Vayikra Leviticus 1:1-5:26 Maftir Deuteronomy 25:17-19

The third book of the Torah is called Leviticus in English, from the
Greek name meaning “referring to the Levites” – the priestly class. In
Hebrew, the book is colloquially known as Vayikra, but its official
name is Torat HaCohanim, the Book of the Priests. It is a kind of
procedures manual for working priests. The name of this week’s
parasha, the first in this book, is Vayikra. It’s the first word of
the parasha and it means “and He called.”

This week’s reading provides details on animal and grain sacrifices
and how they were to be performed, a topic contemporary Jews often
have trouble relating to. The rabbis of the Talmudic era and beyond
spent a great deal of time and energy focusing on the Temple rituals
and sacrificial system, even though none of them had ever seen these
rituals, living as they did after the destruction of the Temple. In
Leviticus Rabbah, Rabbi Aha said in the name of Rabbi Hanina ben Pappa
that G-d accounts studying the sacrifices as equal to offering them.
Rambam taught that the animals that were sacrificed were species that
were worshipped in various pagan societies. Therefore sacrificing them
to G-d was a way to proclaim G-d’s superiority to the worship objects
of other cultures and to move the Jewish people away from animal
worship. This interpretation suggested that animal sacrifice was no
longer necessary once that goal was accomplished.

Two kinds of sacrifices discussed at length in this parasha are the
zevah shelamim and the chatat. The meaning of shelamim is in dispute.
Some call it a peace offering, relating it to shalom, meaning “peace”
while others think it is related to shalem, meaning fullness or
completeness. Jacob Milgrom calls it a “sacrifice of wellbeing” and
Bernard Levine a “sacred gift of greeting.” Robert Alter, on the other
hand, considers it a “communion sacrifice.” The meaning of zevah
shelamim may be unclear, but what to do with the sacrifice is clearly
stated, including how the animal is to be slaughtered and butchered,
and which parts are to be eaten by the priests, which by the people,
and which is G-d’s portion and therefore not permitted to be eaten.
The Jewish Study Bible discusses the idea of a sacrifice in which
those sacrificing the animal get to feast on it. If it is a sacrifice,
why were the Israelites eating the meat? They conclude that the animal
is offered to G-d, but then G-d shares it with the people making the
offering. It’s sort of like when you bring a box of chocolates to your
dinner hosts and they serve them for dessert.

The second kind of sacrifice described, the chatat, is a purification
or sin offering required to undo the contamination caused by an
inadvertent sin. The Mishnah lists 36 specific sins that, if done
accidentally, require such a sacrifice. Some sins are easier than
others to imagine circumstances where someone might commit them
inadvertently. The list of 36 ranges from violating Shabbat to eating
chametz on Passover to sacrificing one’s children to Molech to having
sex with one’s mother. Had Oedipus Rex been Jewish and living at the
time of the Temple he might have saved his eyesight!

Contemporary Jewish movements differ in their attitude towards animal
sacrifice and the differences are reflected in the liturgy. Orthodoxy
looks to resumption of animal sacrifice in the Messianic Age and the
musaf service in particular is focused on that wish. In Conservative
Judaism the musaf is reconceived as remembrance of sacrifices during
Temple times. Synagogues affiliated with Reconstructing Judaism and
with the Reform movement omit musaf altogether and generally don’t
refer in liturgy to sacrifice The special Maftir for Shabbat Zachor
reminds us of the treachery and brutality of Amalek, who ambushed the
Israelites when they were exhausted and weak and killed the most
vulnerable of them. The Torah commands us, paradoxically, to never
forget to blot out all memory of Amelek.

Haftarah I Samuel 15:2-15:34

It is Shabbat Zachor, one of four special Shabbatot in the weeks
before Pesach. Shabbat Zachor is always the Shabbat before Purim. Both
its special maftir and special haftarah deal with Amalek. In the
haftarah G-d, through the prophet Samuel, tells Saul, the first
Israelite king, that he is to exact revenge on the Amalekites. Saul is
told to kill all of the Amelekites – men, women, children – as well as
all their animals.

Saul amasses an army and indeed wipes out the Amalekites, except for
their king, Agag, whom he captures alive. He also spares the best of
the animals. Because Saul doesn’t follow the word of G-d explicitly,
his kingship is revoked. Samuel kills Agag himself, hacking him into
pieces and saying “As your sword has made women childless, so shall
your mother be childless.” The text is brutal, and also puzzling. How
can Agag’s mother be alive to be childless, when all the Amalekites
were killed? Also, Haman – the villain of the book of Esther – is said
to be an Amalekite and a descendant of Agag. How did that happen?

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