Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat B’chukotai 5776
As the book of Vayikra moves towards its finale, several outstanding issues are clarified. A retrospective overview shows us that although it began as a book focused on Temple and ritual, it gradually turned to a discussion of other, more general types of holiness, emphasizing kosher food, “kosher” sexual relationships and, finally, other types of interpersonal relationships. The message seems clear: Ritual and Temple service are not replacements for decency. In order to create a holy society, we must concern ourselves both with the ritual and the interpersonal spheres. These two spheres must work in tandem, in harmony, if we are to create and sustain the society that it is our mandate to create.
Despite our superficial impressions, then, Vayikra – “Leviticus” – has a few surprises: The discussion of the holidays in Parashat Emor was not what we might have expected: We might have anticipated that the aspect given most attention in the context of Vayikra would be the sacrifices associated with each festival – but, as we have seen, this is not the case. Instead, the focus is the aspect of holiness, coupled with emphasis of the agricultural identity of each holiday. The transition from this aspect of the holidays to a discussion of shmittah and Yovel becomes far more natural when considered in this light: The structure and flow of the book teaches us that any discussion of holiness must necessarily include the Land of Israel. Just as the holidays are points of holiness in one dimension, the Land of Israel is a point of holiness in another.
Very subtly, then, the focus of Vayikra shifts to the Land of Israel – which is only natural, being that the Israelites were about to leave Mount Sinai and march to their homeland. Very soon, they would inherit the land - and as soon as the message of our ownership began to sink in, we were quickly reminded that God is the true owner; the laws of shmittah and Yovel force us to remember that our ownership is conditional. We are therefore commanded to relinquish our claims to the land one year out of every seven, to share God’s gifts with one and all, and to return the land to its ancestral custodians every 50 years. Slowly the message will sink in: Our ownership is limited. The land ultimately belongs to God, and, as a result, the land is holy. Parashat B’chukotai then goes on to teach us that if we are underserving of this holy land, we will be expelled; such are the consequences of holiness.
Chapter 26 ends in what seems like a grand finale:
I will therefore remember the covenant with their ancestors … These are the decrees, laws and codes that God set between Himself and the Israelites at Mount Sinai through the hand of Moses. (Vayikra 26:45-46)
And yet, despite the seeming finality, another chapter is tacked on, a chapter that seems anti-climactic, even “disappointing”. It contains discussions of vows, dedications and donations to the Temple… in short, details that somehow take the wind out of our sails after the resounding final notes at the end of the previous chapter. But then, among the details, one law catches our eye:
If [the endowment] is an animal that can be offered as a sacrifice to God, then anything donated to God [automatically] becomes consecrated. One may neither exchange it nor offer a substitute for it, whether it be a better [animal] for a worse one, or a worse [animal] for a better one. If he replaces one animal with another, both [the original animal] and its replacement shall be consecrated. (27:9-10)
These verses outline what may be regarded as a strange ‘theory of conservation of holiness:’ Once an object is dedicated to God, it cannot be replaced or “swapped out;” holiness, it seems, “sticks” to it – permanently. Any attempt to replace the consecrated object will only cause an additional object to be consecrated as well; more holiness can enter the world, but the original holiness can never disappear.
The section that immediately follows discusses ancestral property (27:16). Seen in context, we begin to realize that this chapter is far from a random compilation of commandments: The laws enumerated in Chapter 27, the seemingly “anti-climactic” chapter that follows what we first thought was the closing chord of the book, reflect a deeper theological message: In the course of time, the Jewish People might sin, and thereby forfeit the privilege of living in the Promised Land – but the People, and the Land, once consecrated, are holy forever. They cannot be replaced. God will eventually allow us to return to the Land.
The final section of the book of Vayikra focuses on the power of vows: Words, even human words, are imbued with power, perhaps beyond what we might have imagined. This power is reflection of the Divine Image: The power of speech defines us and sets us apart from the rest of creation, but it comes with tremendous responsibility. God’s speech creates reality, and human speech is its reflection. God keeps His vows, even though we may violate our part of the agreement, and we must do the same. The laws in this final chapter, then, contain an uplifting message: Once something is dedicated for holiness, it cannot be replaced. Even when we have sinned, God will honor His vow; He will return us to our land. Moreover, despite the claims made by newer religions, the Jewish People will never be exchanged for any other “chosen people.” “Replacement theology” is expressly rejected in the final verses of Vayikra. The people who stood at Sinai, despite their having subsequently strayed from a life of holiness, remain dedicated to God, and retain their holiness forever. With this message made clear, Vayikra can come to its completion, and now that we understand the message contained in the seemingly dry, anticlimactic laws of Chapter 27, the final verses of Vayikra are theologically breathtaking:
No distinction may be made between better and worse animals, and no substitutions may be made. If a substitution is made, then both [the original animal] and its replacement shall be consecrated and not redeemable. These are the commandments that God gave Moses for the Israelites at Mount Sinai. (Vayikra 27:33,34)
Vayikra, the “book of holiness,” ends with a clear message: The holiness of the Land of Israel, and the holiness of the Jewish People, are eternal.
For more in depth study see:
Echoes of Eden