• Rav Yaakov Beasley




In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner







By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





For modern readers, the book of Vayikra presents two faces.  Its earlier chapters may appear incomprehensible, even repulsive.  They contain elaborate prescriptions for the sacrifices and the laws of tuma (impurity) that affect, for example, people suffering from leprosy and women during menstruation and after childbirth.  In contrast, the book's later chapters, beginning from the middle of Parashat Acharei Mot, display a concern for ethical values that strikes a much more positive note.  We have no difficulty in endorsing the famous injunction to love one's neighbor as oneself (19.18), a command that is buttressed by many laws relating to fair dealings and justice.  As expected, sexual promiscuity is frowned upon, and the holidays seem only natural, as if designed to inculcate a sense of gratitude for the seasons and their bounty.  Moreover, the stipulations regarding the sabbatical and jubilee years (chapter 25) have a renewed and challenging relevance to our own times in view of their possible bearing upon environmental and ecological issues and the problems of indebtedness. 


While there is no lack of ritual law in the second half of the book, there is a clear ethical inclination.  Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and others have pointed out that the book's dual structure mirrors the injunction given the Jewish people at Har Sinai before the accepted the covenant – "become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Is it possible, however, to find one unifying theme that defines our book?


B.  The Call to Holiness


Sefer Vayikra's primary concern is Hashem's demand that the Jewish people be kadosh - holy.  This concern appears as an explanation of the need to avoid non-kosher animals (11.44) and it prefaces the detailed and varied list of ritual and ethical obligations in Parshat Kedoshim (19.2), which concludes with Hashem's explanation of the ways in which "You shall not follow the practices of the nations that I am driving out before you" (20.23).  In fact, chapters 17-26 contain a dizzying myriad of laws and commands, and the idea of holiness – kedusha - is central in almost all of them.  Laws within this section include regulations regarding sacrifice (17:1-6), sexuality (18:6-23), familial relations (20:9), idol worship (20:1-5), priesthood (21:1-24), offerings (22: 1-23), festivals (chapter 23), and so forth.  Chapter 19 is a particularly interesting chapter, the most well-known verse being (18), "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." The juxtaposition of this verse with the prohibition against mixed breeding demonstrates that this chapter is as a microcosm of what is found throughout the book. 


Holiness, as understood by Sefer Vayikra, includes ethical and moral obligations as well as ritual ones.  This is confirmed by the important verses 10:10-11, in which Aharon is instructed to "distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean; and… to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them through Moshe." Vayikra does not indicate that any distinction can or must be drawn between ethical and ritual demands.  Do the two sets of obligations merely coexist as two sorts of requirement that Hashem has imposed, or are linked by some inner connection? To what extent are these two requirements complementary, and to what extent is there tension and perhaps conflict between them?


To answer this question, we must first understand what holiness is.  The second verse of Parshat Kedoshim states, "Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy."  What does a holy people look like?  What do they do?


Last year, we brought the two standard opinions from the Mikra'ot Gedolot, those of Rashi and the Ramban.  Rashi argues, based on the placement of this directive immediately after the listing of forbidden sexual relationships in chapter 18, that holiness is found where barriers and safeguards against promiscuity exist.  The Ramban formulates the definition of holiness differently.  The Torah admittedly places many restrictions upon a person, but even with the boundaries and restrictions, there remains sufficient room for all types of excesses.  Man still has enough freedom to indulge in physically enjoyable activities to the extent that he does not involve himself in spiritual matters.  The Ramban describes this state of being as "a despicable character, with the Torah's permission," as long as his indulgences violate no law.  To prevent this, the Torah commands, "Be holy;" even when permitted, refrain from self-gratification.  Last year, we discussed the role of the community in enforcing these standards, especially in extra-judicial areas.  This year, we will attempt to define the role of holiness within Sefer Vayikra from a different approach. 


We take our cue from the prophet Yechezkel (20:41):


As a pleasing odor I will accept you, when I bring you out from the people, and gather you out of the countries where you have been scattered; and I will manifest my holiness among you in the sight of the nations.


This is the sentiment expressed in the third blessing of the Shemoneh Esrei, the blessing appropriately labeled "kedusha:"


To all generations we will declare your greatness, and to all eternity we will proclaim your holiness; and your praise, O our God, will never depart from our mouth, for you are a great and holy God and King.  Blessed are you, Hashem, the holy God.


