Following a long and arduous escape from Europe, the Brisker Rav arrived in Eretz Yisroel accompanied by his sons and daughters. Many found themselves eager to help the noble family as they resettled. When the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, R’ Leizer Yudel Finkel, heard that the Brisker Rav’s sons were wearing the same suits in which they’d arrived, he sent an envelope with money for the Rav, writing on it that it is to be used to purchase new suits for his sons.
The Brisker returned the money with a note of appreciation. R’ Leizer Yudel approached him and persisted that he accept the aid to buy clothing for his children, but the Rav remained adamant in his refusal.
R’ Leizer asked him why he was so unwavering in refusing the gift. “Why should these Bochrim feel different than every other Bochur?” exclaimed the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva.
After some hesitation the Brisker Rav shared his reasoning: “It is good for them to feel different,” he said, “Because they are different.”
“The universe is the space G-d makes for man. The holy is the space man makes for G-d”
There is no doubt that five books of the Moshe comprise a progressive and comprehensive narrative, respective lessons notwithstanding. Yet, the book of Vayikra, seemingly, denotes a marked departure from the theme that flows through the Torah. One cannot help but note how removed this tome is from the general narrative, as well as from any significant historical context.
The book of Bereishis is a chronicle of the past. It is a tale of evolution over generations from an individual’s journey to a community’s faith, despite the many rugged roads traversed. Shemos is about the blossoming of this family into a nation. It records our people’s exodus from Egypt and their transitional nomadic state.
Bamidbar picks up Exodus’ trail. Traveling through the desert, Israel meets both internal dissent and external foes, as it progresses from slavery to the chosen people poised to enter the Land of Israel. Devarim is a narrative of the future, focused on life in the Land of Israel. Where then does this leave Vayikra?
Whereas the other books are replete with stories and character development, Vayikra is predominantly law oriented, its focus on historical background is limited to just a few short events.
The fourth Pentateuchal volume; Bamidbar, seems like the natural continuation of the second, in its depiction of the Mishkan (tabernacle) and the clouds of glory that accompanied the Israelites during their desert sojourn. It is in fact possible to read the end of Shemos, and continue on to Bamidbar without noticing any omission of Vayikra.
The three final verses of the book of Shemos describe the role of the Divine cloud that hovered over the Israelites in their travels through the wilderness: “And when the cloud went up from above the Mishkan, the children of Israel would journey… For the cloud of G-d was upon the Mishkan during the day and fire was there at night, before the eyes of the children of Israel in all their journeys” (Shemos 40:36-38).
In that regard, the immediate continuation would be the book of Bamidbar which picks up on the narrative left off in Shemos: “And on the day that the Mishkan was erected, the cloud covered the Mishkan… And whenever the cloud arose from over the tent, the Children of Israel journeyed; and in the place where the cloud rested, there the Children of Israel encamped.” (Bamidbar 9:15-17)
By returning to the concluding theme of Shemos, the Torah seems to be suggesting that there is a direct flow from the end of the book of Shemos to the beginning of Bamidbar. Accordingly Vayikra, whose focus is the tabernacle, its various sacrifices, laws of ritual impurity, laws specific to the priest and high-priest who served in the Temple, seems to be a digression between the book of Shemos and Bamidbar.
The above notwithstanding, our description of the perfect flow from Shemos to Bamidbar is, in truth, not completely accurate.
As part of the closing narrative of Shemos we learn about the Divine glory preventing Moshe from entering the Mishkan: “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of G-d filled the Mishkan. And Moshe was unable to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode thereon…” (Shemos 40:34-35). Yet somehow Bamidbar begins with G-d speaking to Moshe in the tabernacle: “And G-d spoke to Moshe in Midbar Sinai in the tent of meeting…” (Bamidbar 1:1).
There is obviously something missing. If Moshe was prevented from entering the Mishkan, how was he now suddenly able communicate with G-d? The absent link is actually found in the opening verse of Vayikra: “And He called to Moshe, and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying…” (Vayikra 1:1).
At the beginning of Vayikra, the Almighty calls Moshe and invites him into the Mishkan. Ramban notes that G-d had to invite Moshe to enter the tabernacle just as he had invited him to enter the cloud on Mount Sinai – which was engulfed by Divine glory – in order to receive the Torah.
We are hence forced to conclude that the opening verse of Vayikra contains an important and necessary link as regards the overall progression of the Torah narrative. But how does the rest of the volume, such as the laws of the festivals, the Sabbatical and Jubilee and the blessings and curses, not to mention the episode of the blasphemer and the tragic demise of Aharon’s sons, fit in with the overarching Biblical narrative?
What, for that matter, is the relationship between the various laws contained within Vayikra itself? It is obviously not a mere hodgepodge of entirely unrelated ideas. What then is the underlying theme of the book of Vayikra?
The answer can be stated in one word: “Holiness.” When examining the range of concepts expressed in the book of Vayikra, it becomes apparent that their primary focus and common thread is the Divine desire for Israel to acquire the trait of sanctity and holiness – a fundamental tenet of Judaism.
Holiness is a recurring theme in the tome of Vayikra, beginning with the initial set of laws: “And G-d spoke unto Moshe, saying: Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel and say unto them: You shall be holy; for I G-d your Lord am holy” (19:1-2). The segment concludes with another call to holiness: “And you shall be holy unto Me; for I G-d am holy, and have set you apart from the peoples, that you should be Mine” (20:26).
