Explaining the Purpose and Context of Leviticus: More Than Just Laws? | Aleph Beta

Is Sefer Vayikra More Than Just Laws About Korbanot?

Is Sefer Vayikra More Than Just Laws About Korbanot?


Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

We learn in Vayikra about the laws of the Korbanot — sacrifices to God. But there’s something very difficult about studying Vayikra. It can be incredibly boring. There’s no storyline, just a lot of very specific rules. So, how can we approach Vayikra in a more engaging way? Join Rabbi Fohrman and Imu as they reexamine the two narratives surrounding Vayikra — the story of God’s cloud directing the Israelites — and discover a new narrative, with insights about how to become closer to God.


Rivky: Hello, listeners! My name is Rivky and I'm the producer of Parsha Lab at Aleph Beta. Before jumping into today's episode, I want to remind you that Passover is just around the corner. And there are a lot of great courses at alephbeta.org to help prepare for your Seder. My personal favorite is How To Read The Haggadah where Rabbi Fohrman discusses the Haggadah's unique relevance to our lives today. Check it out. And now, please enjoy today's episode.

Immanuel Shalev: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of Parsha Lab. I am Imu Shalev.

Rabbi Fohrman: I am David Fohrman.

Immanuel Shalev: And together we are, Imu and Rabbi Fohrman.

Rabbi Fohrman: Imu, sometimes you're profundity shocks and amazes me.

Immanuel Shalev: I try. I always wanted to be part of, like, a super-hero team. So I was trying something out there.

Okay. So, Rabbi Fohrman, Sefer Vayikra (The Book of Leviticus), is a difficult book, to say the least. And I think one of the reasons it's such a difficult book is because there's very little story.

What Is the Overall Purpose of Leviticus?

Immanuel Shalev: There's very little narrative. This is something we talked about way back in Parshat Mishpatim. But up until, really, the Book of Leviticus, you have lots of stories. You've got the stories of Bereishit. And the families of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob when they go down to Egypt. And then slavery and the Exodus. The great encounter with God at Mount Sinai.

Then you get into laws. You get into laws in Mishpatim. You get into the Mishkan (Tabernacle). And we got through that. But now we have a whole book full of laws. A lot of people don't pay attention too closely to these parshiot. They're hard to relate to. They wake up again in Bamidbar (Numbers) and the stories of the desert. But Rabbi Fohrman, in the Parsha Experiment that I did with David Block, we tried to solve some of those difficulties in Leviticus by hunting for the overall storyline.

What I wanted to do with you is do sort of a Parsha Experiment experiment. Show you what we noticed and see what that provokes for you. How do you feel about that?

Rabbi Fohrman: I feel good about that. I always love meta-stuff; and this feels very, very meta. Basically, if I understand you correctly, you're going to be giving to me some of your beginnings of your thinking. We'll, sort of, see where it goes, and I wonder if we'll end up in similar places. But, time will tell. Go ahead, shoot.

Imu: Okay. Great. Thank you. So this is how David and I did it. We would open up the parsha, which, if you want to join me at home, you can do that by opening up Leviticus 1, Verse 1. We would read and see what was going on in this chapter. So let me read with you.

"Vayikra el Moshe va'y'dabeir Hashem eilav mei'Ohel Mo'ed leimor." God called out to Moses, God spoke to Moses, from the Tent of Meeting, from the Ohel Mo'ed, saying... Then what ends up in this chapter is a long list of karbanot, of sacrifices. I actually don't want to focus on the list of sacrifices. I want to ask the class a Parsha Experiment question. How is this section, this God calling to Moses from the Tent of Meeting, connected to the very last story? The chapter that precedes it, which is the last chapter of Exodus.

Explaining the Background of Leviticus

Rabbi Fohrman: Okay. Yeah. So I'm looking here at Exodus 40. There's this cloud descending on the Ohel Mo'ed, on the Tent of Meeting, or the Tabernacle. And the idea of that cloud is that here's this structure that people have built, but until God actually comes and, sort of, takes up residence in the structure, it's only sticks and stones. There's nothing special about it.

