Loving Leviticus, Sanctifying Everything (or Anything)

It’s a small, mostly clear drinking glass – except for the irregular, oval spots of teal and turquoise. We have a good many of them.

They match our everyday dishes, themselves a rich and soothing teal. And everything together rests quite nicely on the copper tile on the kitchen table, rimmed with turquoise all around.

My husband, Ralf, found the glasses at Ikea. He has an eye for that sort of thing. I tell anyone who works on our home that they need to drop their usual assumptions about asking the “lady of the house” for design answers. Go to the professorial-looking dude instead, I say. He’ll know exactly what to do.

Our Ikea glasses are flirty, happy little vessels. They accompany cereal (or bialys!) in the morning and my typical yogurt and fruit lunch. They fit well in my hand, contain the right amount of water, and slide easily into a row designed for glassware in my dishwasher.

Last week, one of these everyday glasses suddenly became a holy object. Then, it became a holy topic.

I frequently tell my university students that Leviticus is one of my favorite books in Torah. Typically, this elicits variant groans of incredulity. If I say such a thing at a church I am visiting, I usually receive polite looks of utter disbelief. Many in my audience are likely thanking their lucky stars that Christianity apparently did away with the need to study priestly niggling about identifying skin diseases and suchlike.

I could rely on the Holiness Code (see chapter 19) to defend myself. After all, it is Leviticus that demands that we give a pawned cloak back to its owner at night to make sure he will not freeze to death. It is Leviticus which insists that we use fair weights and measures, that we leave gleanings for the poor, that we pay laborers promptly, that we judge righteously. And so on.

Instead, I address the apparent niggling. Levitical rules, I insist, are often about making the world sacred. There are important messages in mandates around sacrifices of gratitude and wholeness, around priests securing opportunities for themselves and their people to acknowledge responsibility for wrongdoing, around making certain that God’s sanctuary is cleansed and open to God’s Presence.Leviticus teaches us the importance of doing the daily, difficult work of keeping the eternal fire going (6:2).

We need to know that each day offers us an opportunity to recognize and be thankful for life. We must make the effort to understand where we have gone wrong and to rededicate ourselves to the task of remaining upright and honest in our dealings with others. We have to recognize the chance we are given, in each hour, to keep an eternal fire going.

What is that eternal fire if not our commitment to create and nourish light in darkness? What is that light if not love?

In the last days of March, our son, Erik, came to visit us with his girlfriend, Weiwei. Weiwei comes from China. She, like Erik, is a doctoral student in theoretical chemistry at the University of Chicago.

We met Weiwei last December. I had emailed with her quite a good deal. During our week together, Ralf and I learned more about this beautiful, brilliant woman. We four walked a bit in the North Carolina mountains. We made meals together. We went to an opera and listened to Jewgrass musician Andy Statman. Live.

We shared a home.

Every morning, Ralf, Erik, and I had a cup of Assam tea. For these we used the teal mugs that go with our dishes. Every morning, Weiwei took a polka-dotted glass from the shelf and poured herself a glass of water.

Last Friday morning, I took Erik and Weiwei to the airport and came home to many pre-Shabbat tasks. I walked in the door and saw the remnants of our breakfast on the table. I took away the dishes and the napkins. I folded the newspaper and removed the magazines. I wiped the table.

But I could not move Weiwei’s glass.

I washed sheets and blankets and swept the house. I wiped down counters and scrubbed the bathtubs. I sorted all the elements of life lived together back into their appropriate drawers and closets.

I left the glass where it stood.

The glass stood for the week we had shared together, for the introduction of a wholly new element in our family life. It represented that something sacred and holy had happened; we had become a different family that week.

For all of Shabbat, the glass stood on the kitchen table like an offering of thanks. Only when Shabbat was over did I pour the water away. It was a kind of libation.

During Torah study I told congregants about that glass.

“Leviticus,” I said, “helps us invest and transform the world. It teaches us that there are categories of sacredness and that we can hallow everyday things. Rituals of cleansing, honoring, and sanctifying connect us with the holiness of life itself.”

So, I suggest again that we learn from Leviticus.

We can make the world holy by whatever means are at hand – including an ordinary, polka dotted glass of water.

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2 Replies to “Loving Leviticus, Sanctifying Everything (or Anything)”

  1. I walked in two sacred spaces this weekend, in the presence of two older women with memory loss. There is no reasoning with either, only the calm of patience to say yes, oh dear, and repeat the same answer as if for the first time, not the 40th.

    I am also liking Leviticus, most probably because of my strong sense of order and neatness. 🙂

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