One of the weirdest things about the book of Leviticus is the job of the priests. They seem to be glorified butchers and cooks, following precise instructions on slaughtering an array of animals, and then preparing parts of the carcasses to burn on the altar, and the remainder for their dinner.
They also had the task of identifying skin problems (mistakenly called leprosy) and deciding if a person was pure or impure. During the 40 years in the desert, they were tasked with inviting back into the camp those who had been sent outside to heal, to ensure that no one was permanently ostracized.
Leviticus has been called an instruction manual for the priests, and huge portions of their jobs ceased to exist when the Children of Israel ended their desert trek, and the rest disappeared when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, some two millennia ago. Which means that large swaths of the book could be seen as irrelevant.
No surprise then, that the rabbis of the Talmud decided to look at the priests’ jobs in a different light. They started by playing a word game, taking the word for leper, metzora, and reading it as motzi shem ra, gossip or slander. Now the priests are seen in a completely different role – leaders in an effort to rid the community of destructive talk. Because they knew, as we do, that words can be weapons.
Ben Sira wrote, “Have you heard something about someone? Let it die with you. Be of good courage, it will not harm you if it ends with you.”
Advice as sound today as it was over two thousand years ago. And it’s as necessary today as it was then, because people continue to harm each other with words, treat each other disrespectfully and unkindly. Which is why Rabbis Sidney Greenberg and Jonathan Levine wrote this simple prayer, to be recited upon entering the synagogue:
“May the door of this synagogue be wide enough to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for fellowship… May the door of this synagogue be narrow enough to shut out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity.”
And may we be wise enough to follow this advice, both when we enter the synagogue, and when we leave our own homes every morning.