God is coming in this cloud. Of course, if we go back even earlier in Exodus, the cloud reminds us of the cloud that God descended upon Mount Sinai, the Mountain itself. It says, "Vayeireid Hashem be'anan" that God came down in the cloud. And now the cloud seems to be resting not just on this majestic setting of God's creation, namely a mountain, but it's now resting on a humble structure created by man, which is this thing at the bottom of the mountain, the Tent of Meeting. And the cloud is now coming all the way down.

Ultimately, so to speak, the cloud is going to take up residence, as it were, between the two k'ruvim (cherubim) of the Ark. But this is the journey of the cloud. Coming down, "Va'y'chas he'anan et Ohel Mo'ed u'kvod Hashem malei et haMishkan." And the Glory of God fills the Tabernacle.

Then Verse 35 always struck me as very instructive here. "V'lo yachol Moshe lavo el Ohel Mo'ed ki shachan alav et ha'anan ", that Moses actually couldn't come into the Tent of Meeting, because of the cloud there. That God was there and the holiness of God's presence was so intense that it did not allow room for a human being, for even Moses. And that's really the very last verse of Exodus. "Ki anan Hashem al haMishkan yomam v'eish ti'yeh leilah bo, l'einei kol beis Yisrael b'chol maseihem." That this anan, this cloud of God, would be upon the Tabernacle by day. It would take the form of a pillar of fire by night; in front of the eyes of all of Israel.

Then that leads you into Leviticus where it seems to me, if you would ask that great Parsha Experiment connection, which is how does Leviticus connect to Exodus? To me the piece that seems to connect it is the idea of Ohel Mo'ed, is the idea of the Tent of Meeting. And specifically this question of Where's Waldo? Almost. Where is Moses? Because, if you look at the end of Exodus, Moses is outside of the Tent of Meeting. And, the beginning of Leviticus is, sort of, what happens after that?

Imu: Yeah. So I think that you definitely notice something very clear that I think a lot of the commentators pick up on as well, which is that the cloud comes and descends upon the Tabernacle right after they finish building it, which we've been focusing on the last few weeks. The Glory of God is so present that Moses can't even enter. Then the very next story is about Moses' entry into the Tabernacle. That's a very clear connection, I think.

However, I want to do something a little bit more ambitious actually, and even read some of the verses that you skipped, here at the end. And see what that might tell us, not just about the connection between the very last chapter of Sh'mot (Exodus) and the first chapter of Leviticus. But whether or not that last chapter of Exodus tells us something about how to read the entire Book of Leviticus and let me show you what I mean.

The Key to Understanding Leviticus

Imu: So you pointed out right there in Exodus 40, Verse 34, that the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the next verse Moses can't enter. But, in Verses 36 and 37, you get something very curious. "U'v'hei'alot he'anan mei'al haMishkan ", when the cloud went up from above the Tabernacle, "yisu b'nei Yisrael b'chol maseihem." Then Israel would journey.

Then the next verse. "V'im lo yei'aleh ha'anan ", when the cloud did not go up "v'lo yisu ahd yom hei'aloto." They would stay still until the cloud would eventually go up again. Then it basically says that this is the way that the Children of Israel would travel through the desert in their journeys. There would be a cloud during the day, and there would be fire at night, in all their journeys.

This is kind of curious. It's telling us a story, not just of how the cloud would settle on the Tent of Meeting, on the Tabernacle. It's telling us also about the function of that cloud somehow, in signaling Israel's journeying. So you'd expect that, in the next chapter or – maybe not in the very next chapter – but in the next chapters, we'll hear about how the cloud went up and the journey that the Children of Israel took throughout the desert. Why is it telling us about how they would journey right now?

It's especially curious considering the fact that, if you read the entire Book of Leviticus, you'll notice something interesting. They never journey. They're staying in one place for the entire Book of Leviticus. In fact, one of the very last verses in Leviticus, in Chapter 26, Verse 46. This is the last verse of the penultimate chapter of Leviticus seemingly summarizing the entire book.

