Yom Shabbat, 17 Tammuz 5779
Saturday, 20 July 2019
Parashat Vayikra 2014

Parashat Vayikra
Rabbi Alexandra Wright
7 March 2014

The beginning of Leviticus presents something of a challenge for contemporary readers. The first eight chapters are preoccupied with the procedures for sacrificial worship and the different types of basic offerings. Sacrifices, (the Hebrew word is korban, from the root k-r-v, meaning ‘to draw near’) is offered up to restore order when guilt has occurred. It is only in the last seven verses of this week’s sedra (Chapter 5:20-26) that the focus shifts away from the rituals of the sanctuary and lists the offences requiring reparation between individuals before expiation can be made between God and the individual. Each one of the trespasses listed is a violation of an ethical, social or economic nature: fraud, robbery, lying – any loss incurred by the victim must be repaid with an additional 20% compensation. Only after this reparation is made can the offender approach the altar and seek forgiveness from God.

The accompanying Haftarah (Isaiah 43:20-44:23) is a brilliant choice of complementarity to the Torah reading. Living in exile in Babylonia, the anonymous prophet of the sixth century BCE, known as Deutero-Isaiah, announces to the people that there is no recourse to sacrificial worship in the Jerusalem Temple. When you sin, you can bring Me no sheep for burnt-offerings, I burden you with no grain-offerings or make no demands for you to wave your incense before My presence, says the Eternal One. Instead, approach Me without such interventions, for it is only I who blot out your transgressions for My own sake and remember your sins no more.

This complete contrast to Leviticus presents Israel, not as a nation similar to other nations in worship of their God, but as a singular, unique people: “This people I formed for Myself….Listen to Me now, O Jacob, My servant, Israel, My chosen one…” Israel is to be God’s witnesses, rejecting idolatry. It is through loyalty to the divine covenant that Israel is to become a ‘light to the nations’, ‘a holy nation’.

How can we understand the events taking place in Ukraine currently in the light of these two readings which we shall hear this coming Shabbat? It is difficult to ignore in those opening chapters of Leviticus the drama and noisy and bloody chaos of animal sacrifice. Some have spoken of the sacrifice of those who, in recent weeks, came to Maidan Square in Kiev to align themselves with the desired values of decency, democracy and demonstrable fairness and whose lives were brutally and swiftly extinguished.

Deutero-Isaiah’s words single out the Jewish people as a ‘chosen people’, redeemed and glorified, unique and singular in its loyalty to God. The doctrine of chosenness has been a two-edged sword for our people, perpetuating our survival and our belief in ourselves, but also singling us out for oppression and persecution.

In the struggle for an open and egalitarian society, whether in the peninsula of Crimea or throughout Ukraine, the teaching of chosenness, or any kind of ethnic superiority can be fatal. It stirs prejudice and hatred, resentment and too often, violence.

To be God’s witnesses is to jettison the old idols of nationalism and fascism, for there is no people greater than another, no one nation cast in the image of God to be raised up above all others. We are all equal, we are all created in that divine image and our task on earth is to embody that teaching of fairness and equality that names each one of us a child and servant of God. It is in this spirit that we and our neighbours must all learn to live peaceably together.