With this week’s Torah reading we conclude the Book of Leviticus, which deals primarily with matters relating to the ancient priestly system of cult and sacrifice. While Leviticus often appears to be remote from the concerns of contemporary Judaism, in many ways it reflects issues we continue to wrestle with. This is evidenced by the strong series of suggested punishments for which the entire community, not just the priesthood, is liable.
If so much of Leviticus is devoted to the responsibilities and regulations of Aaron and his offspring, why does the book conclude with warnings for the entire people of Israel? We would expect that there would be a concluding catalogue of curses devoted exclusively to the kohanim.
In arranging Leviticus in this manner, the ancient writers must have had in mind the issue that antiquity as well as modernity must struggle with: the relationship of responsibility that exists between the leaders of a community and the other members of that community.
On the one hand, it might be argued that the anticipated deviance of the people that Leviticus assumes — “If you do not hearken to [God] and will not fulfill these commandments…I will assign terror over you…and I will set my face against you….” — reflects the failure of the leaders. If they had taught correctly and enforced strictly, the people would not have wandered; they would have kept the mitzvot and enjoyed the blessings promised to them.
On the other hand, Leviticus may be suggesting that irrespective of the presence of the priesthood and the availability of the sacrificial system, each person as an individual, and the community as a whole, is ultimately responsible for him- or herself, or itself. Thus the concluding chapters correctly concern the population as a whole, rather than the kohanim alone.
In similar fashion, contemporary Jewish communities struggle with the concerns of Jewish continuity. Some studies suggest that the leadership — rabbis, lay leaders, educators, Jewish communal professionals — let their respective organizations pursue the wrong agendas and allocate funds for marginally productive programs. Caught up in short-term crises, the leadership failed to anticipate the long-term needs of the community.
Other studies suggest that the increasing trend toward assimilation is a function of the circumstances of the American-Jewish population, now largely fourth and fifth generation. The embrace extended to Jews by American society has helped foster an integration into the larger society that even the best-funded and most professionally directed communal response could perhaps at best mitigate, but not eradicate.
Our challenge is to forge a communal consensus that brings together our best efforts, planning and funding a coherent plan for building, over a period of time, a creative and committed Jewish community rooted in the past and living fully in the present — although our patterns of living Jewishly and the institutions through which we have done so may need to change dramatically.
Behukotai includes these words: “I will not…break My covenant with them, for I am the Lord their God” (Leviticus 26:44). It would do us well to remember this promise, as we set about building the Jewish life of which our community surely is capable.