It says, "Eileh hachukim v'hamishpatim v'hatorot asher natan Hashem beino u'bein b'nei Yisrael b'Har Sinai b'yad Moshe." These, this entire Book of Leviticus, are the statutes, the ordinances, the laws that God gave between Him and the People of Israel. Where? "B'Har Sinai b'yad Moshe." At Mount Sinai. We were at Mount Sinai all the way back in Exodus. And you're still at Mount Sinai at the very end of Leviticus. And yet we're hearing about how the cloud would go up and down to signal their journeys. But they didn't take any journeys.

Let me make this a little bit more curious before I turn it over to you for analysis. And I want you to come with me into the Book of Numbers. I'm going to take you into B'ha'alotcha

Rabbi Fohrman: So we have these verses in Chapter 9 that over and over and over again tell us about these rules of how the Israelites would travel. And it really comes back and echoes these verses that you've pointed out to us here in Exodus 40. Where you hear in one verse this notion of that, when the cloud would go up they would travel. When it would go down, they would stop.

Then over and over again, you get that theme pounded into you in Parshat B'ha'alotcha when the people are really ready to journey. The cloud going up and the cloud going down was going to teach Israel how to go.

It's almost like there's this little sandwich with two pieces of bread. One piece of bread is these verses here at the end of Exodus 40, which is right before Leviticus. And the other piece of bread is after all of this Tabernacle stuff where you again come in and it's like, okay, so let's talk about the journeys. And we'll talk about the cloud. We'll talk about how the cloud's going to lift up and they'll be ready to go. And they're on their way to Israel.

Imu: Yeah. Great. That's exactly what I thought, as well. Which is that these pieces of the sandwich or bookends, it seems to me that they're actually like breadcrumbs. A lot of bread analogies. They're actually signaling to you where the storyline is actually hitting a big pause button.

There is a storyline. We were at Mount Sinai and then we're supposed to keep journeying. And the Torah is telling you how the journeying would happen. But before it continues to tell you about the journey – and we're going to get to the journey in oh, I don't know, 37 chapters from now – it's telling you a diversion. We're going to take a diversion and talk to you about a whole bunch of laws.

I think when the Torah does that, when the Torah doesn't tell you the next plot point – and there are a few plot points in Vayikra, by the way; I shouldn't say it's all laws, although it's mostly laws – I think what the Torah is trying to actually show you is that while it may not be plot points, this section is thematically related to what comes before it and maybe even what comes after it.

Rabbi Fohrman: Could I just actually jump in here and interrupt you.

Imu Shalev: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Commenting on the Historical Context of Leviticus

Rabbi Fohrman: Because I think if I understand you correctly, you're trying to make the point that when the Torah does this, when there is a sort of sandwich, so the filling in the sandwich has got to be related to the two pieces of bread on the outside. So there's something about these intervening chapters, which essentially are the entire whole book of Leviticus which seems connected –

Imu Shalev: And the first nine chapters of Numbers.

Rabbi Fohrman: And the first nine chapters of Bamidbar, which seem connected to these themes of the bread, which gets back to what exactly is the theme in the bread, the notion of the travels, specifically the travels of the cloud.

So as you were just saying that, something struck me that the description of the journeys of the people, specifically with the motion of the cloud, if I take you into say Verse 36, if you look at that language "u'b'ha'alot ha'anan mei'al hamishkan" when the cloud goes up from the Tabernacle that is when the people travel. And then again that word, that verb, u'b'ha'alot is going to come back in the very next verse. "V'im lo ya'aleh ha'anan" but if the cloud does not go up then they would not travel. If you take that idea of going up and take that right into the stuff in the middle of the sandwich, the beginning of Vayikra, the laws of the offerings, and guess what the first offering is?

Chapter 1, Verse 3 "Im olah karbano min habakar" if the offering is in fact an olah. Well it just so happens that the olah karban is an offering whose name means a go-upness karban. Right? Hmm. Taking your theory a little further, is there some sort of stream of consciousness connection between the notion of an olah offering and the ascension of the cloud that would signal these travels?

