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Vayikra – A thought for the week by Michael Lewis

The Sedra we read this week; Vayikra is also the name of the third book of the Torah. We commonly use the word “Leviticus”, derived from Greek or Roman usage, (Book of the Priests) or the Rabbinic name “Torat Cohanim”, (Law of the Priests). It actually translates as “and he called”. It was the call to Moses from God.

In Shemot, (Exodus), we followed the history of leaving Egypt, encountering God at Sinai and the physical construction of the Mishkan. In the coming weeks we encounter ritual and symbolism. Traditionally a young child begins Torah education with this Book. How can we ask a child to begin with a study of something as remote from his or her own life experience as sacrifices and Temple Pageantry? It is hard enough for us to deal with this as adults.

The building of the Mishkan had created symbols but what are we to make of the rituals described this week? It is not clear what went on in the first Temple, but sacrifices were certainly a major feature and were incorporated into second Temple times.

Gunter Plaut explained, “sacrifice” comes from a Latin word meaning “to make something holy.” The most common Hebrew equivalent is korban, “something brought near,” i.e., to the altar.

Being brought near to God is quite a challenge. The sacrifices were a way of atonement, recognising that we may go astray either intentionally or unintentionally. (Even today we say “ignorance of the Law is no excuse”).

With the destruction of the Temple, we needed to find ways in which the moral principles of the sacrificial practices appropriate for those times could be enshrined in our lives. We developed a ritual of prayer, study and mitzvot allied to all the many physical symbols which we could identify in our homes and synagogues.

Next week at Pesach we set out the Seder Plate with all the symbols on display and we also play out the ritual of the four questions. This is the tool which we use to hand on our heritage.

Throughout the year we have our Jewish symbols, around us but we also need to recall that ritual plays an important part in our lives. It can be a “korban” to bring us near to God.

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