“Well, if Johnny jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” You’ve heard this familiar retort and perhaps even used it to try to shed light on the temptations of peer pressure. The question is posed to prove that sometimes what the group does is not always the right choice for every individual. The question reminds us that each of us has the ability to make choices for ourselves and our own best interest. But, this is not always easy, especially when you are young and want more than anything to fit in. We go to extra lengths to fit in, whether it’s dressing in a way that looks “cool” but really makes us uncomfortable or making a bad judgment call and stealing lipstick from the drugstore or cheating on a test. We spend a significant amount of time, whether consciously or not, trying to walk the fine line between individual needs and desires and the desire to fit in with the group.
This week we begin reading sefer Vayikra, the third book of the Torah. This book is full of rules and laws that delineate types of sacrifices, both communal and individual, the establishment of priests and sacred worship, reminders about what to put into our bodies, how to remain pure, and the consequences that result from breaking these rules. The tie that binds each of these sections of text together is that of community.
Sefer Vayikra and our parshah this week begin with God asking Moses to speak to the Israelites. Chapter 1, verse 2 states “Speak to the children of Israel and you say to them, ‘When a person presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, from the herd or flock should y’all choose.’” This verse begins by instructing a singular individual and concludes with the plural, speaking to the entire community. Both individual and communal offerings are required in the text, but the switch mid-verse is peculiar.
The rabbis warn in Leviticus Rabbah, a 6th-8th century work of commentary, the individual must not be influenced to inauthentic action by the community. Leviticus Rabbah picks up on the word used in verse 2 for a person, adam, teaching that an “offering must be like that of Adam, belonging to you and not stolen, offered solely to express your love of God and not to impress your neighbors.” That is to say that while offerings and ritual are meant to be performed in community, the action must be authentic. Making an offering because you want to appear more generous to the community or to jump on the latest trend of “spiritual practice” because it is what everyone is doing will lead you nowhere, according to our text.
Rather, performing the mitzvot that are laid out in sefer Vayikra should add to our own unique relationship with God. An unknown Hasidic master taught that we enter the sanctuary as individuals, but the experience of worship leads us to transcend our separateness and become part of the community.
The central part of the book of Vayikra is known as the holiness code, which describes the ways in which an individual behaves ethically and morally. Holiness, according to our text, is being yourself, your truest and best self. That’s truly the easiest way to live a life full of honor and blessings.
THIS TOO IS TORAH: We actually refer to Vayikra indirectly every time we read from the Torah as a community. During the Torah reading, a Kohen is called to approach (k’rav) to have the first aliah, just as the priests in old times would approach (k’rav) to perform the duties of the sacrificial service.