Sacks, Jonathan. “Covenant & Conversation: Volume III: Leviticus, The Book of Holiness” , Koren, 2015.
Commenting on Torah
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks brings us the third volume in his “Covenant and Conversation” series of essays on the weekly Torah portion. Rabbi Sacks brings together Jewish tradition, Western philosophy and literature in various essays on each portion of the week in the book of Leviticus. In this way we get an understanding of the human condition and the sovereignty of God. The writing is often poetic and always concise and to the point. Each portion has several commentaries from differing points of view and they allow to deeply and to see the Torah differently each time. Bringing together insights from some of the great Torah scholars and periods in history as well as from modern Bible scholars, philosophers, historians, and Rabbi Sacks himself, we can use what we read and apply it to our modern lives.
Whenever I read a collection of commentaries, I like to pick one or two and concentrate on what the author has to say but I had a hard time with this volume. Each and every commentary is so full of ideas I had a hard time trying to find that one to use. We often find Leviticus difficult because it so far away from our modern ideas yet I often find the seeds of modern law in what is written here. Sure it is difficult to find a way to make animal sacrifices relevant to the world today and Leviticus spends a lot of time with purity and defilement and these really have nothing to do with the contemporary world.
Not much happens in Leviticus. The narrative that exists is shocking and we are not sure how to react when Aaron’s sons are killed on the day that the tabernacle is consecrated. Some of the commands we read are irrational as are some of the moral laws we find here. Many think that Leviticus is outdated while I maintain it is a blueprint for how to live a good and holy life. Many are mistaken by thinking the book has admonitions against homosexuality but this is a case of misunderstanding the text.
What we must remember and Rabbi Sacks carefully explains that Leviticus is the middle book of the five books of Moses and it is the most important in that biblical literature often works as a reflection of what has been said in other books and the real climax of the Torah comes here. We also receive here the purest voices in the Torah—the priests and the sages and we are summoned like they were summoned by God to heed his commands.
We learn here why love needs law and vice versa. We learn of the acts that bring lovers together even when one of them is mortal and the other is divine. This is a book about losing our ways and sinning, of not always doing the right thing yet always being aware and seeking to be closer to our maker and allowing our maker to become close to us. I find that the beauty of Leviticus comes not from what is on the surface but from what we hear when we read the text. It is difficult to understand the writing at just one reading—it requires thought and reflection. In several of the Torah study classes that I am in, I often hear a groan when we are to begin the third book but I am always happy to see it come because it means that I will have to open my mind.
Rabbi Sacks gives us five commentaries on each weekly portion. I love that—many times I have difficulty finding just one commentary (from myself, that is) so here I get a chance to see five of the thousands that have been written and each of the five leads me in another direction. For me this is the true beauty of study—there is always something new to find, to learn and to think about.