These texts demonstrate that holiness has an external function.  Kedusha has a communicative or proclamatory function.  It can be manifested among the nations, as in Yechezkel, and is to be proclaimed to all eternity, as in the Shemoneh Esrei.  In short, it can and should be communicated.  Simply put, "kedusha calls."


C.  I am Hashem


Aside from the rough juxtaposition between the ethical and the ritual mentioned previously, what is most striking about Vayikra 19 is the refrain that echoes throughout the chapter: "I am Hashem" (19:3, 4, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 25, 28, 30, 31, 32, 34, 36, 37).  It occurs, in fact, in the famous v.  18 as well, which reads in full:


You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am Hashem.


It is also found after other laws, such as "You shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your G-d; I am Hashem" (19:12) and "Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves; I am Hashem your G-d" (19:4), as well as in the context of several laws that are less readily understandable.  For example, we read, "You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you; I am Hashem" (19:28) and "But in the fifth year you may eat of their [the trees'] fruit, that their yield may be increased for you; I am Hashem your God" (19:25).  What does this refrain mean? Why is it scattered throughout this chapter and elsewhere in Sefer Vayikra? 


To answer this question, we turn again to Sefer Yechezkel.  There, the formula of "Ani Hashem" (the "recognition formula" or "proof-saying," the erweiswort) functions to reveal Hashem's essence through His actions.  In Yechezkel, this formula always precedes His activity, and Hashem is always the subject.  The purpose of the action in question is to produce recognition of God's revelation; the appropriate response is for Israel and the nations to recognize, acknowledge, and submit to God.  In other words, the action that accompanies the phrase "I am Hashem" functions to reveal God's person and nature to those who encounter it. 


This insight bears on the appearances of "Ani Hashem" in Sefer Vayikra.  The hodgepodge of laws that includes both reverence for God, family, and neighbor, as well as prohibitions against wearing clothing made from two types of fabric and the like, somehow serves to reveal Hashem, His nature, and His holiness.  These laws bind the Jewish People together, uniting them as the one people of Hashem, who serve and obey.  Simultaneously, these laws serve to separate them and mark them as different from the outside world.


This separateness is critical.  All societies and communities require boundaries, but this separation is generally not an end in and of itself.  Any Jew following Sefer Vayikra's laws would have to separate himself from the surrounding peoples, regardless of the self-revelation formula "I am Hashem." The formula gives the legislation motivation and reason, and gives the laws their communicative function.  Israel was hardly isolated on the geopolitical stage of the ancient Near East.  At worst, it suffered under foreign domination; at best, sitting on major trade routes and enjoying independence, the Jewish people encountered nations great and small throughout the ancient world, including Egypt, Aram, Phoenicia, Philistia, Assyria, Babylon, Ammon, Moav, and Edom.  Although not geographically separate, the Jewish People were called upon to be sociologically and theologically separate by virtue of their practices.  The purpose was "I am Hashem," that God wishes to know and be known by humans.  In short, the laws in Sefer Vayikra function simultaneously to separate Israel unto itself and to attract and call others unto Israel.


Given the presence of "I am Hashem" in Sefer Vayikra, the same processes as those in Sefer Yechezkel seem to be at work there.  The laws demarcate the Jewish people from surrounding nations in order to produce questions like: "Why don't you gash yourself for the dead? Why don't you sacrifice to Molech? Why don't you gather the fallen grapes in your vineyard - and why do you leave them for the poor?" Both exalted ethical behavior and remarkable rituals provoke these questions.  Ideally, based on the Ramban's understanding of kedusha mentioned earlier, the stranger's questions would come from the high standards exhibited by the community, far beyond the dry requirements of the pure legalities of the halakha - "You held his lost item for years, even though you weren't required to?"  The answer was not mumbled under one's breath – "Well, my grandfather on my mother's side did this…"  The only correct answer was proudly proclaimed: "He is Hashem," that is, "because Hashem is our God" (see Tehillim 105:7; Divrei Ha-yamim 1 16:14).  Sefer Vayikra serves both to assist foreigners come to the knowledge of Hashem and to help the Jewish people strengthen their own sense of understanding and faith.  In short, the call to kedusha does more than separate the Jewish people from its neighbors – ultimately, it is the invitation to knowledge of Hashem to all the nations, as envisioned by the prophets of old and until this day.[1] 


[1] See Yeshayahu 2, Zekharya 9.