How Does The Structure Of Leviticus Reveal Its Meaning? The Book's Epic Conclusion | Aleph Beta

The Epic Conclusion To Leviticus

How Does The Structure Of Leviticus Reveal Its Meaning?

Immanuel Shalev


Here we are, finally, at the end of the Book of Leviticus. We've gotten through all those details about sacrifices and purity and holidays — which were not so easy to keep track of! — and that second-to-last chapter with all those curses — that was downright uncomfortable. But we've made it through, and now, we're ready for the inspiring conclusion. What did Leviticus teach us? Will we get a clue as to how to understand the overall meaning of Leviticus?

Surprise! Turns out the epic conclusion is our free guide on how to be an appraiser!??

That’s right. The whole final chapter of Leviticus deals with the laws of eiruchin, appraisals – how much you owe if you pledge the worth of a man, or a cow, or a parcel of land to God.

Not what you were expecting? Feel like maybe you missed the big punchline, the grand finale, of what the Book of Leviticus really means? Well, maybe it’s because you did: it’s actually in chapter 16, right in the middle of the book.

Not sure how that works? Then you're going to want to watch this video, in which Imu and David explain the structure, and the deeper meaning, of the Book of Leviticus.

Watch Rabbi Fohrman's Acharei Mot video mentioned in this parsha.


David: Welcome to Parshat Bechukotai – the last parsha in the Book of Vayikra.

Immanuel: Vayikra has been a pretty important, and surprisingly interesting, book. We learned about laws of the mishkan, sacrifices, purity, holiness, and how to live with God. And now, we've finally reached the end of the book. So what is our epic conclusion going to be? About communicating with God? Is it about how to see holiness in our fellow people? How to get better at all of our relationships? What is it?

Understanding the Meaning of the Book of Leviticus

Immanuel: Actually, the final chapter seems completely anticlimactic. It's all about laws pertaining to offering tribute to God, what is known as the laws of eiruchin, of value. Specifically, if I pledge something to God, and then I need to swap it for something else. God tells Moses a whole list of formulas for how to determine the value for my pledge. For example, וְאִם-בְּהֵמָה--אֲשֶׁר יַקְרִיבוּ מִמֶּנָּה קָרְבָּן, לַיהוָה – and if the offering that one pledges to God is of cattle, then it's worth this much. וְאִם, כָּל-בְּהֵמָה טְמֵאָה – and if it's from an impure animal, it's worth this much...and the list goes on and on.

David: What?? That's not spiritual! This is supposed to be our epic conclusion? We finished talking about tributes to God way back in the beginning of this book, when we talked about korbanot.

So why are these laws here, and why were they chosen to end a book all about living together with God? This week on the Parsha Experiment.

Hi, I'm David Block, and I'm Imu Shalev, and welcome to the Parshat Experiment.

A Synopsis of Leviticus

David: As we mentioned, that theme of giving tribute to God seems pretty similar to korbanot, the tributes offered to God at the very beginning of Vayikra. But the similarities don't stop there. Both are about sanctifying something for a Godly purpose, and both talk about offering firsts – either fruit or animals. And it's not just the themes that are similar, it's also the language. Take a look at the list of laws in the first 7 chapters of Leviticus. It follows a very similar if/then formula as in the very last chapter of Leviticus.

אָדָם כִּי-יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קָרְבָּן, לַיהוָה – if a person wants to bring an offering to God,

אִם-עֹלָה קָרְבָּנוֹ מִן-הַבָּקָר – if the offering is of cattle, then these are the rules...

וְאִם-מִן-הַצֹּאן – and if it's from sheep, these are the rules.

And so on.

Immanuel: And, look at how each section ends. The long list of korbanot in chapter 7 ends with: these are all the laws of all the offerings, אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֶת-מֹשֶׁה, בְּהַר סִינָי – that God had commanded Moses at Mount Sinai. And the last verse of chapter 27: אֵלֶּה הַמִּצְו‍ֹת, אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֶת-מֹשֶׁה--אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: בְּהַר, סִינָי – these are the laws that God had commanded Moses to tell the Israelites at Mount Sinai! It really does seem like these two sections parallel one another.

Okay, so the last section mirrors the first. That's interesting. But maybe if we keep looking, we'll find that these two sections aren't the only ones that correspond. Maybe, these parallels are actually the first layer of a chiasm.

