Please support our work with a fiscal year-end gift. Thank you!

Leviticus Fulfilling the Promise of the Mishkan

By Rabbi Daniel Klein ‘10
Rabbi Daniel Klein

Parashat Kedoshim Leviticus 19:1-20:27

If you have been reading the Torah portion each week, the arrival of Parashat Kedoshim this week can, at first glance, feel like a bit of a plot twist.

For the six previous parashiyot of the Book of Leviticus, we have been located either in the mishkan, the portable tabernacle in the wilderness, or oriented towards it. The content has been primarily the details of the essential function of the mishkan—offering sacrifices—or the process of purification so one who has become ritually impure can return to the mishkan and again offer sacrifices. The human protagonists have been the priests, the people who serve in the Temple offering sacrifices and acting as the mediators between the community and God.

And then this week’s parashah arrives:

God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:1-2)

In this declaration, the world of the mishkan bursts forth into the wider world as the entire people is now charged with the responsibility of living sacred lives, not just the priests. And what follows is a list of injunctions and expectations for all aspects of life, ritual and ethical. Holiness is now something that is not restricted to a particular place but must be manifest in all places, in all aspects of life, and by all people.

Biblical scholars tell us that this part of the Book of Leviticus was written by a new priestly school at the end of the 8th century BCE. As Jacob Milgrom writes in Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, this school, “concerned itself with the people at large,” and had a revolutionary goal: “the creation of an egalitarian society,” in which, “everyone has access to the holy,” and has the burden, “to live a life that accords with holiness.”

So on the one hand, this parashah is an unexpected plot twist. However, on the other hand, the Levitical authors were simply following the inevitable logic and internal demands of the Divine experience that the previous chapters depict.

Leviticus, the central book of the Torah, is a meditation on a life lived intimately with God. It begins with exquisite details about the practices and procedures for approaching and restoring one’s relationship with God. The medium of this love story—sacrifices—is rather strange for us today; but in Biblical Hebrew, the word for sacrifices, korbanot, indicates coming close. This ritual practice continued in Jewish tradition until the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem. But already by then, we had begun to transform sacrifice into prayer, a process that is codified by the early rabbis.

Whatever the means for the approach and the process of opening, the wisdom of the Torah and the experience of the Divine is that it makes a claim on us. It cannot just live in that moment, stuck in shul, or the hour of prayer. To truly feel God’s presence is to know that one must live responsively, in all moments and in all places. The Holiness Code had to come next in Leviticus—it is the fulfillment of the mishkan experience.

The 16th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, powerfully links the previous parashiyot and Parashat Kedoshim. He had the practice prior to prayer of declaring, “Behold I take upon myself the creator’s commandment: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” This practice, drawing on the well-known verse from Parashat Kedoshim, makes clear that the divine encounter in prayer and in the sanctuary must be carried forth into the world. More specifically, it must lead to a greater sense of interconnection with and responsibility for people and the world, especially the most vulnerable, as many of the mitzvot in the parashah make clear.

And part of the brilliance of the Biblical authors is their understanding that while the mishkan and the hour of prayer can be a powerful place to experience God’s presence and learn to do so with greater regularity, it is not the only place we find God.

Take, for example, the very first instructions of Parashat Kedoshim after the command to be holy:

אִישׁ אִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו תִּירָאוּ וְאֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם׃

You shall each revere your mother and your father, and keep My sabbaths: I, Adonai, am your God. (Leviticus 19:3).

Both of these mitzvot—to have yirah, which means reverence, fear, and awe, for our parents and to keep Shabbat—remind us that we did not create ourselves. We are, always, children of our parents who gave us life; and we are ultimately not fully in control of the world but rather caretakers. Cultivating a stance of awe towards our origins and a weekly practice of rest are a response to and a gateway to holiness and the Divine presence, locating our lives beyond the narrow confines of the self. They are non-sanctuary based mitzvot that are similar in impact to sacrifices and prayer—they enable us to experience and honor our reality of participating in and being interconnected with a much larger world and history. These examples find echoes in many of the other mitzvot of the Holiness Code.

Parashat Kedoshim, with its ethical injunctions, is thus essential to and flows inevitably from what came before in Leviticus. Simultaneously, it offers an astounding and inspiring additional theological commitment of the ubiquity of the Divine presence in the world, available to us should we orient ourselves to be open to It.

In a world that seems increasingly fragmented and divided, angry and intolerant, the insights and guidance of this book of the Torah and this parashah could not be more necessary.

Rabbi Daniel Klein is the current Dean of Students for the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. A lifelong seeker, Rabbi Klein lived, studied and worked in Chicago, San Francisco and New York before finding his way back home to Boston as a student in the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. Rabbi Klein was ordained by Hebrew College in 2010 and now lives in his hometown of Newton, MA with his wife Jen and their two children, Micah and Nora.

Support Our Work Explore Graduate Programs

recommended posts

Alumni Beacons of Hope: Our Interreligious S/Heroes – Rabbi Getzel Davis and Rabbi Jessica Lowenthal

Leviticus When Dropping Obligations is a Mitzvah

News Highlights 100% Placement for Our Rabbinical Class of 2024!