The subsequent laws belonging to the priesthood, continues the same refrain: “He shall be holy unto you; for I, G-d, who sanctify you, am holy” (21:8). Later in the volume, as additional laws are introduced, the pitch for holiness is raised once again: “And you shall not profane My holy name; but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel: I am G-d who hallows you that brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your G-d: I am the Lord” (22:32-33).
Holiness appears to be the underlying objective concerning the listing of the festivals as well, as stated in chap. 23 verses 1-3 : “And G-d spoke to Moshe, saying: The appointed days of G-d, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, these are My appointed times…”
This idea is repeated in 23:4: “These are the appointed days of G-d, holy convocations, which you shall proclaim in their appointed time. It stated once again in 23:37-38: “These are the appointed times of G-d, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, to bring an offering unto G-d… each on its own day…”
The entire tome is evidentially occupied with the concept of holiness, from the opening call to Moshe, inviting him into the Mishkan to receive the Divine word, to the Mishkan’s historic inauguration.
The word “Holiness” is, in fact, mentioned no less than eighty-seven times in the book of Vayikra.
The Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah asks, “Why do we begin to teach children Torah from the book of Vayikra and not Bereishis? Because,” asserts the Midrash, “Children are pure and sacrifices are pure. Let the pure come and involve themselves with purity.” The purity and innocence of children, renders them worthy of partaking in the holiest biblical subject matter; Vayikra.
The idea of holiness can be broken down into several groupings.
The episode of the deaths of Aharon’s sons, who entered the hallowed space inappropriately and the ensuing laws concerning the sanctity of the Mishkan, can be classified as “Sanctity of space.” The admonition against defiling the land of Israel through various transgressions and abominations would fall in this category as well.
The laws calling for Israel to conduct itself with holiness, as summarized at the end of the Parsha of Kedoshim: “And you shall be holy to Me for I am Holy and I have separated you from the nations to be for Me” (20:26), can be defined as “Sanctity of Man.” Included in this category would be the laws regarding the sanctity of the priests.
Finally there is the “Sanctity of time.” This is reflected in the decrees concerning the hallowing of the Shabbos and holidays, as well as the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. The root of the various commandments depicted in Vayikra, concerning sanctity, lies in the covenant between G-d and the Children of Israel, as described at the end of the tome.
In the above light we can understand the connection of the diverse spectrum of laws and ideas that comprise the book of Vayikra. We can also appreciate the position of the book of Vayikra among the five books. Rather than a digression, it represents the orderly progression in the sequential service of the Jew, commonly, as well as individually.
This is to say that after the book of Exodus comes Vayikra; after freedom comes sanctity. For a Jew freedom is not enough. Torah, which was given at Sinai – part of the narrative of the book of Shemos – is not enough. The sanctuary – also part of the narrative of Shemos – is likewise not enough.
A Jew must strive to achieve holiness, only then can he turn his sights toward the promised land.
It can, in fact, be argued that the entire purpose of our freedom; the entire purpose of the Torah and the entire purpose of the sanctuary, is so that we attain a measure of holiness. Vayikra is hence not a “Diversion” of the narrative; it “Is” the narrative.
Vayikra, the cacophony of laws that include reverence of time, place and person, bind the Jewish people together, marking them as different from the outside world. While this separateness is critical, it is not an end in and of itself. The purpose is “I am G-d.” The laws in Vayikra function to make G-d and G-dliness known to humanity. The call to holiness is an invitation to connect to G-d.
Holiness represents those points in space and time where G-d becomes vivid, tangible, a felt presence. Holiness is a break in the self-sufficiency of the material world, where infinity enters space and eternity enters time. In relation to time it is the Sabbath. In relation to space it is the Tabernacle. These are the epicenters of the sacred.
Space and time that is holy is empty of human devices and desires, into this emptiness comes the Divine presence. We make place for G-d in the same way that G-d makes space for us, by Tzimtzum, self-effacement, self-renunciation and contraction.
The most precious thing man can offer G-d is his freedom and will. G-d does not ask this of all people, all the time, for were He to do so He would defeat the very purpose of the creation of humankind. Instead He asks it of some of the people, in differential ways.
He asks it of one people; the Israelites, one land; the land of Israel, one day; the Shabbos and one place; the Sanctuary. These constitute breaks in the fabric of finitude, windows through which an infinite light flows into the world.
That light can be dangerous. Stare too long at sunlight and you go blind. The energy pent up in the holy is like antimatter. Without careful guarding it is destructive, like the deaths of Nadav and Avihu on the day the Tabernacle was consecrated. The holy needs to be protected, guarded, insulated almost like nuclear energy. The priests are the guardians of the sacred, and must themselves be as far as possible from the ordinary, the mundane, the mortal; above all from death.
The holy, then, is a time or space that in itself testifies to the existence of something beyond itself. Shabbos points to a time beyond time. The Tabernacle points to a space beyond space.
The Israelites point, by their very history, to a power more than merely human: “Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day G-d created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of?… Has any G-d ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by tests, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord your G-d did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?” (Deut. 4: 32-34)
The holy is where transcendence becomes immanence, where we encounter the presence of the One beyond the universe within the universe. That was the task of the Cohen within the Jewish nation. It remains the task of the Jewish people within the world.
May we merit to achieve true holiness in our lives as individuals and as a people, and fill the world with the glory of G-d which will surely hasten the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.