What happens when spirituality becomes suffocating? When we act by rote rather than by creative engagement? Is there only one way to connect with God? Or are there multiple paths to spirituality?
Welcome to the Book of Vayikra, Leviticus, which is all about spirituality and kedusha – holiness – whether in relation to spaces imbued with holiness such as the Mishkan; people imbued with holiness such as Kohanim; times imbued with holiness such as Shabbat and holidays; or everyday interactions between people, which are also imbued with holiness.
Vayikra delineates the laws that the Jewish People must follow in order to live up to our responsibility of being a Holy Nation.
In fact, the book is so focused on these laws that, unlike the other four books of the Torah which are filled with narratives, here in the Book of Vayikra, there are only two stories.
The first and more prominent story involves the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu – two sons of Aaron, the High Priest who, at the moment of the consecration of the Tabernacle take their own fire pans and offer a strange fire to God.
We’re told that when they bring foreign offerings of incense:
ותצא אש מלפני ה
and a fire went out from God
and consumed them
וימותו לפני ה
and they died before God. (Leviticus 10:2)
Then there is the second, less well-known story:
וַיֵּצֵא בֶּן אִשָּׁה יִשְׂרְאֵלִית וְהוּא בֶּן אִישׁ מִצְרִי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
The son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man went out among the People of Israel
And following an altercation with an Israelite man, the Torah states:
וַיִּקֹּב בֶּן הָאִשָּׁה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית אֶת הַשֵּׁם וַיְקַלֵּל
And the son of the Israelite woman (and Egyptian father) cursed the Name of God. (Leviticus 24:10)
This act of blasphemy is a capital offense for which he is executed.
Why are these the only two stories placed in the Book of Vayikra? What message do they hold for us regarding the theme of spirituality?
I believe that both these stories are included to alert us to the potential dangers that can arise in our quest for spirituality.
The story of Nadav and Avihu shows us that even if one’s intent is pure, there are surely limits to what is permitted in the effort to attain higher levels of spirituality.
That one may not pursue a relationship with God at all costs, without boundaries. That the end does not justify the means.
I find the second story even more interesting.
A troubled, marginalized young man denounces his community and blasphemes God, and ultimately pays for it with his life.
Where did this man come from? What drove him to this rebellion?
This story shows us what happens when overbearing limits are placed on the range of acceptable religious expression based on the comfort levels of our community – rather than on actual Jewish law.
Perhaps the story of the Megadef, the one who curses God, is about a young man for whom the religious environment is suffocating.
The Torah tells us that this man is the child of an intermarriage. He was the child on the block who we told our kids not to talk to or play with.
He was the child we preferred not to talk about in our community.
We dismissed him by saying he is not like us. And by excluding him, we stifled his spiritual development.
We didn’t help him find the proper vehicles of connection and made his religious environment toxic. So when he curses God, we are also responsible! Because we are the ones who alienated him from his community and his God.
We will be reading a lot about the lofty ideals of holiness and spirituality in Leviticus.
But let’s also consider what we can do to make it accessible to everyone, especially those who might not fit neatly into the box of our norms and expectations.
Welcome to the Book of Leviticus, where holiness and spirituality must be accessible through multiple portals of entry and celebrated by all of the Jewish People together each in their own way.