The victorious victim

The victorious victim

Vayikra | Leviticus 1:1-5:26

This Shabbat we begin Leviticus, a biblical book that has historically received “mixed reviews.” While our tradition reveres this book — its dominant theme is the role of the priests in rituals connected to the Holy Temple — in more recent times, Leviticus has become a “victim” of negative criticism. These critics maintain that Leviticus was written much later than the rest of the Bible and is inferior to the other biblical books. As a believing Jew, I disassociate myself entirely from this school and its theories.

I heard Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik say, “The more virulent the opposition to one of our beliefs, the more sacred and important we can consider that belief to be.” Viewing Leviticus as a “victim” provides an opportunity to consider the book’s lessons regarding the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, the pursuer and the pursued.

First, a verse from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), another biblical book that has had its share of detractors:

“What is occurring now occurred long since,

And what is to occur occurred long since:

and God seeks the pursued.” (Kohelet 3:15)

In this verse, King Solomon, author of Kohelet, maintains that history is cyclical but that one aspect of this repetitive narrative is consistent: God is on the side of history’s victims; it is they who will ultimately prevail. 

The midrash expands upon this concept: “Rabbi Huna said in the name of Rabbi Yosef, ‘God always seeks the pursued. You will find that when one righteous person pursues another righteous person, God sides with the pursued. When a villain pursues a righteous person, God sides with the pursued. When one villain pursues another villain, God sides with the pursued. Even when a righteous person pursues a villain, God sides with the pursued!” (Vayikra Rabbah 27:5)

This passage offers examples: Abel was pursued by Cain, Abraham by Nimrod, Isaac by the Philistines, Jacob by Esau, Joseph by his brothers, Moses by Pharaoh, David by Saul, Saul by the Philistines — in each instance, God eventually vanquished the pursuer. So too, the midrash assures us, although the people of Israel have been pursued by enemies throughout history, God will seek the pursued and favor the victim. 

The Talmud takes this further: “Rabbi Abahu preached that one should always include himself among the pursued, and never among the pursuers, for no species of fowl is more pursued than pigeons and turtle doves, and yet these are the only species of fowl fit for the altar.” (Bava Kama 93a)

Maimonides says the guiding principle of the Torah scholar should be “to include himself among the pursued but not among the pursuers. He should be one of those who forgives insult but never insults others.” (Hilchot De’ot 5:13)

This does not mean one should be a pushover. Rather, it means we do not always need to win, that we should give others credit, that we should not trample others to get ahead, but work collaboratively. 

The 19th-century rabbinic authority Rabbi Jacob of Lyssa points out that in a certain sense we are all “pursued” — by our passions, moral failings, and selfish egos. God seeks the pursued, offering succor to all those who valiantly struggle to overcome their internal temptations and strive to live an ethical and moral life. 

read more: