Shemini - A Return to Innocence

Sefer Vayikra is when we tend to find creative ways to discuss anything but the Parsha. During this period between Purim and Pesach, when the Torah readings address the obscure details of the animal sacrifices and other ritual issues, we may choose to avoid the arcane and place the focus of our Torah study and insights on the rich and attractive festivals at hand. But perhaps we should take a moment to consider why the traditional Torah reading calendar guides Klal Yisrael to study these matters at this important time.

Traditionally, there is a specific population that is directed to study the book of Vayikra, little children who are beginning to study Torah. As the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 7:3) explains: “Children are pure and offerings are pure. Let the pure engage with the pure.” The korbanot (offerings) are reserved for the Temple, an environment defined by its rigorous maintenance of purity and therefore most suited – in theory if not in practice – to be dominated and occupied by the purity and innocence of children. This is reflected in the cherubic images of children that were ubiquitous in the Temple, woven into the curtain walls and roofs and sculpted atop and around the holy ark (Shemos 25:18, 26:1, 26:31, Melachim I 6:23-32). Those cherubs – kruvim – were similarly positioned as guardians of the pathway into the original sanctuary of the Garden of Eden (Bereishis 3:24), a place of perfect innocence and purity from which we were banished when we lost our innocence. Just as Gan Eden was a place where Adam and Eve could walk unclothed innocently and unself-consciously, the Holy of Holies contained the image of the male and female kruvim locked in an innocent and unself-conscious embrace (Yoma 54a-b). All of this indicates that we are to relate the minutiae of ritual purity characteristic of Vayikra to a broad and rich context of moral purity.   

Which brings us to Pesach. This festival’s focus on the minutiae of chametz removal and the personal purity required in days of old reflects the broad and rich context of the moral freedom that Pesach celebrates. The pre-Pesach season is launched by the reading of Parshat Parah, instructing us regarding the attainment of perfect ritual purity, while the festival itself is a celebration of freedom from the lustful Egyptian environment to a position of moral purity. Egyptian immorality had been front and center to our challenging experience there, beginning with Sarah’s salvation from Pharaoh’s clutches by a show of divine strength, to Yosef saving himself from Potiphar’s wife’s clutches by a demonstration of superhuman self-control. Ramban (Bereishis 12:10) went so far as to see Pharaoh’s original scheme of throwing the males into the river while preserving the females as a national scheme of the Egyptians to claim the Jewish women as their own. It is for this reason that the brit milah, the symbol of Jewish morality, is a foundational component of both the law and the narrative of the Pesach redemption. And it is in this context that Pesach is the time we publicly and unself-consciously read Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs that the Egyptians would read in a very different way than we do, as we see it as our Sages did, as our biblical and literary Holy of Holies (Yadayim 3:5).

When all of us open the book of Vayikra during these days leading to Pesach it is because this is the season when all of us strive to return to the childish innocence that is essential to our leaving Egypt behind. This is the season when all of us must play the role of tinokot shel beit rabban, pure and virtuous school children.

Our current need for a return to moral purity is very clear. We are living in a time and place where our innocence is under constant assault, where news and entertainment blend to attempt to force upon us a constant stream of the antithesis of virtue. We need to escape from those messages. We need to open Sefer Vayikra. “Let the pure engage with the pure.”