A Closer Study of the Structure of Leviticus

In a chiasm, or Atbash pattern, the first section is mirrored by the last section, the second is mirrored by the second-to-last, third by third-to-last, et cetera – and all of it converges to the center, the main idea which everything else revolves around. And if that's the case, then we understand why this section on eiruchin ends the book of Vayikra – because it mirrors the first section, on korbanot. Let's continue in the text and see if we can find more parallels, to test our theory.

David: Right after chapter 7, we are given laws about the priests who serve in the Mishkan and their elaborate induction ceremony. The kohanim are told: וּמִפֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֹא תֵצְאוּ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים – and you should not leave the tent's entrance for 7 days. And then, a few verses later: וַיְהִי, בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי. – and it was on the 8th day…. Time seems to play a big role here, counting 7 days, and the 8th day. And, right after time, we hear about the induction ceremony of the Mishkan itself, and how God personally inaugurated its service – וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ, מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ – and a flame went forth from God and consumed the very first offering brought on the altar.

Do we see anything about these three elements – priests, time, and Mishkan – at the end of Leviticus?

What Is the Structure of Leviticus Teaching Us?

Immanuel: In Chapters 21 and 22 we get new laws regarding priests, this time, about those ineligible to serve in the Mishkan. For example: לְנֶפֶשׁ לֹא-יִטַּמָּא בְּעַמָּיו, that priests should not go near a dead body, כִּי, אִם-לִשְׁאֵרוֹ, הַקָּרֹב, אֵלָיו: , except for his close relatives. So the priests are back. And next up, the focus shifts to time. שׁוֹר אוֹ-כֶשֶׂב אוֹ-עֵז כִּי יִוָּלֵד, וְהָיָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תַּחַת אִמּוֹ; when a bull or sheep or goat is born, it stays with its mother for 7 days, וּמִיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי, וָהָלְאָה, יֵרָצֶה, לְקָרְבַּן אִשֶּׁה לַיהוָה – and from the 8th day and on, it can be accepted as an offering. Again, wait for 7 days, and on the 8th day you can proceed! Then, Chapter 23 introduces the holidays – which are all about time, and with the same numbers – Shabbat is on the 7th day. Passover is 7 days. Sukkot is 7 days with an 8th day holiday.

David: So what should we see next? Well, if the parallels continue, the next section would be laws pertaining to the mishkan service, right? The problem is, that's not what appears. Instead, chapters 25 and 26 are about land… 25 is about shemita and yovel, and 26 lists the benefits of land which come from following God. So, we're stuck…the parallels end.

But maybe not. Yes, there's no actual Mishkan in chapters 25 and 26. But is there the idea of the Mishkan?

As we've discussed in past videos, the Mishkan is the place we created for God, where we get to live together with Him. And what is land? Land, Israel, is the place that God created for us, where we can live together with Him! It seems like, maybe, they're actually the same thing. Maybe the mishkan, on the microcosmic level, is what land is on the macrocosmic level. They are both places to live together with God. So maybe Mishkan was the wrong title for this section – it's more like "sacred space." In fact, maybe these 3 groupings, Priests, Time and Space, are really just one section about serving God in sacred time and sacred space.

Immanuel: As you might remember, chapters 11–15 are all about those who become tamei, ritually impure, like a yoledet, or someone who contracts tzara'at. And it talks about the process they go through to become tahor – ritually pure, and sometimes, even kadosh – holy. And then the parallel section, chapters 18–20, is about how not to become tamei, through things like idol worship or inappropriate sexual relationships, about how to make sure to stay tahor, and how to achieve kedusha by respecting and creating space for others.

David: And if that's not enough, look at the precise language – in the beginning of the first section, it says: וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי; sanctify yourselves and you'll be holy, because I am holy. And it concludes: זֹאת תּוֹרַת הַבְּהֵמָה, וְהָעוֹף, וְכֹל נֶפֶשׁ הַחַיָּה, הָרֹמֶשֶׂת בַּמָּיִם; – those are the laws of the animals, birds, and all living things that creep in the water, לְהַבְדִּיל, בֵּין הַטָּמֵא וּבֵין הַטָּהֹר; וּבֵין הַחַיָּה, הַנֶּאֱכֶלֶת, וּבֵין הַחַיָּה, אֲשֶׁר לֹא תֵאָכֵל – in order to separate between the impure and pure, and between animals that you can and can't eat.

And now, look at the last verses of Chapter 20 – the end of the second section. וְהִבְדַּלְתֶּם בֵּין-הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהֹרָה, לַטְּמֵאָה, וּבֵין-הָעוֹף הַטָּמֵא, לַטָּהֹר; and you should separate between pure and impure animals and birds…. וִהְיִיתֶם לִי קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָה; – and you should be holy to me, because I, God, am holy.

