Vayikra – on legal code, on liability, and on lesson-seeking

Whereas the books of Genesis and Exodus are comprised mainly of narrative, in Leviticus (Vayikra), the text begins to read more like legal code and less like literature (of course, Torah is all this and much more!). Our challenge is to find the narrative behind the legal text. What are these laws meant to accomplish? Whose power is enshrined? What do we know about a society that needed these laws and/or followed them? 

The text gives us clues as to how our ancestors lived and the society they hoped to build. For example, in this parshah we have details about how to perform ritual sacrifices made to ameliorate wrongdoing. The text makes a distinction between willful acts and accidental ones. Offerings are required in either case, but the distinction is important. To give a contemporary example, if we are driving a car and cause an accident in which someone is hurt, we may experience guilt and sadness. There may be things we can do to address the hurt we’ve caused, such as pay for the damage to the other car, ensure that if medical help is needed that it is provided, etc. We are still responsible for hurt we cause by accident, but the hurt is not a reflection of our morality or humanity.

If, however, we hurt someone intentionally, such as by gossiping about them, stealing from them, etc., then we are accountable for that in a different way. We are responsible to repair the damage but also to consider how we might learn a moral/ethical lesson and how we might change ourselves to better reflect our own humanity. Although the text does not say all of this, the distinction it draws between intention and action should drive us to contemplate its implications in our own lives. 

As we enter into the book of Leviticus, we move from compelling narrative to legal codes; often laws that we no longer practice and sometimes find offensive. To seek out the intention behind the text, there are many more questions we could ask: were these laws created so that people would start/stop doing something? Were they really practiced? Were the laws written retroactively to try to present a society as something other than what it was? Was there a true desire for law and order? Not every parshah provides us with answers to these questions. But many do, and it is fascinating how the Torah, in its exploration of literature, history (both real and imagined), and law can give us much to think about, even in the most trying of sections. We will explore Leviticus through this frame. 

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