Beginnings and Endings – Behukotai 5784

D'var Torah | Leviticus

“All beginnings are difficult,” observes Rabbi Yishmael in the Midrash (Mekhilta, Yitro). No doubt he is correct. Novelists agonize over the opening sentence. Chess players think deeply about each game’s opening gambit. New administrations carefully consider which items of legislation to tackle first, knowing full well that the administration’s future agenda hinges on immediate success. Some football coaches resort to choreographing the first twenty plays of the game to reduce the pressure on the quarterback and test the readiness of the opposition. But as much as beginnings are difficult, so are endings. Consider the book of Leviticus.

Devoted to the rules and procedures for priests, the book is alternately called Torat Kohanim. The book covers everything from the sacrifices to the dietary laws that require priestly monitoring, to the laws of ritual purity, disease detection and treatment, to the sabbatical and jubilee years that require priestly inauguration. It begins with a listing of the sacrifices and the methods of offering as conveyed to Moses. It ends (Leviticus 27:34) with a baffling declaration that “these are the commandments that God commanded Moses to instruct the Israelites at Mount Sinai.” It is a summative statement intended to suggest that the diverse laws included in the book are all part of the Sinaitic tradition. But who would have thought otherwise? And what about the laws that are included in the other four books of the Torah: are they not part of the Sinaitic tradition?

Helpful here is the commentary of the medieval exegete Hezekiah ben Manoah, known as Hizquni.  He explains that the summative statement at the conclusion of the book does not refer to its content or to any of the commandments listed in the other four books of the Torah. Rather, it is a statement about the canonization of the Torah itself. He writes: “Henceforth, no future prophet may add any new law.” While prophets have considerable authority since they speak for God, they cannot alter the commandments. The commandments given at Sinai are immutable and sacrosanct. These commandments are not only the ones appearing in the book of Leviticus but in the entire Torah since all the commandments were given at Sinai.

It seems that Hizquni feels compelled to make this point here and now because readers may conclude that the contents of the book of Leviticus are narrow in scope and are dedicated mainly to priestly service. Consequently, they are of lesser interest, if not lesser value. But that is not the case. All the laws of the Torah demand our attention and commitment.

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What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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