observations about the placement of these laws come to mind. The first is that these laws form a part of holiness altogether. We often think of social and economic laws as practical measures that allow a society to flourish and live in harmony. In contrast, we think of holiness as consisting of thing that are connected to rituals and direct service to God. Yet the placement of these laws in Vayikra shows us that true holiness means helping others to live in freedom and dignity. If it is not a priority, it shows disrespect for the most tangible manifestations of God’s presence in the world, namely all creatures created in His image.

The second observation is that these laws come at the end of everything else in this book about holiness. It could be because it is actually the true pinnacle of holiness, if we only understand it correctly. But I believe there is an even more compelling reason. That is that helping others comes at a real cost to myself, which obviously makes it more difficult to fulfill. That being the case, it is only presented after the reader is fully on board with the rest of the program.

It is interesting to note that the other major item that comes at a financial cost is the sacrifices to God, and that that item actually comes at the beginning of the book. Yet experience shows that it is easier for most people to give to abstract causes than to people in need. The abstract cause stands in its majesty and represents a call to raise ourselves up to that majesty. The debtor, however, often calls to us from the depths of disgrace and bad habits. He is frequently the fellow who does not spend his money wisely, does not plan well or simply lacks basic self-respect. We look at him and find it difficult to help someone we feel doesn’t help himself. Difficult though it may be, the Torah tells us that holiness is not only about soaring to the heights but also about being involved with those stuck in the mire.

One thing that emerges clearly, however, is that if we do not take the final step in the book of Vayikra and release others from the cycle of poverty, our holiness remains incomplete. And as the Rabbis have taught us elsewhere, what we do is ultimately defined by its final step.

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