From Netivyah. March 23, 2024. By Joseph Shulam – From Mount Juliet, Tennessee, USA

The Torah portion that will be read in synagogues around the world is my Bar-Mitzvah reading. When I was 13, my father sent me to the neighborhood Rabbi to study for my Bar-Mitzvah.  Bar-Mitzvah is the right of passage for any male child moving from being a child who is not responsible for himself. Still, his family, especially the father, is responsible for him in a whole new sphere – when you finish your 12 years of life, he has to read publicly from a Torah scroll written by hand. The Torah scroll has no punctuation or Hebrew vowels. These are indicated as dots and lines above and beneath the text. Here is an example of the first verse of the Torah portion for this Shabbat, Leviticus chapter 1:1-2, with the vowels on top and under the consonantal text.  

”וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃ דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם אָדָ֗ם כִּֽי־יַקְרִ֥יב מִכֶּ֛ם קָרְבָּ֖ן לַֽיהוָ֑ה מִן־הַבְּהֵמָ֗ה מִן־הַבָּקָר֙ וּמִן־הַצֹּ֔אן תַּקְרִ֖יבוּ אֶת־קָרְבַּנְכֶֽם׃“   

This printed text of the Torah includes the vowel signs of dots and lines.   The same text in the handwritten scroll looks like this:

ויקרא אל משה וידבר יהוה אליו מאהל מועד לאמר דבר אל בני ישראל ואמרת להם אדם כי יקריב מכם קרבן ליהוה מן הבהמה מן הבקר ומן הצאן תקריבו את קרבנכם!

As you can see, the consonants are the same, but the dots and lines that make the vowels are not there, making the reading very difficult. Essentially,  when a male child completes 12 years of life he has to prepare to read the Torah portion of the sabbath of his birth in front of the whole congregation of his text and then bring a message based on his reading. It is a classic right of passage, and it is important for the child and his family and the whole community. From this point forward, this child is no longer under the responsibility of his father and family. He alone is responsible before the LORD. It is a big moment for the family, the child, and the community. From that day on, the community will look at this child as a member of the community who is responsible, as every other male, for his actions and commitments. Can you imagine reading a text in your language with no commas, question marks, exclamation points, or end of sentence? The Hebrew scrolls of the five Books of Moses don’t have any signs of syntax or punctuation, making reading the Hebrew text difficult! 

Dear Brothers, we have to thank the Jewish Rabbis who lived in the land of Israel in the city of Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee between the 7th Century and the 9th Century CE for the big help to all Jews and Christians seeking to read the Hebrew Bible in the original language. I bring this small bit of information because I have encountered all around the world many people who don’t realize that, as Christians, we have a relationship with Israel as a nation. With Jews we have a common heritage and partnership that binds us together like no other nation, because our relationship is one that was bonded by God when He sent Yeshua His Son to the Earth to save us all. 

Since this Torah portion is the portion of my birthday, I had to read it before the whole community in the synagogue on Yehuda Street, between Beth-Lehem Road and Hebron Road in Jerusalem. I shall never forget how proud my father and all the family were that I read my Torah portion, Leviticus 1:1 – 16. I know for sure that my father didn’t understand a word of what I was reading and not a word of my short message explaining the text. You see, my father and mother were both unbelievers in God. My father mocked the religious Jews and their lifestyle and their attitude toward the state of Israel. 

Now, I must open up the main subject of the book of Leviticus between chapter 1 and chapter 13. The subject is sacrifices to God—the work of the Levites in the Tabernacle. Today, we don’t have a set liturgy when we go to our respected congregations. One or two individuals decide our worship. Very few people know ahead of time what will happen in the assembly. The worship consists of a few songs, a message that is sometimes a message of some people’s intelligence. We take communion and go on our way. The emblems of the sacrifices are consumed with a spoon of grape juice and a stale piece of “unleavened bread!” 

 It is hard for us to imagine the concept of worship and the vast amount of hard work it took for the Levites to serve the crowd of tens of thousands, each bringing one type or another of sacrifice to the Tabernacle in the wilderness of the Sinai Desert or Jerusalem. Sacrificing was messy work, not to mention the cost and expenses of bringing an animal from your village in Carmel (near the Dead Sea on top of the hills of Judea) to Jerusalem. The animal for sacrifice had to be perfect without a blemish or a broken bone, not blind or crippled, a perfect specimen of his species.  

The book of Leviticus starts with a limitation regarding the kind of animals that can be brought to the temple and offered as a sacrifice to the Lord. The first verse of the book of Leviticus already gives clear limitations on what animals are acceptable for sacrifice on the Lord’s altar. The point is that God has rules and limitations. Good intentions and a sincere heart are not enough to please Him. Sacrifice must be according to His rules and not our whims, desires, and appetites. This point might be hard for Christians and Jews in the West to accept. From years of ministry around the world, I can say clearly that we, as disciples of the Messiah, must enter into our worship mindset with great fear and trembling because our worship is the only way that we give God something as an act of adoration and honor and proclamation of how great is our LORD and How Magnificent are His works.  

I will not enter into all the butchering details that the book of Leviticus describes as instruction for the Levites to be extremely careful in their attitude toward God and in their desire and attempt to magnify Him and adore and honor and express our gratitude for His mercies endure forever!