The first book of the Torah taught by the old time Rabbis to kids just after they learned to read, was this book: Leviticus, from which Bryn takes her chapter. On the face of it, we might think that those Rabbis had fallen asleep over the maneshwitz. In Leviticus, basically a handbook for priests, we get no hot gossip about Hagar and Sarah, no moment of horror like Abraham and Isaac, no Moses upping to Pharoah, very little that would be fascinating to a kid. Why did the Rabbis use this book?
Let’s imagine a boy of 8 in the ages in which learning was carried on in exile and the poverty of ghetto and shtetl life. At 10 the boy would be working in the tailor shop, dawn to dusk, in the factory or carrying his father’s blacksmith tools. That he had to learn in an organized way would be given between his 9th and 10th years.
And Leviticus? It had the laws of Temple sacrifice, the laws of ritual and human impurity, guilt and innocence, restoration of holiness and what the community can and what the community can and cannot tolerate. It had the rules concerning skin diseases and miseries deeper than skin deep. It had 4 pages of sexual rules, which must have mystified two thousand years of school boys and provided a strange sound, hearing 13-year-olds chant all about incest at the appropriate Bar Mitvahs.
But there is also here, the laws of Kashrut; the ground tone of Jewish communal life, and, rising from the minutiae of sacrifices and skin eruptions like a rocket from ground zero, the ultimate ethical laws made for all time, laws and words that echo like bells down the centuries. “You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another. You shall not swear falsely by name… You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.” and from Bryn’s Parsha” When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him… You shall not falsify measure of length, weight or capacity; you shall have an honest balance, honest weights.” No other religious book I have ever read is so direct and available to the untrained, ordinary human being. Any 10 year old can comprehend these practical realities. The words found in Leviticus will bear the weight of a lifetime, in wealth and poverty, at home or in exile.
Bryn will be singing about ritual impurity, a concept tough enough to compass, and especially so in modern times where the idea has suffered attrition. Many other religious books talk about spirituality divorced from the dailiness of the usual. It takes a tough mind to deal with the inner meaning of holiness and of its everyday application. The word holy in Hebrew is Kodesh, from which we get many words spreading out from it: Kiddush, Kaddish, Kedusha. But Kodesh doesn’t precisely mean what the English word connotes. Kodesh implies a separation between sacred and ordinary, between God and God’s creation, between life and death. The old Rabbis must have respected children deeply enough to trust them with the harsher realities uncovered in Leviticus, and in the Chapters Bryn has worked so hard to master.