Echoing Leviticus, we are a nation of priests, sacrificing for the sanctity of human life

By Student Rabbi Caitlin Brazner

This month, as Purim gives way to Passover, as snow turns to spring rains, we will come to the book of Leviticus in our Torah cycle.

With its chapters of priestly codes, sacrificial rites and often unmodern laws and restrictions, Leviticus can be challenging for some of us to read as contemporary, progressive Jews.

What does a user manual for Temple practice have to do with us, Reform Jews living a millennium after the destruction of said Temple?

What can we glean from its many teachings around sacrifice and ritual giving?

Levites and Cohenim once handled the heavy lifting

Before the destruction of the Second Temple, it was the priestly class, the Levites and Cohenim, who carried out the tasks of Jewish life.

The way in which Hebrew peoples showed their devotion to God was by bringing sacrifices and offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem.

In the first portion of Leviticus, Vayikra, we begin to learn the details for carrying out these sacrificial rituals.

Ultimately, a sacrifice required the faithful to give up something good, in order to merit good tidings and blessings.

We’re told to bring “a male calf without blemishes” (Lv 1:3), or “choice flour” (Lv 2:1), or “fresh grain” (Lv 2:14) before the priests.

Any offering one makes must be done with products of quality, that our sacrifice should truly be just that — a sacrifice.

This was not an opportunity to give away the weakest animal in the herd, or the old, molding fruit from your field. You were to sacrifice something of value, that truly represented your devotion and care for the eternal.

Ultimately, a sacrifice required the faithful to give up something good, in order to merit good tidings and blessings for you, your family and your people.

The pandemic makes its own demands

This March, as Exodus gives way to Leviticus, we also find ourselves one year into a global pandemic.

As we continue to sit in our homes, cut off from each other and the normalcy of everyday life, we recognize that many of us have made sacrifices of our own.

We haven’t given up the fattest cow in our flock, or sheaves of our choicest wheat. Instead, we’ve sacrificed our time, our emotional well-being, our social ties and connections.

Some have sacrificed work hours and potential, or very real, income.

Some have sacrificed safety, as health care professionals or teachers or grocers or manufacturers, continuing to work on the front lines of this pandemic.

As the Israelites believed that sacrificing a calf would bring good tidings and blessings, we too can expect good outcomes for our sacrifices.

This past year, as members of one global people, we have sacrificed for each other.

And as the Israelites believed that sacrificing a calf would bring good tidings and blessings, we too can expect good outcomes for our sacrifices.

By staying home, donating our time, effort and money, checking on our neighbors, wearing our masks and taking vaccines, we have the opportunity to effect real change, to keep people safe, to fight COVID-19.

Our sacrifices can, do and will translate to very real blessings for those in our community and around the globe.

These sacrifices are not easy, but they are necessary, and we should continue to make them until we’re safely on the other side of this pandemic.

Pikuach nefesh takes precedence

Judaism teaches us the value of pikuach nefesh, saving life, supersedes all other values and commandments.

We’re also told, in Exodus 19:6, ” … you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation….”

In saving lives, we serve a purpose higher than ourselves — we become that holy nation.

Today, as we make our sacrifices, as we place the sanctity of human life over all other concerns, we transform ourselves into that very nation of priests.

We take inspiration from the sacrificial rituals Leviticus describes, and we make sacrifices of our own.

In saving lives, we serve a purpose higher than ourselves — we become that holy nation.

Yes, Leviticus may describe the work of the Temple, a ritual space long lost to us. But its lessons on sacrifice, giving and communal obligation are timeless.

Student Rabbi Caitlin Brazner will serve UHC Terre Haute during the second half of the 2020-21 academic year.

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