Immanuel: Look at that – they're almost perfect reflections of each other! Both summary verses charge us to separate between tamei and tahor animals, and both charge us to be holy, kadosh, because God is holy.

And finally, we get to the middle, the center of the chiasm, which we've been building towards. And what is this epic center?

The Center of the Chiastic Structure of Leviticus

Oddly enough, it is these strange laws of the Yom Kippur service, in the inner chambers of the mishkan. Is that what we've really been building up to? Why does the book of Vayikra seem to revolve around the Yom Kippur service of all things?

David: Well, what is the essence of the Yom Kippur service? As Rabbi Fohrman spoke about in a previous Acharei Mot video (linked below), the highlight of the Yom Kippur service was when the high priest would enter the holy of holies, the place where God's presence, His cloud of glory, rested above the ark.. Only once a year is the Kohen gadol allowed to enter – he would bring incense that would rise up in a cloud… וְכִסָּה עֲנַן הַקְּטֹרֶת, אֶת-הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל-הָעֵדוּת – and the cloud of the incense would cover the top of the ark… At the apex of the Yom Kippur service, our terrestrial cloud of incense would merge with the heavenly cloud of glory. It was a moment of the most intimate contact between humanity and the Divine. That moment was all about achieving closeness.

Immanuel: That's the heart of the chiasm, and the center of Leviticus. The Yom Kippur service shows us what it looks like when we can reach the pinnacle of our relationship with God, when our clouds meet and connect, once a year, in the heart of the mishkan. And that's how the center really illuminates the entire book. That closeness with God that we experience through the Yom Kippur service? It radiates outwards, in both directions of Vayikra. When our cloud merges with God's, we are so connected to Him – and we see the potential for how closely we can live with God, both in the mishkan, and in the land.

What Does the Book of Leviticus Mean?

David: Let's pull back the zoom lens to really see this. Back at Sinai, we experienced Revelation. We met God. And Vayikra, this massive list of laws for how to be close with God, is a consequence of meeting God. We have a mishkan now, a portable Sinai, a way to take God with us everywhere, and we have to be more conscious and sensitive to the divine presence, now that God is actively with us. The first half of the chiasm is all about this portable sinai, the mishkan: we bring sacrifices to God in the mishkan, we see laws of the priests in the mishkan, time in the mishkan, the inauguration of the mishkan. Even the laws of tumah and tahara are talked about in terms of entering the mishkan: וְהִזַּרְתֶּם אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִטֻּמְאָתָם; – Israel must be careful of their impurity, וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ בְּטֻמְאָתָם, בְּטַמְּאָם אֶת-מִשְׁכָּנִי אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹכָם – lest they die in their impurity when they contaminate my Mishkan.

Immanuel: But serving God in the mishkan is just a microcosm of our relationship with Him. The second half of the book is the macrocosm of that same relationship. Once we've learned how to serve God in His special place, now that we've tasted what it means to live with God in such a concentrated, undistracted way. only then are we ready to radiate that closeness outside the Mishkan and into our daily lives.

So we come back to sacrifices, but now, it's not about the laws of communal korbanot the priest offers in the mishkan, it's about eiruchin, about our individual, voluntary, tributes to God, all in our own personal attempt to give and come close to Him. We come back to priests, time, and sacred space, but now, it's about what priests must to do to appropriately represent the nation, and about how we should serve God in our space, through shemittah and other agricultural laws, and time, during holidays. We come back to tumah, but now, it's framed within the context of the surrounding land: אַל-תִּטַּמְּאוּ, בְּכָל-אֵלֶּה – don't become impure with these… why? כִּי בְכָל-אֵלֶּה נִטְמְאוּ הַגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר-אֲנִי מְשַׁלֵּחַ מִפְּנֵיכֶם – because all the other nations, which I'm sending away before you, made themselves impure with them. וַתִּטְמָא הָאָרֶץ, – and it made the land impure.

The Messages Hidden in the Structure of Leviticus

David: The book of Leviticus reveals a masterfully structured process – we must learn how to live with God in His world, so that we can learn how to bring God into our world. And the key to living with God is that moment of the most intimate closeness – when our cloud and God's cloud meet in the holy of holies, on Yom Kippur. It is a great symbol of the love between us and our Creator. It makes our obligations to God in His space meaningful. It makes our lives meaningful. It is as though God is telling us: Only once you understand the potential of our closeness and how you can achieve it, can you live with me in every place at every moment.

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