Imu Shalev: That's really interesting. I definitely did not notice that, but it seems like a really interesting connection that I would want to think more about why that might be.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, I mean I never noticed it either. I think it's a fascinating question. Is there a connection between the olah and the cloud?

Imu Shalev: So maybe let's come back to it because, so the place that I went with it actually relates to what you started talking about way back in the beginning of this podcast episode. To me, I was sort of seeing Sefer Vayikra as a consequence of the major story that happens beforehand, which is, you talked about clouds. So there was a cloud on top of a mountain and that's great and they got some laws. But now the cloud is on top of a manmade structure, as you said. It's on top of the Ohel Mo'ed and that Ohel Mo'ed is in the midst of the camp.

So I wondered, if to some extent, the cloud descending onto the Ohel Mo'ed as being the story that precedes Sefer Vayikra, if that sort of demands a whole new set of laws. Meaning, it sort of, like, it changes the reality structure. God is now in the midst of the camp and we need to contend with that reality. There's going to be a whole set of rules for how to live together with God in the midst of the camp. Before we can continue our journey together, we need to know how to live together. We need to know how to get along with God.

What Is the Important Point of Leviticus?

Imu Shalev: I actually think that Sefer Vayikra, a lot of people think it's a book of sacrifices. It's really not. There are plenty of sacrifices in this book, but there are a lot of laws about impurity, purity, ritual purity that you need to have now that you're in the midst of the camp. And a lot of the descriptions about impurity and purity in this book are about how God's presence can't suffer impurity. It's really describing the context of we live together with God.

A huge section of the book is about kedushah, about holiness. So it's not just that we can't be impure or that we need to be pure, we also need to be holy. That's also described in terms of living together with God and then that holiness, we hear about holidays. And that word holidays is holy days. So it's not just holiness in your personality, it's not holiness in your actions, it's also there are certain holy appointed times, mo'adim. And then there is holiness in years, in the Sabbath year, in Jubilee and holiness in the land in the Sabbath year and Jubilee.

So it really extends further. The idea that we were grappling with in Parsha Experiment was the idea that somehow in order to live together with God, in order to continue to journey together with God, you're going to need to know how to do that. You need some laws to guide you.

Rabbi Fohrman: So what you're saying, if I understand you correctly, is the end of Exodus sets the stage for a new reality. The new reality, in a way, if you take the central ideas of the second half of Exodus, they would probably add up to Central Idea Number 1, revelation; Central Idea Number 2, the construction of the Tabernacle. Common denominator between them, God appears in His resident upon the mountain in revelation and in the Tabernacle, God takes up residence among the people.

So the idea of God being a part of us is not just a momentary flash in the pan at revelation then God goes home, which is to say it's not so much that the cloud comes down upon the mountain and then goes up and departs. But that process of the cloud going up and down and departing is a constant process that reenacts itself in the Tabernacle. So there's a constancy to God's presence. God's always with us. Departs briefly to allow us to leave and to go, but then comes back. In which case, we stop and that requires some laws because the laws require us to be with God in a certain kind of way.

And maybe just to pick up on that theme just a little bit. You know, getting back to that idea of olah. Isn't it interesting, Imu, that if the cloud from the Tabernacle is kind of an echo of the cloud, the anan from Sinai, isn't it interesting that when the cloud descends, no one moves and when the cloud goes up, they do move? What does that say to you, especially in light of Sinai?

Imu Shalev: Well the way I always understood it is the cloud is God's presence so when God is present, you hang out with Him.

A Deeper Commentary on Leviticus

Rabbi Fohrman: If you think about it, isn't that interesting? Because if somebody would say to you what were the Israelites trying to do in the desert? So you'd say they were trying to get to Israel. Well, that's one thing they were trying to do. But it's interesting that whenever the cloud descended, they weren't trying to get to the land of Israel. They were just hanging out. There was, like, this overriding imperative that when the cloud descends, you don't move. Why? Because when God's there, it's not about where you're going, it's about where you are.

Isn't it fascinating that if you see these laws in the way you're seeing them, the middle of the sandwich is about how do we exist with God? How do we be with God? And forget where we're going. What are the ground rules for maintaining this relationship when you and I are in the same place together? And then we have these laws of these offerings.

