By David Ebenbach
The Book of Leviticus is primarily and emphatically about perfection. In Leviticus’ terms, this is often described as holiness, and, throughout this Book you read the words “shall be holy” again and again; there are occasions (i.e., the Jubilee) that are expected to be holy, sacrifices and objects that must be holy, and, above all, people who shall be holy. The Israelites are told in Leviticus 20:26, “You shall be holy for I, the Lord, am holy,” which shows you that this is no small thing – it’s a call to be like God.
In its efforts to get us to this lofty place, Leviticus calls for us to “purify” ourselves in a variety of ways. We are told to make our bodies, minds, and souls pure, to purify our clergy, to approach eating and sex with a purity of purpose and process; we are even commanded to, when necessary, purify the walls of our homes. We must be pure; we must be holy; we must strive for a spiritual perfection that manifests itself in our physical beings, in our dwelling places, and in our every action. It’s daunting. And though in our culture today we’re not always laser-focused on holiness, certainly we, given the fevered quest for achievement and fulfillment and success that drives so many of us, understand perfectionism.
It is this striving for perfection that Passover interrupts.
This month we’ll spend our first, second, and fourth Shabbats reading Torah portions from our normal cycle of readings – but the third Shabbat falls in the middle of Passover, and so on that day there’s a special reading in honor of the holiday. Specifically, we go back to Exodus, and to the story of Moses trying to get closer to God. “Show me now Your ways,” Moses says (33:13). “Show me, I pray, Your glory.” (33:18). God agrees and allows Moses a glimpse – all that Moses’ human limitations can allow – of that glory. This is an intense, deeply meaningful moment of closeness.
We go on from there to hear God recite God’s 13 attributes, and then a reminder about how we’re supposed to approach Passover.
After all, Passover is a holiday of memory. Remember that our ancestors were strangers in Egypt; retell the ancient story of our liberation; and, as this reading suggests, remember what’s important. Of course there’s value in our spiritual and personal strivings (and in fact as soon as we’re done with the Passover Torah reading we get right back to Leviticus and its exhortations the following week), but those things only have that value because (or if) they are motivated by something bigger than just the hounding voice of “Get better. Get better. Get better.” The Passover interruption tells us that, ultimately, we need to identify, cherish, and pursue what’s genuinely meaningful.
Sometimes this pursuit actually requires imperfection. The person who prizes flawlessness does only what’s safe and easy, while the person who prizes truth, holiness, and discovery must take some risks, risks that can lead to mistakes. The Torah has room for this; after all, Leviticus offers many ways to purify oneself after something goes wrong.
This month, ask yourself whether you ought to give perfection a little rest – and see if liberation will take its place.
April 5: Metzora (Leviticus 14:1-15:33)
April 12: Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:30)
April 19: Chol HaMo’ed Pesach (Exodus 33:12-34:26)
April 26: Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27)