If I were making a movie like “Oh God!” or “Bruce Almighty” that anthropomorphizes God and gives him a human appearance, I would definitely do one scene that showed God with an apron on and an ecstatic look on His face as he flips a burger on a grill. Because God must surely love a barbecue. At least that’s the way it would appear from reading not just this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, but much of the book of Leviticus that we started reading this morning.
There’s a whole catalog of offerings just in the first few chapters of Leviticus: the burnt offering, the meal offering, the peace offering, the sin offering. The list goes on and on. For several of the offerings we are told “it is a fire offering, rei’ach nicoach, a pleasing fragrance to the Lord.
This week’s Parsha – in fact the whole book of Leviticus – is challenging to the sensitivities of the modern reader. We just don’t connect with the idea of animal sacrifice as the preeminent path for connecting with God. The basic idea is troubling – why would God like the smell of burnt animals – and all the details are enough to drive us crazy.
As Rabbi Amy Eilberg – the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi – put it:
For most of us, Leviticus is a problem: at best, a bore; at worst, it can be seen as opaque, irrelevant, obsessively detailed. We moderns don’t understand the spiritual logic of the sacrificial system. We are uncomfortable with the focus on sin, and with the remarkable level of detail. The book speaks a foreign language that we cannot penetrate, and so we groan our way through the segment of the Jewish year when this book is read.
All of which makes a teaching from the midrash rather perplexing to us.
Rav Assi taught: Why do we begin children’s [learning] with Torat Kohanim, the priestly laws, and not with Genesis? Because children are pure, and the sacrifices are pure. Let the pure ones come and study pure things.
Torat Kohanim is the rabbinic term for the book of Leviticus. Instead of starting children’s Torah study with the book of Genesis, which seems “logical” to us moderns, they started with Leviticus and all the sacrifices. In some very traditional communities, they still do this. Many people of the “older generation” whose education started in a traditional heder started their Torah studies with Leviticus.
Rabbi Ari Israel of the University of Maryland Hillel expands on Rav Assi’s teaching. He writes
Youth, who represent our past, present and future, are first taught the book of purity and spirituality. Children, filled with optimism, can readily look at the world with hope. They start out sans any preconceived biases. God is pure. Children are pure. Leviticus is pure. Let them all find each other and holiness can spring forth. God’s presence can certainly be found in the other four books, but no other book has a central theme of God’s holiness and the people’s holiness as its pinnacle message.
The purity of children, God, and the book of Leviticus is nice midrashicly, but does it work pedagogically? Why would anyone want to start Torah study with the book of Leviticus? It seems far more intuitive that you should start Torah study at the beginning of the Bible: with the exciting stories of the book of Genesis, God creating stuff, Noah’s Ark, Abraham’s epiphany. So I did some research to try and figure out other reasons why we would start learning with Leviticus. I even asked a few colleagues for their ideas.
Most of my colleagues treat the idea of starting a child’s education with Leviticus as outdated. That it may have somehow been appropriate back in the days of the Temple, but times have changed.
Rabbi Avinoam Sharon, suggested that
…in an ancient society in which the formal study of Torah was primarily a matter for priests, the idea of beginning with Torat Kohanim made perfect sense.
Implication being now that it’s no longer priests doing the learning, we might want to start somewhere else.
Most of us would think that children would be frightened, or at least grossed out, with learning about animal sacrifice. Rabbi Art Lavinsky gave a sermon in which he said that once upon a time kids might have found these teachings reassuring:
When the pagans engaged in human sacrifice it was usually children that were offered up. And so now the words of our sages take on a different meaning. Children are pure. Children are holy. We specifically teach our children the Book of Leviticus to give them a sense of security. Animals are sacrificed – not them.
Both of these approaches are problematic because they are anachronistic. There is a tendency to conflate time when it comes to history. We tend to lump everything that happened a long time ago together. What difference does it make if something happened 1700 years ago or 2000 years ago? It’s all a long time ago. But if we compare life today to life 300 years ago, we can see that 300 years can make a very significant difference. Rav Assi, the Rabbi to whom the teaching is attributed, was a 3rd generation Amorah who lived in the early fourth century. So he was not talking about a society of priests – it had been over 300 years since sacrifices were offered in the Temple and the priestly class performed its functions.
And while there is archaeological evidence that human sacrifice was known in Canaan in the second millennium B.C.E., by the time of Rav Assi it had probably been over a thousand years since human sacrifice was common, and hence that would not have been a reason for the practice in his day any more than it would be a reason for the practice in our day.
I would like to suggest there may be another reason for starting children’s learning with sefer Vayikra. It may be that it’s because it’s a good place to start in terms of helping children develop good study skills.
Education is not only about learning concepts. It’s also about learning skills. Traditional Jewish learning relied heavily on memorization. Children were taught to memorize large sections of the Torah, and as they got older the Talmud.