Isn't it interesting that the offering which is described as a karban, the very first of those offerings is an olah? There's like an irony here. Not only in the cloud. When the cloud would be olah, it would go up, everyone would leave and then you would stop thinking about being with God. It was just time to journey. And when the cloud would descend, that's when you would connect with God. But when the cloud would descend, how would these laws sort of guide you in terms of being with God? Well there was this olah that you could bring. A free will offering that just goes up to God. The irony is is that when the cloud is not going up, when the cloud is down and all you want to do is be with God, that's the moment where instead of you moving, you take motion in the form of this animal, which is almost representative of you. And it's a karban and karban describes a certain kind of moving towards. There's a moving towards almost vertical –

Imu Shalev: Right, the root of karban is karov.

Rabbi Fohrman: Horizontally karban means to come near, to draw near, almost as if there is this horizontal motion where I draw near and this vertical motion which is olah, I draw up. And I'm concentrating movement in something that's not me. I'm with God and somehow whatever movement is going on in my life, I'm trying to dedicate that to the service of being with God rather than the service of trying to actually get somewhere.

Imu Shalev: So I like where you're going with this. It reminds me of a few things. Number one is that throughout Vayikra there are a few instances of man-made clouds, terrestrial man reaching upward, of creating a cloud that goes upward, almost mirroring God's heavenly cloud which comes downward towards the earth. So there's the olah karban which starts off Sefer Vayikra where we're, I guess, maybe even reaching out to God by creating this pillar of smoke that goes upward.

There's also at the very center of Vayikra is Acharei Mot, the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur where we bring the cloud of ketoret, literally described as anan hak'toret, a terrestrial cloud that goes upward and meets the heavenly cloud that descended from the heavens and rests above the ark. So there's the closeness of cloud meeting cloud which is at the very center of this book of Vayikra, which sounds like you're sort of suggesting begins at the very beginning of Vayikra in the form of karban olah.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. You know, right sort of in the middle of the book, you've got this cloud, which is fascinating because if you think about the ends of the book, as you're defining them now, it's about clouds. How cool is that? In other words, it's about the cloud of God coming down into Sinai at the very end of Exodus leading into Leviticus. Then it's about these clouds in motion in Parshat B'ha'alotcha, in Numbers 9 and right there in the middle of Leviticus, you have cloud meets cloud where a human being really doesn't want to go anywhere. On Yom Kippur you're not moving. You're just there. And the way human being expresses that desire to move, to be with God is when cloud meets cloud. And literally where one cloud goes up and there's that language of olah again.

You get the beginnings of that in the beginning of Vayikra where you have another kind of olah, but it's not yet a cloud. It's an offering, which is also perhaps some kind of attempt to make contact with the divine.

Explaining the Lessons from Leviticus

Imu Shalev: I think that's really interesting. I'll just say one more thing that it reminded me of this idea of when God is there, you don't want to go anywhere. And that so long as you consider the journey, it's difficult for you to be with God. Maybe I'm ruining Parsha Lab for Parshat Bamidbar and Naso, but those first nine chapters of Bamidbar and their connection to Vayikra can now maybe understood, according to your theory, because those first nine chapters described the way in which Israel would journey and the way in which they would encamp.

If you don't read them closely, the way I always pictured the journeys in the desert and the way in which the tribes would travel, would be in a straight line. That would be the normal way of thinking of the Nation of Israel traveling. But that's actually not how they traveled and it's certainly not how they encamped. The way they encamped is they encamped around the Ohel Mo'ed. They camped around the Cloud of Glory. They specifically put God at the center of their camp. And even in their journey, they journeyed in that box-like formation. They didn't journey in a straight line.

Perhaps that is because even in their journeys, they were doing their best not to journey or they were sort of showing their desire to be at rest once again and be with God at the center of their camp and not lose their structure or their integrity as a camp. But to me, if that's true, if that all works, it makes sense as to why those first nine chapters are a part of this bookend system of sort of the cloud going up and the cloud going down, why you get that smushed and sandwiched in there in between these two pieces of bread.

