Vayikra 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

With this week’s parasha we begin a new book of the Torah, Leviticus, called Vayikra, which means “He called”, the phrase that opens the book. The Book of Vayikrah is also called Torat Kohanim, or the “Instruction of the Priests,” as its main topic is sacrifices, purity regulations, and other technical religious details of the priestly religion. The first Torah portion sets introduces us to different kinds of sacrifices: voluntary offerings; offerings made to atone for accidental transgressions; and offerings made to atone to God after reparation has been done in a civil or criminal case. Offerings may be herd or flock animals, birds, or grains. The important thing to remember is that all these offerings were called korbanot, from the root “to come close;” the book of Leviticus offers us a window into a religious system that had at its core the idea of coming close to God through ritual action.

“God spoke to Moshe, saying: If a person sins and transgresses against God by lying to his fellow-person, [in the matter of a] pledge, or [in the matter of a] a loan, or a robbery, or [if] he defrauds his fellow-person. . . . ” (Leviticus 5:21)

This passage, from 5:21-25, deals with various kinds property crimes or criminal dishonesty; for example, if a person denied that he had borrowed money from someone, or tried to keep a pledge for a loan once it had been paid back. Such a person must make full material restitution to the victim of his or her crime, and add a fifth of the value of the property under consideration. Only then can the cheater or liar bring an atoning sacrifice to God.

The great Talmudic sage R. Akiva asks a great question: why does our verse say that the sin is “against God?” Presumably the cheater or thief stole from his neighbor, not from the Creator of the Universe!

R. Akiva explains:

    A creditor and a debtor or people making business negotiations don’t make or accept loans or make transactions except with legal documents and witnesses, and thus if somebody lies/ denies [the transaction], he lies/denies the [validity of] the documents and the witnesses. But someone who gives something to his neighbor as a pledge [or deposit], doesn’t want anybody to know about it except for the Third One between them. [In this case], when one denies the transaction, one denies the Third Party [i.e., God.] (Sifra, quoted by Rashi, Nechama Leibowitz, Da’at Hachamim, and others. My translation.)

On the simplest level, R. Akiva seems to be explaining the context of the verse to apply to a relatively smaller number of cases, those in which only the debtor and the creditor knew about the transaction. In such cases, it’s one person’s word against another’s, and it’s obviously hard to decide unless one party has conclusive proof.

Yet R. Akiva is also making a theological proposition here: God sees everything and knows what’s going on in this world, and is the ultimate Witness to ensure people are dealing fairly with one another. For Akiva, that probably meant that our fear of God’s punishment in this world and the next should be enough to keep us in line- not to mention, of course, the possibility of reward for good behavior, again in this world and the next.

R. Akiva’s midrash also reminds us that there’s really no distinction between ethics and spirituality in Judaism- how we treat each other is a direct measure of our faith, and our faith must always be made manifest in our manner of being in the world. Sure, God watches over us (and surely we can understand that proposition in different ways), but we are also, as liberal rabbis are fond of saying, partners with God in the work of perfecting the world. You want to have a spiritual experience at your office? Then choose to experience God as the Third Party to any contract, and live up to your word in such a way that your faith and ethics are made clear to all who meet you.

The story is told of R. Shimon ben Shetach, who bought a donkey from an Ishmaelite. His students found a precious stone hanging around the donkey’s neck! They told the rabbi, and quoted a verse to prove that God had made this miracle in order to reward the rabbi for his righteousness.

Rabbi Shimon replied: “I bought a donkey, not a precious stone!”- and went immediately to return it to the man who sold him the donkey. The story ends with the Ishmaelite, grateful and amazed at the rabbi’s honesty, blessing and praising the God of Shimon ben Shetach. (Deuteronomy Rabbah 3:3)

Now, most of us don’t usually have the opportunity to return lost diamonds. I would wager, however, that most of us we make promises we don’t really intend to keep, or borrow possessions or money for a little longer than we should, or tell little distortions of the truth when we’ve been irresponsible, or take advantage of other people’s trust at times when we’re rushed and stressed out. The challenge is to remember R. Akiva’s teaching, and remind ourselves that there is a Third Party to any human relationship or interaction, One Who urges us to be our best selves at all times: at the office, at home, between friends. Turned around, this challenge contains its own reward, because every interaction between human beings can become a meeting place for the Holy One.

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