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Parsha Vayikra | Pleasing Odors for the Lord

Photo by Ruslan Zh on Unsplash

Explore Jewish heritage with an amateur Jew’s commentary on Parsha Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26. Click here to read last week’s, Parsha Vayakhel-Pekudei.

Part of what convinced me to follow the Torah cycle for 5780 (2019 – 2020) was an interest in following the narrative of this ancient text. I long (and ignorantly so) dismissed Abrahamic religious texts, assuming they all led to zealotry and creepy televangelists.

But in college, I had no problem diving into Buddhist and Hindu mythology or creation texts. Even if I wasn’t doing this out of a grander mission to connect with my Jewish heritage, I can already easily concede that understanding the Hebrew Bible is important basic education in understanding a large chunk of the world.

I knew there were a handful of Exodus-themed movies and always appreciated those stories, even if often sanitized. (Moses doesn’t lead the slaughter of thousands of his people in The Prince of Egypt, for example.) It was only much later on that I realized that religious themes or stories from the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) are used all the time to develop literary and cinematic plots. I enjoy those movies (A Serious Man, anyone?) so again, regardless of my heritage, it makes sense as a storyteller to understand this foundational text or to at least have more than a passing familiarity with it.

What’s Leviticus About?

Here’s what I didn’t know and what catches us up to Leviticus, the third of the five books of Moses that we know as the Torah. There’s not going to be much plot or narrative in Leviticus, which is what’s going to keep me busy until Parsha Bechukotai on May 28 and we move on to Numbers.

Before taking on this writing/commentary project, I had a minimal understanding of Leviticus being the source of some laws––namely those that have been interpreted to justify homophobia. Beyond that, it was generally a blank slate. So in order to keep a better understanding of where I’m heading, I looked up a summary of Leviticus.

I know it’s lazy to go to Wikipedia, but there’s a digestible breakdown. We ended Exodus with the construction of the Tabernacle. Leviticus focuses on how to make offerings to the Lord and the Tabernacle and how the Israelites should behave while camped around this holy sanctuary. Biblical scholars place Leviticus within the month or so between the completion of the Tabernacle and when the Israelites leave Sinai at the beginning of our next book, Numbers.

Also relevant is that scholars believe that Leviticus was developed during the Persian Period between 538 and 332 BCE. The Persian Period refers to the Persian Achaemenid Empire, created after the fall of the kingdom of Judah to the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Eventually, it gets absorbed into Alexander the Great’s Hellenic empire. (This is all history-history, not biblical history.)

This is all to say that I don’t expect much to happen in this book from a narrative perspective and so finding nuggets to comment on or anything that will resonate with me will likely prove challenging. As far as I can tell, there will be little to no story in this book. This book seems to be the result of a minority in exile writing something like a government’s constitution, but with more emphasis on ritual slaughter to remain close to God.

Assuming my inkling is correct, I’ll be proceeding with Leviticus differently than I did Genesis and Exodus. With those books, there was much more story and narrative, so I used this space to summarize the events in my own, hopefully moderately entertaining way. Since there’s not likely to be much of a story going on here, I’ll instead focus on any lines that stick out to me.

Odors, Scents, and Fragrances

In episode 39 of Parsha In Progress, co-host Abigail Pogrebin makes a reference to the fact that the Torah doesn’t repeat any lines by accident. In this first Parsha of Leviticus, I noticed that “pleasing odor” was repeated four times within the first couple of chapters. It’s a phrase we also saw back in Parsha Tetzaveh referring ritual slaughter of rams and burnt offerings.

Suffice it to say, Parsha Vayikra is not a good Parsha for rams, bulls, and goats. A great deal of the text is devoted to how to slaughter and offer up these creatures for various levels of sinning. This is pre-rabbinic Judaism at its finest, something that hasn’t been practiced for 2,000-plus years.

But the Lord, again, seems awfully concerned about pleasing odors. Obviously I’m reading an English translation. Sometimes things don’t come through perfectly. So I looked at the Hebrew for this line:

“.רֵֽיחַ־נִיח֖וֹחַ לַֽיהוָֽה”

That first word “רֵֽיחַ־נִיח֖וֹחַ” can mean scent, fragrance, aroma––all synonyms of odor. So what’s going on here? I can’t do much more than fashion a guess. What comes to mind first is the benefit of being surrounded by pleasing odors (or scents or pick your synonym). In this ancient case, it’s about keeping the Lord happy. But it makes sense in a modern context for individuals or groups of people.

I mean, who wants to be surrounded by some nasty stank? I know that lighting some scented candles in my apartment can do wonders for my mood. It makes my space simply feel cleaner, and you know, cleanliness is next to godliness.

Onward with Parsha Tzav.

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