The rabbis read the value of memorization and repetition in learning into the very first word in this week’s Torah reading. The commentary Pnai David teaches that whenever a “vav” is the first letter of a word, it can mean a repetitive action. “Yikra” can mean learn or teach as well as call; therefore, he says, vayikra means to learn or teach and go back and learn it again. There are numerous similar teachings elsewhere in the tradition: for example, in Pirkei Avot the rabbi Ben Bag Bag teaches “Learn it (the Torah), and learn it again for everything is in it.” In the Talmud it is taught that someone who learned something a hundred times is not to be compared to one who learns it 101 times.
If you’re wanting to start the educational process with teaching the skill of memorization, in many ways Leviticus is better than Genesis. For one thing, the text is fairly repetitive. For another thing, the student will be less likely to simply paraphrase a familiar story, and the student will be less likely to be distracted by daydreaming about the content.
I experienced the distraction problem when I served in the U.S. Army and was learning Morse code for my work as an electronic warfare operator. We learned and practiced listening to groups of random letters. On occasion we copied code that was in plaintext English, and it was a lot harder. When we had to do this exercise, I would get so distracted reading what was coming across that I would lose my place. So boring can be good when it comes to learning a skill that requires simple memorization. The only time, by the way, that I actually copied plain text Morse code while I was working as an electronic warfare operator in Thailand was on a Christmas Day, when after copying the usual encrypted groups of random letters, “Merry Christmas, GI” came across in Morse code.
Furthermore, if you start with memorizing powerful stories in the book of Genesis, you run the risk of taking something that should be fascinating and exciting and turning it into something rote and mundane.
But would starting with memorizing verses from Leviticus still be a good technique to use today? We want our children to be engaged in learning, not bored. Maybe kids a long time ago weren’t as easily bored as our kids are; would it still work today?
The evidence suggests that kids today are much like kids a long time ago. When I asked a graduate of the heder system from over forty years ago what he thought about starting with Leviticus, he said he never thought about it, he just did what he was told. And he would have done the same thing with Genesis.
I think that sometimes we do our kids a disservice by trying to make learning too easy for them. Memorization may be boring, but it’s a valuable skill. Ask any physician about the importance and difficulty of memorizing a lot of the details about the human body that you have to memorize in medical school. I teach flying, and there are a lot of things you have to memorize in flying. You have to remember a lot of rules for your tests, you have to remember a lot of routine procedures, and you better remember emergency procedures – if, God forbid, you had an engine failure it would be no time to go rummaging around looking for the equipment manual. I’m glad my kids learned some memorization in school. Over ten years since she learned it, my youngest daughter can still chant bereshit bara Elohim with the correct trope. It’s a valuable skill to be able to memorize.
And there is yet another reason to begin the education of Jewish children with the book of Leviticus and the teachings about sacrifices. A good education requires lots of sacrifice. If you send your kids to private school, such as JDS, you have to pay tuition. Parents have to drive the kids to school and other activities. A good Jewish education and accomplishing a bar or bat mitzvah requires additional sacrifices on the part of the child, giving up fun activities like soccer, piano, or karate lessons in favor of spending time memorizing a Haftorah, or working on a speech.
So what’s the purpose of sacrifice then? Why do we have all of these different sacrifices as given in this week’s Torah reading? God doesn’t need the sacrifices. And despite what I said at the start, I don’t think it’s because God likes a barbecue. We need the sacrifices, or more to the point we need the message of sacrifice – that to accomplish something, whether it’s deepening your relationship with God, or getting an education, it requires making some sacrifices, giving up something of value.
What’s important is to keep the goal in mind. If we remember why we are giving something up we can sacrifice it gladly and joyfully, knowing the sacrifice is in a good cause.
Right now, we are all being called on to make sacrifices. Even young people, who are at low risk, are being asked to sacrifice the convenience of ordinary life for the sake of those of us who are older and at higher risk.
Many people are sacrificing far more than the pleasure of visiting friends or eating out. Many people, not by choice necessarily, have had their means of earning a living sacrificed for the sake of the safety of everyone as many businesses have been forced to shut down.
I’m glad Congress passed the $2 trillion dollar stimulus plan, but I fear it won’t be enough for the small businesses struggling to stay afloat. Much of the funding is in SBA loans, and a loan, even at low interest, still needs to be repaid, and many small businesses can’t afford to take on debt. I would love to see our government do what some European countries are doing – providing funding to businesses so that they can keep people on the payroll, and be ready to come back to life as soon as conditions improve.
But whatever it is you are sacrificing in the current time of crisis, you can be sure it’s a sacrifice in the service of God, as much as the burnt offerings in the Temple 2,000 years ago.
May God accept our sacrifices lovingly, and may we offer these sacrifices lovingly. May God strengthen the hands of those working to find a cure, find a vaccine, and heal and otherwise take care of those stricken by the virus. May God bring healing to those who are sick, comfort to the families of those that have died, and quickly bring us past this crisis.