Freedom and Sacrifice - Parashat Vayikra

Today, we opened Sefer Vayikra - the Book of Leviticus. This book is mostly interested in the sacrificial system and in concepts of ritual purity and impurity. Today, we read about the rules and regulations of various sacrifices, none of which we are currently able to perform, because we do not currently have a Temple. And since so many of us are currently concerned with the practicalities of Passover preparations, the rather less relevant rules of Parashat Vayikra might seem a little strange to us.

It occurred to me this week that the system of Torah reading always puts us in the Book of Leviticus in time for Passover. Passover, the holiday that it so clearly and intricately linked with the Book of Exodus, apparently never occurs when we’re still in the Book of Exodus. We always enter the Book of Leviticus just a few short weeks before Passover. But it apparently didn’t occur to our ancestors to stretch out the readings in Exodus and condense the readings in Leviticus in order to give us the occasional year in which Passover occurs in its own book of the Torah.

And so this year I am wondering: Is there a reason that we need to be in Vayikra, in Leviticus, for Passover?

When the Israelites first requested to be allowed to leave Egypt, Moses makes this request in order that they can make sacrifices to God. There is something about freedom to worship their own God which is inherently bound up in the question of who the Israelites belong to. If they belong to Pharaoh, they have no rights to perform their own acts of worship. The ability of a people to participate in their own religious acts is itself an act of freedom.

There is a beautiful teaching in the Talmud, in Eruvin 54a, in which Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov comments on the verse in Exodus, ‘the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets’. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov says: “Don’t read ḥarut: engraved - instead, read ḥeirut: freedom.” Following the Law of God is linked to freedom. Now this obviously doesn’t work if we think of freedom as being unbound. There is a binding to covenant which takes place here.

The clue, I think, is in the word that Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov uses for freedom, linked to that word for engraving: ḥeirut. This is a word we might recognise for freedom from the phrase ‘z’man ḥeiruteinu’ - the Season of our Freedom. But it’s not actually the Torah’s word for freedom. When the Torah talks about freedom, the kind of liberation we experience in leaving Egypt, it talks about ḥofesh. That is freedom from constraints. This is what the slave is given upon liberation: no more masters. But that is not the kind of freedom we talk about in ‘free society’. On a societal level, ḥofesh is the kind of freedom that is described in the Book of Judges, in which everyone does what they deem right, and the society quickly falls apart. The freedom of ḥeirut, on the other hand, is the freedom that allows us to live together. If ḥofesh is the freedom people talk about during this pandemic when arguing for the right to have unsafe gatherings, ḥeirut is the freedom of a society that looks after one another.

These freedoms are certainly related to one another, but it is easy to think of liberation as only being about the physical aspect of slavery. In the words of my rabbinic neighbour, Rabbi Naomi Goldman of ‘Kol Chai’ in Hatch End: ‘When whole societies achieve liberation, if they don’t think through what they are doing, they can become trapped again.” If we want personal ḥofesh to last, we need to be engaging on a deeper level with ḥeirut. If we want physical freedom to last, we must engage in spiritual freedom, in the deeper freedom of building society together, in the kind of freedom that our ancestors craved when they were longing to be able to give sacrifices to God. 

That, I think, is why Passover needs to begin with Sefer Vayikra, with the Book of Leviticus. Because this is the goal. Maybe not the literal sacrifices of our deep past. But the understanding that liberation is complicated and requires ongoing work to maintain.

Shabbat shalom. 



Popular posts from this blog

The Book of Haggai

Tazria: Staying Outside the Temple Gates

The Golem, the Virgin Bride, and the Beautiful Captive