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Dvar March 27 2020: Vayikra

This week’s Torah portion is Vayikra, the first parsha of the book of Vayikra, Leviticus. We are in the third book of the Torah and it is by far the longest, being ⅓ of the length of Torah. Traditionally the first book a student would study would be the book of Leviticus. Why? Because it prescribes the foundation for what later becomes rabbinic law and to this day the system in which one lives out Judaism. 


Leviticus is thought to be a long narrative between G-d and Moses describing the sacrificial system. As we discussed and learned in Torah study class this week, sacrifices by the Israelites were set apart from pagan sacrifices in our sacrifices were not thought to be food for G-d but rather gifts. In this Torah portion we learn about 5 different sacrifices: the olah/ burnt offering, the grain/ mincha offering, the zevah shlamim offering, and two guilty offerings: hatat or asham. 


The book of Leviticus is always a challenging book to study especially given it focuses on a system which seems so foreign and outdated for a vast majority of us. But we can receive real enlightenment and value from studying the book of Leviticus. For one, it illuminates the world in which our ancestors practiced Judaism. Although very different from today, this system laid the foundation for what we practice today. Laws such as kashrut still remain in place today. In other words it’s a deeply spiritual practice to look at and understand the history of our people and it’s evolving theology based on changes happening throughout time. Being that we find ourselves in a moment of intense change, in a way, it feels comforting to know that our Jewish tradition has always practiced as witness to the changes of the time. In other words, Judaism has always been set up so that our descendants can look back at our practice just as we look back at our ancestors’. 


Another reason to study Leviticus is that it reminds us of the power of ritual. Rituals run deep within our tradition, from the beginning of Judaism until today. We find ourselves in a moment when ritual has the ability to bring comfort, normalcy, and hope. While our rituals may look different then the times of sacrifice, our rituals then and now carry the same intention and hope to solicit the same outcome. We enter ritual with the intention of cultivating awareness, support, connection, and comfort. And the outcome remains the same, connection with G-d, each other, and our ancestors and tradition. Ritual is deeply powerful and the book of Leviticus reminds us of this whenever we study it. 


And the look of Leviticus speaks to us especially today because at this moment we are all sacrificing. We are sacrificing time with family, friends, with nature, with our businesses, with the comfort of known systems, in order to keep ourselves and our communities healthy. I find that our sacrifices today are reminiscent of the offering we learn about in this week’s Torah portion called the zevah shlamim offering, the offering of well being and thanksgiving. We are living out the zevah shlamim offering right now! We hope that our daily sacrifices will soon bless us with wellbeing. 


And sacrifices remain at the root of our system of prayer. When the temple was destroyed, a time of catastrophic destruction, pain, and subsequent adaptation of Jewish life, our people shifted from a system of sacrifice to a system of prayer. The time of day of our prayers parallel the times of the sacrifices in temple times. Instead of offering our livestock, our people offer up our prayers in their place. Since the destruction of the temple, our Rabbis have continued to grapple with the question of what is superior: sacrifice or prayer. Some commentators such as Sirach and the writers of Leviticus Rabbah praised our system of sacrifices, even modern day philosophers and poets such as Yehudah HaLevi and Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalisher wrote about their yearning for us to rebuild our temple and return to the sacrificial system. Returning to the system of our ancestors, a system which emphasized the literal closeness with G-d through sacrifice. But we have many other Rabbis and commentators who argue that our system of prayer is actually superior to that of the sacrificial system. Maimonides argued “the sacrificial service is not the primary objective of the commandments but that prayer is a better means of obtaining nearness to G-d.” He argues prayer is superior because it can be offered anywhere by anyone. A fact we know all to well right now.


This week as I reflected upon sacrifices and prayers, especially finding ourselves in this time when, albeit not the sacrifices like in the temple, we are giving sacrifices daily, I find that the divide between sacrifices and prayer is not so distinct. That there is no hierarchy but rather inter-relatedness. The words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel speaks to the inter-relatedness of prayer and sacrifice which we are seeing in our everyday lives today: “Prayer is not a substitute for sacrifice. Prayer is sacrifice…in true prayer we try to surrender our vanities, to burn our insolence, to abandon bias, dishonesty, envy.” Rabbi Harvey Fields elaborates on this and says “prayer is the means through which we sacrifice our selfishness and greed and get in touch with our powers for truth, mercy, and love.” During this time, through our prayers, we continue the tradition of our ancestors of giving sacrifices, but now we sacrifice certain comforts for the health of our world. Let us all live out the words of Rabbi Fields, that we may sacrifice our selfishness and greed in order to get in touch with truth, mercy, and love.