Purim Vs. Va-yikra: Order Vs. Chaos

Vayikra | Purim By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Mar 18, 2000 / 5760 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

This week we begin our reading of the book Va-yikra, Leviticus, which details the rites of the sacrificial cult, the dynamics of ritual pollution and purification, and the path toward priestly holiness. As a number of scholars have commented, Leviticus is essentially about order. For bible scholar, Everett Fox, Leviticus describes, “a realm of desired order and perfection, a realm in which wholeness is to reign, in which anomaly and undesired mixture are not permitted, and in which boundaries are zealously guarded” (Fox, The Five Books of Moses, 501). This sense of ordered perfection becomes all the more striking in light of our reading of Megillat Esther next Monday evening. At its core, the Scroll of Esther is about chaos and disorder – a world turned upside down. Which is more authentically Jewish? And how are we to understand the juxtaposition of these world views?

Parashat Va-yikra follows the account of the completion of the mishkan, the tabernacle, the symbol of God’s Dwelling amidst the people. Now that God’s Presence is in their midst, the real challenge begins: to safeguard God’s Dwelling amongst the Israelites. Acting according to the laws given in Exodus will assure the Presence of God among the people; transgression and wayward behavior will distance the people from God and God from the people. Ritual pollution could potentially build up to a point such that God’s Presence could no longer tolerate dwelling in the people’s midst. Fox comments, “Leviticus is largely concerned with the potential disruption of this utopia [and so] … concentrates on threats to Israel’s life with God.”

The concern for order in Parshat Va-yikra expresses itself best in chapters 4 and 5. These chapters, writes Baruch Levine, “reflect a deep concern for sanctity – for maintaining the purity of the sanctuary against all forms of defilement caused by the priesthood and the people, and for assuring the acceptability of all Israelites in God’s sight” (The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus, 19). Chapter 4 opens, “when a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them …” (Leviticus 4:2). Not only does the parasha then go on to describe the ritual of sacrificial expiation, but it goes on to delineate a particular order among the people. Beginning with the anointed priest, continuing to the whole community, then to a chieftain, and finally to an individual Israelite, the parasha describes the prescribed ritual for each of these circumstances. Such concern for sanctity and order roots itself in the expiatory sacrifices: those korbanot which bring about forgiveness of one’s inadvertent sins. Korbanot effect atonement and thus, as its Hebrew root k-r-v, to bring close, suggests, bring the transgressor closer to God. The systems described in Leviticus are methodical and systematic. Order preserves order. For it is through the detail of ritual sacrifice that one ensures the continuing relationship between God and the Israelites.

In contrast, Megillat Esther and the celebration of Purim convey a sense of disorder and chaos. The very words ‘Purim’ and ‘Esther’ suggest a lack of order. Purim, as the third chapter of the megillah mentions, means ‘lots’ (random selection). The rabbis relate the Persian name ‘Esther’ to the Hebrew root s-t-r meaning hidden. (God is hidden in the Scroll of Esther). In the megillah the tables are turned and the world is flipped upside down: Esther replaces Queen Vashti and conceals her Jewish identity in order to marry King Ahashverosh; excessive feasting and drinking form the refrain of the tale; Haman’s plans for annihilating the Jewish people are foiled; the Jews take revenge on those who had sought to do them harm; and the non-Jews seek to become Jews. Observances of Purim celebrate chaos as well – the raucous reading of the megillah (especially when Haman’s name is mentioned), the commandment to drink until one does not know the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordechai,’ and the masks that conceal true identity. In the words of the megillah, v’nahafoch hu, everything is upside down and backwards.

The Israelite world view articulated in Leviticus is anathema to the world pictured in Megillat Esther. First, the Presence of God, so central to the laws delineated in Va-yikra, is apparently absent in the megillah. In the desert, God is tangibly present to the Israelites through the spoken word, the pillar of fire, the smoke and lightning at Sinai, and the camp’s tent of meeting. In Esther’s Persia, God works behind the scenes, if at all. God’s name does not appear in the megillah, and the storyline seems coincidental rather than carefully planned. Second, the order and sacred boundaries which define Leviticus are virtually non-existent in Esther: drinking is accepted practice (the word mishteh, drinking feast, occurs in Megillat Esther as many times as it occurs in the whole Tanakh), Esther marries a non-Jewish king, and the non-Jews desire to become Jews en masse. It is as if the utopia created by the building of the tabernacle has disappeared; the intimacy between the Israelites and God is no longer. One does sense God acting behind the scenes in the megillah; yet one also senses a sadness at the lost closeness between God and the Jewish people.

As Jews, we are expected to live exceptionally ordered lives; order, not chaos, is natural to who we are. In Genesis, we are commanded to act in the image of God – that same God who orders the world so brilliantly in the seven days of Creation; that same God who gives us the mitzvot, commandments by which we are charged to live our lives. So how is it that Purim’s chaos became a hallowed part of the Jewish liturgical year? I want to suggest that the disorder we experience on Purim helps us appreciate the artistry of the rest of our tradition. Professor Monford Harris suggests why the midrash tells us that of all the holidays Purim alone will continue to be observed in the days of the Messiah: “For to know existentially the new order in history, the order established by the Messiah, one must be aware of the disorder of former days, the disorder of exile, the topsy turvy… only through the occasion of disorder can we know order.” (Harris, “Purim: the Celebration of Dis-Order”, 170) Va-yikra is the norm to which we aspire, but Esther is the lens which puts the order into perspective.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Matthew Berkowitz

The publication and distribution of Rabbi Berkowitz’s commentary on Parashat Va-yikra are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.