Rabbi Fohrman: That is interesting. Let me just close out, if I can, kind of look at some of the overall themes of Leviticus with one more meditation on the cloud. If you think of a cloud, it's a kind of an interesting direction finder, isn't it, for people. If you think about us being led by a cloud as a symbol of the divine presence, who gets led by a cloud? You wouldn't think of a cloud as a GPS. A cloud is such a strange thing. And if you think about who relates to clouds, it just brings me back at least, to what we argued was a central metaphor of how God relates to Israel, which is who are we going back into Parshat Yitro and going back into earlier in Bereishit?

Imu Shalev: It's birds again.

Rabbi Fohrman: We're the bird. It's about this mother bird. It's about this God who comes and sees Himself as the eagle that flies above the clouds, as it were, or flies in the clouds and that takes care of this other kind of bird, this gozel, and nurtures it and takes care of it. And there's that metaphor that God is this great predator with great power, but He takes care of this little wounded bird, maybe even from a different species, this gozel, which is us. And therefore what better direction finder could there be than a cloud? Who takes direction from a cloud but a bird? And we're being led by this cloud.

Yet there's times when the cloud descends and all you want to be is be nestled in the cloud and hang out with the eagle. And it's not about where the eagle takes you, which ultimately is the Land of Israel, but it's about the ability to just be in the cloud with the eagle.

The Important Context to Understand Leviticus

Imu Shalev: Very nice. Rabbi Fohrman, I just want to close out by suggesting sort of what these ideas mean to me. For me the context is really important in understanding the overall storyline and understanding Sefer Vayikra's relationship with the overall storyline because it suggests that Vayikra isn't this appendix. It's not some, like, here are a list of laws that you should close your eyes and not pay attention to until we get some meaty plot points.

It seems to be, it's placed at the center of the very Five Books of Moses and it's themes of karban which, the idea of closeness and the idea of the cloud at the center of the camp and the consequences of living together with God. All of that seem to be kind of the mission statement of the People of Israel, the core value that we have in what we're all about which is closeness with God, living together with God.

It causes you to sit up at the edge of your seat and maybe pay a little bit closer attention to the laws and values present in Sefer Vayikra, what is Sefer Vayikra trying to tell us about how we live together with God. So I can't say I know all the answers quite yet, but I do know that the context makes it really interesting and demands a lot of focus on what Sefer Vayikra is about.

Rabbi Fohrman: Sure. And I think about living together with anybody that there's a certain kind of curtailing of individual freedom that goes along with the choice to be together with somebody. And the greatest example of that is marriage, but any sort of family life or indeed any sort of communal life is part of that. And if you think about what it means to be part of a civic society with others, it means to live together with them. And it's not just about me being the wild west cowboy and I can do whatever I want, but there are constraints upon my individual freedom that I willingly undertake because of my desire to be together with others. That is a wonderful possibility that ability to voluntarily restrain myself and my desires and everything I might want to do because of the imperative of being together with another.

God's asking that of us no less with our relationship with Him. One of the particular things about Vayikra is the fact that so little of it makes sense to the human mind. These restrictions are about issues of kodesh and chol and taharah and tum'ah and holiness and purity and impurity, which are fundamentally not human concepts. They are fundamentally divine concepts, but that's okay because what you're doing is you're adjusting to living with God who is not human. And part of adjusting to living with another is to be sensitive to what it's like for them, adhering to laws that may not make sense to you, but are the ways that you accommodate a divine being in your presence.

Imu Shalev: Beautiful. Okay, Rabbi Fohrman. Thank you so much for poding with me this week.

If you haven't seen Rabbi Fohrman's amazing videos on Sefer Vayikra, you absolutely should check them out. There's an incredibly good one on sacrifices, actually getting into the olah, the sh'lamim and the chatas and trying to understand what those karbanot are and how they might have relevance for us spiritually today. Check them out. I know that you will be really glad you did. And make sure to share this, send us your comments and all the good things that one does after a podcast. We're really glad that you're hearing and thanks for listening.

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