Thursday, March 17, 2011

Lent and Leviticus

When any of you utter aloud a rash oath for a bad or a good purpose, whatever people utter in an oath, and are unaware of it, when you come to know it, you shall in any of these be guilty. When you realize your guilt in any of these, you shall confess the sin that you have committed. And you shall bring to the LORD, as your penalty for the sin that you have committed, a female from the flock, a sheep or a goat, as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for your sin.Leviticus 5:4-6
As we entered the season of Lent our Jewish sisters and brothers entered the Book of Leviticus as their Sabbath Torah portion.

Our Lent will last for six weeks, but the reading of Leviticus will go on for three months.

I am not fond of Lent, but I feel like we get the better deal.

Our traditional Lenten observance often centers around giving up something, like dessert or chocolate. Modern observances have suggested taking on something, like a service commitment or a Bible Study. But this ritual of doing and not doing has often seemed shallow to me, and I have had a hard time appreciating its meaning. For me, observing Lent is a lot like reading Leviticus.

In a commentary on the first Torah portion, chapters 1-5, Rabbi Abigail Treu writes: “Reading Leviticus, it is clear that the reality of the people who generated the text is radically different from our own. It is a book that reads as ancient, obsolete, and irrelevant. In fact, one recent popular edition of the Bible left it out altogether.” For those seeking deep meaning in the biblical text, Leviticus is not an easy read.

We love the stories of Genesis and Exodus. We can identify with the characters and we can imagine ourselves in the stories. We are amazed and inspired. From Abraham and Sarah setting out on a journey into what God describes as “the land that I will show you,” to Jacob wrestling with God, to Moses at the burning bush, confronting a God’s presence in eternal being, “I am that I am.” The stories invite us to ask questions and explore the meaning of life.

Then the biblical narrative enters the strange world of Leviticus, and we encounter a seemingly endless list of strange commandments with little connection to our lives. In Leviticus we find lists of things that must be done, and other things that must not be done, with very little explanation.

But in her commentary, Rabbi Treu made an observation that helps us better understand the importance of Leviticus as well as the experience of Lent. "It is in Leviticus that we come to understand that stories can shape the heart, but ritual shapes our days."
Stories can shape the heart, but ritual shapes our days.

Faithful living requires more than inspiration. We also need to learn how to live and in the most practical and concrete sense we need to learn what to do on a daily basis.

The idea of animal sacrifice is repulsive to us, and it should be. But the idea of sin offering and guilt offering, and the idea that when a sin is committed by one person against another person the first concern must be to restore the broken covenant, these are important concepts. Punishing the guilty is not as important as making restitution to the one who has been injured. Restoring the covenant is an important practice.

Throughout the legal code of Leviticus the text speaks of persons who commit an offense by mistake. The repeated phrase is, “anyone who sins unintentionally in doing any one of the things that by the LORD’s commandments ought not to be done.” If you read the actual offenses listed, in many cases it seems hard to believe that anyone could commit those offenses by mistake. But the code applies this judgment of “unintentional” retroactively. If one confesses a sin, then the very act of confession makes the sin unintentional. Restitution must still be made. The one who suffered must still be made whole. But the intention behind the act is forgiven and forgotten.

The purpose of that strange ancient list of offerings and sacrifices is to make the wounded whole, to let go of the past and embrace the future. In this season of Lent, when Christians give up things and take on things, it is useful to remember that in our rituals we are shaping our days so that they will be open to the insights and inspirations that can shape our hearts.

No comments:

Post a Comment