Death, Life and Rebirth: The Genius of Leviticus
As many of you know, I trained as a cultural anthropologist and sociologist before I went to rabbinical school, and I’ve always enjoyed ‘geeking out’ on the more arcane sections of the Torah. Where others would do anything to avoid Parashat Tazria-Metzora, for instance, my anthropological mind felt primed by ancient cultic taboo and obscure ritual practice. ‘The past is a foreign country’, wrote LP Harvey, of ‘The Go-Between’ fame, ‘they do things differently there.’ To cultural anthropologists, however, this is an implicit invitation to do some fieldwork! Hence, contrary to popular opinion, I’m rather a fan of the Torah’s bête noire middle child.
When the world ground to a halt a little over a year ago, we had just started reading the Book of Leviticus and all of a sudden, the arcane descriptions of diagnostics, isolation, quarantine and reintegration came to life in full-color. No longer was ‘tza’arat’ a mystical rabbinic metaphor for a spiritual condition, but a descriptor, of sorts, warped through the lenses of history and culture, of our present pandemic predicament. Paradoxically, perhaps, I found a great deal of comfort in Leviticus during those early, confusing, disorienting days of the pandemic. Judaism became a lodestar for so many of us. As our synagogues shuttered to in-person gathering and we all switched to digital means, our spirits were bolstered by our tradition’s guiding principles of ‘pikuach nefesh’, saving human life.
A year later, and we have fallen into the strange ease of a now-familiar rhythm. The ‘before times’ seem distant, and like the Levitical priests of yore, we observe the rituals of a new type of priesthood; the scientific and epidemiological community. We sanitize our hands, wear our masks, and not unlike the ‘arba amot’, the ‘four cubits’ of Halakhah, we keep six feet distance from those outside of our households. Now, of course, a new redemptive ritual has unfolded: we book in our vaccine appointments and proudly post our CDC vaccine cards on social media (please obscure your personal data when you do so!) The world of ‘tumah’ and ‘taharah’, inadequately translated as ‘impurity and purity’ has merged with our own; a thought unimaginable in 2019. We celebrate our negative COVID-19 tests and with the bandaid on our arms, pronounce ourselves ‘tahor’, ‘pure’, in an entirely new understanding of the word.
The ritual strictures of Leviticus can be seen as more life-giving than before. The discipline of an observant life (however we define that) has helped us internalize the discipline of pandemic living. All these are testimony to the valuable contributions of Vayikra. However, the true genius of Leviticus lies not in its primitive-but-surprisingly-relevant epidemiology. Its genuine brilliance lies in how the worldview of Leviticus negotiates the nexus of life and death. Leviticus faces death and then enshrines it with dignity. Never does our Torah turn away our eyes or our hearts from what is difficult or even gruesome. To be alive in the fullest sense, according to the Biblical worldview, is to confront death, and pulls from its maul, the ethical imperative.
In the double portion Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, we get a strange and remarkable pairing of ritual taboo and ethical imperative, some of it disturbing to our modern sensibilities, while most of it still lofty in its moral aspiration. It is not for naught that some of these passages are read on Yom Kippur – not without controversy, I might add – and that the beginning of the portion describe Biblical Yom Kippur rituals from a Priestly perspective. There is a moving intersection between the deaths of Aaron’s eldest sons Nadav and Avihu and Aaron readying himself to confront that awesome nexus of life-and-death in the Holy of Holies, a liturgical ritual we still re-enact to this day during the Avodah service. It may sometimes be lost on us that Nadav and Avihu were killed on Yom Kippur, and like a powerful, beautiful and terrible machine, the force of Divine power is brimming under the hood of the portion; not quite visible but obviously there as a force to be reckoned with.
One of the most understated but moving accounts in the portion is when Aaron is dressed in his priestly robes. In Leviticus 16:4, we read:
“He shall be dressed in a sacral linen tunic, with linen breeches next to his flesh, and be girt with a linen sash, and he shall wear a linen turban. They are sacral vestments; he shall bathe his body in water and then put them on.”
We can try to picture Aaron as he is dressed, slowly and deliberately. He strips off his finery; the blue, purple and scarlet robes of linen and wool, with gold and silver detailing and tingling, ornate little bells at the hem of his robe. With a heavy, mournful heart, he sets these aside, perhaps resisting an inclination to rent them in his grief. Perhaps he feels like a fraud. Perhaps he is pained by loss or trembling with rage. We don’t know. But, undone of prestige and pretense, he lowers himself in a mikveh, a well or a pond, perhaps, feeling its cold water sting on his skin and mingle with his hot tears. He re-emerges with a new sense of clarity and is gently wound in the simplest robes of pure white linen, limb by limb, swaddled in pregnant silence.
The symbology is clear: Aaron dies and is reborn again, of sorts. And this symbology reaches its hand into our hearts today too—for these plain robes are the template for the tachrichim, the burial shrouds in which the Jewish dead, of all genders, are dressed and washed with great care, love and affection and brought to rest in the Holy of Holies of our beautiful earth. For those of you who have partaken in a Taharah—the ritual purification of the dead—you know intuitively how this is equal parts raw and tender, and wholly real. Like the Book of Leviticus itself, we do not avert our gaze from death, but meet it, afraid, perhaps, but steadied by the wisdom of our tradition. And we trust and know that the liturgy of sin, confession and repentance, be it through the Biblical scapegoats and sacrifices or the Rabbinic Ashamnu’s and Al Chet’s offer us catharsis before the intimidating project of living in our human skins.
Leviticus continues to shine its light. In an age of plague, of division and reckoning, these rituals and liturgies offer us comfort. Defiled by the mass death of pandemic and the entrenched sin of racial injustice, Leviticus allows us to become the High Priests of our own consciousness; the officiants of our own growth as Jews and as human beings. We too learn to diagnose, quarantine and reintegrate. We too find ourselves working to the very heart of Leviticus embedded at the very core of our Torah: ‘v’ahavta lereiacha kamocha’, ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev. 19:18).
Leviticus provides us with the commentary and with the pathway to get to that foundational truth of our holy Torah. When all else is stripped from us, this great teaching remains.