Parashat Va-yikra

Leviticus 1:1–5:26

March 20, 2010 / 5 Nisan 5770

This commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, director of Israel Programs, JTS.

Four months ago, an Orthodox rabbi here in Israel made headlines by urging his yeshiva students to resist any orders to evacuate settlements in the West Bank. In his book entitled Revivim, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed writes, "a simple halakhah is that it is forbidden for any person, whether a soldier or an officer, to participate in the strictly forbidden act of expelling Jews from their homes and handing over any portion of the Land of Israel to enemies . . . Those who violate this violate several commandments of Torah" (Ha'aretz, November 18, 2009). Rabbi Melamed's directives rightfully caused a stir in all segments of Israeli society. And indeed, his misguided wisdom merited the criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu who declared that "refusing to obey orders means the breakdown of the state. It must not happen, and we will do everything possible to put an end to it." Israel's Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, also took Melamed to task for undermining Israeli democracy. While one may be sympathetic Melamed's opposition to the expulsion of Jews from the biblical land of Israel, the rabbinic tradition teaches dina demalchuta dina, that "the law of the land is the law." Melamed's position vis à vis his students is one of significant influence and power. Indeed, his words had the potential to cause significant bloodshed. Melamed's reckless disregard for the Israeli government, and indeed for his students, demonstrated a lack of responsible leadership.

Va-yikra, the third and middle book of Torah, provides an invaluable lesson in recognizing the need for communal responsibility. While this week's Torah reading—and indeed the whole book of Leviticus—is consumed with the sacrificial rites that dominated Israelite religion until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, its lessons on expiatory sacrifices cannot go unnoticed. To be sure, the common Israelite is given a clear directive of how to atone for his sins—be they intentional or unintentional transgressions. More than that, instructions are given to both the religious and political leaders in the case of serious offenses. Leviticus 4:3 teaches, "If it is the anointed priest who has incurred guilt, so that blame falls upon the people, he will offer for the sin of which he is guilty a bull of the herd without blemish as a sin offering to the Lord." Far from referring to the kohen ha-gadol, the high priest, as infallible, there is a keen recognition on the part of Torah that he too can err and therefore must operate within the framework of the sacrificial system. As the most powerful religious leader in the system, he too must subscribe to its stringencies. Also notable is the extent to which Torah underscores the potential for this religious leader to lead the people astray. His behavior is watched closely by his flock and so the entire nation may fall victim to his waywardness. So too is the case with political leaders. The same chapter of Leviticus legislates, "in case it is a chieftain who incurs guilt . . . he will bring as his offering a male goat without blemish" (Leviticus 4:22–23). The JPS Torah Commentary explains, "unlike the priest, the [chieftain or] nasi was a secular leader, not one who held sacred office" (JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus, 24). The political power in this leader's hands also does not make him immune to Torah. He too must be held accountable for transgressions.

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai offers a rich commentary on Leviticus 4:22. The verse opens "asher nasi yekheteh," when a chieftain incurs guilt. Commentators have pointed out how unusual it is for the verse to begin with the word "asher" (here translated as "when" but typically meaning "that"). BT Horayot 10b relates, "Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai taught [based on this verse], 'Happy is the generation whose political leaders bring an expiatory sacrifice.'" (Ben Zakkai reads "asher" as "osher," happy). Quite beautifully, then, Yohanan ben Zakkai teaches an important lesson about leadership being invested in the community. There is no place for arrogance or hubris. Absolute power often corrupts absolutely and Torah is keenly aware of this. Moreover, it is not surprising that such a teaching comes from the mouth of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, who was responsible for ensuring a Jewish future after the destruction of the Second Temple. As Jerusalem was under a violent siege and zealous leaders preached against surrender, ben Zakkai understood the need for flexibility. Judaism and life are too precious to be squandered on arrogance. And so ben Zakkai had himself carried out of the city in a coffin in an effort to negotiate with Vespasian and the Romans. "Give me Yavne and its sages," he declared. It is through his efforts that Rabbinic Judaism flourished. Undoubtedly, ben Zakkai recognized and felt the deep pain in abandoning Jerusalem under siege. But at the same time he recognized that pridefulness would not win the day. He was, no doubt, a leader who would not hesitate to offer expiatory sacrifices.

Parashat Va-yikra, at its core, encourages us—as leaders and laypeople alike—to take responsibility for our actions. We must be cognizant not only of our personal space but also of the communal vision. Without such perspective, selfishness and narrow-mindedness will rule the day. Rather than making personal sacrifices for the benefit of the community and nation, we will be sacrificing ourselves to reckless zealousness. May our spiritual and economic sacrifices today bring us closer to humility and closer to God.

The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.