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A focus on free will, repentance and forgiveness

  • Matitiani
In traditional betei midrash, children begin their Torah studies with Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus. It contains all the laws of the priesthood and the sacrificial offerings.
by Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani, Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation | Mar 15, 2018

Given the contents, the Book of Leviticus is also referred to as Torat Kohanim, the Laws of the Priests, in rabbinic literature.

In a collection of midrashim on Sefer Vayikra, the Talmudist known as Rabbi Assi explains the reason for starting formal Torah study with the Book of the Laws of the Priests, and not with the Book of Genesis, by stating that because children are pure and the sacrifices were pure, it made sense that the pure would engage in the study of the pure (Vayikra Rabbah 7:3).

The notion that children are pure stems from the understanding of the statement at the end of the first story of creation, in which G-d proclaims that everything that He had created was “tov me’od” (very good). This, of course meant humankind as well.

While human beings do make errors of judgement and commit acts of immorality, we are born free of sin and inherently good.

This image is reinforced by this morning blessing, which we recite daily: “Elohai neshamah shenatata bi tehora hi” (Oh G-d, the soul that you have given me is pure). By reciting this positive statement every morning, we internalise an affirmative attitude about ourselves, our fellow human beings and our role in the world.

The divine gift of freedom of choice enables us to reach moral and spiritual heights, but can also result in our choosing to do evil. Both the Torah (Gen. 8:21) and the rabbis (Yoma 20a and Sanhedrin 105a) recognise that human beings have a tendency to do wrong.

The rabbis believed that it was for this reason that the sacrificial system of worship was mandated by the Torah. By bringing sin offerings, the Israelites were empowered with the ability to repent and make atonement for their sins.

The central Beit Mikdash (Temple) and its korbanot (sacrifices) were ancient tools for attaining forgiveness. It would therefore have been fitting for young students to begin their study of Torah with the laws of the priesthood and sacrificial worship to understand the nature of atonement and forgiveness before they enter the world of adulthood.

It is as adults that we exercise our freedom of choice, and it is as adults that we often make the wrong decisions.

Since the destruction of the second Beit Mikdash study, prayer and the performance of ethical and ritual mitzvot has replaced the offering of animals, flour, oil and wine on the altar.

Yet we still need to understand the concept of the inherent purity of the soul, the notion of free will and the idea of repentance and forgiveness. It is our challenge to find meaning in the text of the Book of Leviticus by uncovering lessons about these complicated and complex issues.

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