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Reading the book of Vayikra is, for me, like looking at photos of my great-grandparents: recognizable and yet strange. Certain features distinguish the figures as my family, but the likeness ends there–dressed in brimless caps and caftans, with unsmiling expressions, they are clearly from another place and time. In many ways, I have more in common with a stranger today than I do with them.
Likewise, the book of Vayikra is also both familiar and strangely foreign. The book opens with passages such as this (Leviticus 1:15): “The priest shall bring [the turtledove] to the altar, pinch off its head, and turn it into smoke on the altar…”
Naturally, in their earliest phases, these passages served as a written instruction manual (literally, a Torah) for the Levitical and Priestly castes, recording their sacred rites for Jews to follow for all eternity.
This worked beautifully until the destruction of the Temple. The Jewish community then had to decide what to do with 27 chapters worth of sacred rites that it could no longer perform. Having no Temple and no functioning priesthood, the turtledoves of the world could rest easy.
Holding on to Vayikra
The early generations of post-Temple Jews kept those laws in the sacred canon partially out of hopeful nostalgia–may we merit the reinstatement of the Temple sacrifices, they might have said, and meanwhile, keep studying so as not to forgot how.
Other dedicated students of Vayikra asserted that the merit that Israel earned through pinching off the turtledove’s head could be earned, as it were, virtually: the study of the thing could be tantamount to the performance of the thing itself.
Later phases of Jewish development seized on the creative drash: expounding upon biblical verses to derive powerful and inspiring messages. Eventually, Hasidic philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries derived spiritual, mystical, and practically applicable lessons from the very same texts.
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