With so many rules to follow, it’s no wonder that G“d expects people to make mistakes. What mere human can keep track of all those rules? And where there’s opportunity, other people will swoop in to take advantage. Perhaps that wasn’t G’d’s intention. Perhaps that wasn’t the Torah’s intention (though I find that a harder idea to accept, considering that we can be reasonably certain the text has been redacted by folks with an agenda, or at least a proprietary interest.
So here we have this whole system of making expiation for the inadvertent or unknowing commission of a transgression of the rules. It’s puzzling enough why we have this whole book of the Torah that’s basically a priest’s manual. (One of the nicer whitewash explanations of this is one suggested by Baruch Levine in the Etz Hayim commentary. It’s the idea that inclusion of this book of priestly secrets puts the power in the hands of all the people, thereby limiting priestly power, and fulfilling the idea that Israel was to be a nation of priests. It’s a nice thought, and, as apologetics go, not a bad attempt. Nevertheless, I find it an unsatisfactory explanation, as this book of priestly secretes was difficult enough to make sense of for the priests, let alone the common people.)
Some weeks back, I wrote about Moshe having a conversation with G”d about doing something for Aharon. In this fictional account, Moses, unhappy that he himself will reap much reward from his servant leadership, at least wants to see his mispacha and their descendants get something. G”d then offers to create a hereditary priesthood with Aharon at the top. Moshe isn’t too keen on the idea, but when G”d offers a gift, you don’t refuse it.
Now, let’s take pick up the story line. Having created this hereditary priesthood, G”d needs to insure its stability and status. So we get a whole bunch of laws, and a whole bunch of rituals to go along with them. First and foremost among these rituals are the ones for what to o when you inadvertently break one of those rules. Seems like a workable plan, G”d.
G”d does like a little balance, though, so has to think out the inherent dangers in the system being created. Don’t want to give the priests too much power. So G”d arranges for the priests to have all the knowledge of the laws and rituals, but later on arranges for them to have no land of their own, making them completely dependent on the good will of the people to provide for them. To be sure, the sacrificial system is designed to insure that the priests get the sustenance. Given the natural tendency of people to not so willingly share what belongs to them, it’s no wonder that over time the priests had to clamp down on things. In fact, this trend could have started pretty early.
Nadav: Hey, Avihu, are you as hungry as I am?
Avihu: Sure thing, my brother. That last round of sacrifices just didn’t do it for me.
Nadav: Or for me. Hey, I have an idea.
Nadav: Let’s go tell Nachshon’s dad Aminadav over there that he transgressed a law and needs to make another sacrifice.
Avihu: What law did he break?
Nadav: I don’t know. Does it matter? There are so many, nobody knows them all, not even us. I’ll just make something up.
Avihu: You think you can get away with that? Won’t "you-know-who” know what you’re doing?
Nadav: You really believe all the stuff uncle Moshe says, don’t you?
Avihu: Hey-you were there and heard the thunder and the booming voice just like we all did.
Nadav: I saw some fancy show, but I’m not so sure who the producer was. Even those crappy Egyptian magicians do some pretty fancy special effects.
Avihu: I don’t know, brother. Someday you’re going to get us both into a lot of trouble.
Nadav: Stick with me, bro. It’ll be fine. We’ll tell Aminadav that he, uh, forgot to, uh, adjust his holy framistat properly, and he has to sacrifice a cow.
Avihu: I prefer lamb. Can we make it a sheep?
Nadav: OK, a sheep then. And afterwards, we’ll have some nice wine, and maybe offer up an extra sacrifice to the invisible G”d up there.
Avihu: I guess a little extra sacrifice never hurt anyone.
Well, we all know how that turned out.
So maybe the book of Vayikra is in the canon for the reasons Levine suggested – as a leveling agent. Or maybe it’s there to solidify the power of and back up the hereditary priesthood. Better yet, it’s a sly trick. It’s meant to give the impression of equalization – giving all the people access to the priestly rules. Yet it’s so complicated no one can really understand it, so the priests (who at least can pretend to understand it) still have the upper hand. Sometimes the p’shat explanation really is the best.
©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester