Jewish Journal

Look to Leviticus

Parshat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)

by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila

Posted on Mar. 20, 2003 at 7:00 pm

Every good Hebrew school and day school principal is always seeking to improve and update the curriculum in their school, especially when it comes to the instruction of Bible. The questions that usually come up in Bible curriculum meetings are: where do we begin, what teaching methodology is the most effective and how do we assure that our students are being enriched with practical knowledge that they can apply to their personal lives as Jews?

The answers to these questions are usually all wrapped up in the book of Genesis, which contains some of the most beloved and popular stories in the Bible. Genesis always seems to answer these curricular questions, because: we begin at the beginning, the methodology we use is to teach the Bible through stories and we feel that our students are being practically enriched with the moral and ethical lessons that are derived from these stories.

Would any principal ever consider changing the Bible curriculum from Genesis to Leviticus? Genesis to Leviticus? You mean the Book of Leviticus, including this week's Torah portion Parshat Tzav, which deals with animal sacrifices and burnt offerings?

Why would anybody even suggest that we change our Bible curricula from the powerful stories in the Book of Genesis to the dry, boring, blood-and-guts descriptions of animal sacrifices in the book of Leviticus? Plus, there are no stories, and it's in the middle of the Torah. Why would we even contemplate such a curricular change?

Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) teaches, "The 5-year-old child is of age for learning Scripture." What curriculum did the Talmudic rabbis have in mind for this 5-year-old child?

The Talmud teaches: "Children are pure, and the sacrifices are pure. Therefore, let those who are pure come and occupy themselves with pure things."

Believe it or not, the rabbis actually believed that the preferred starting point for Bible instruction is the Book of Leviticus. The rabbis also believed that the Book of Genesis contains sections (such as the creation of the world), which not only are deemed inappropriate for little children but are too complex for most adults in a popular audience.

So as we have it, in the modern-day Jewish school, parents walk into their children's Bible class and find them engaged in a section on God's wrath toward humanity for their rampant immorality, thus leading to the destruction of the world by means of a flood. Yet, in the ancient Jewish school, parents who visited their child's Bible class listened to a discussion on the purpose of the daily burnt offering.

Which system is better, the old or the new?

What is the book of Genesis? In truth, it's a book of philosophy. The first eleven chapters deal with the issues of good and evil, morality and immorality and the relationship between man and God vis-à-vis these issues. Man is created, tempted and sins; brother kills brother out of jealousy; and, in His anger at humanity, God destroys the world by means of a flood. The patriarchal and matriarchal narratives deal with the intricate relationships between people, and the complex dynamics of the seed of Abraham emerging as God's chosen people on Earth. Pretty complex material for most 5- to 8-year-old kids.

The book of Leviticus ultimately deals with one issue: worshiping God, or, as most moderns prefer, spirituality. What kind of spirituality is there in animal sacrifices?

Forget the detail and examine the purpose behind each sacrifice. The burnt offering expressed the individual's personal relationship to God's will. The peace offering expressed thanks for God's blessings. The sin offering expressed personal sorrow at having morally strayed from God's path and a commitment to return to God. The public sacrifices created a sense of communal interdependence and the power of congregational worship.

Most of the ideas from the sacrifices have been transferred into the prayer book and have become the definitive ideas of what we today call "Jewish spirituality."

Most congregational rabbis today bemoan the fact that worshippers do not know the lyrics or meanings of Jewish prayer. As a result, most synagogue services lack true spirituality and have become performances of cantors, choirs and bands.

Jewish schools could help fix this problem for the next generation, if they came up with a creative way of integrating the spiritual messages of the book of Leviticus into the classrooms.

Last Friday, my 6-year-old daughter, Shira, formally received her first siddur during a moving ceremony at Hillel Hebrew Academy. On Shabbat morning, my wife woke up to find Shira in the living room, praying out of her new siddur.

"Children are pure and prayer is pure -- let those who are pure come and occupy themselves with pure things." 

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

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