September 25, 2018

Torah Talk: Parashat Vayikra with Rabbi Jerry Seidler

Rabbi Jerry Seidler is a staff chaplain with Sinai and Northwest Hospitals, and the spiritual leader of Adat Chaim Congregation, all in Baltimore, Maryland. He graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2002, where he was an Eisenstein Scholar, and was the rabbi for synagogues in Rutland, Vermont and Amherst, New York before coming to Baltimore in 2008. Rabbi Seidler has his BA in political science from the University of Pennsylvania and JD from the Vanderbilt University School of Law. Prior to joining the rabbinate, he served on active duty as a US Army MP and JAG officer, and was a litigation attorney with law firms in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. Board Certified as a chaplain through the Association of Professional Chaplains, he is co-author most recently of Jewish, Christian and Muslim Perspectives about Xenotransplantation which is set for publication in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of the International Xenotransplantation Association.

This week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26) – is the first portion of the book of Leviticus. The portion introduces the sacrificial service and describes five different kinds of sacrifice. Our discussion focuses on the relevance of the sacrifices described in the parasha (and of the book of Leviticus in general) to our lives today.

 

Previous Torah Talks on Vayikra:

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

Rabbi Jay Sherman

Rabbi Scott Meltzer

 

 

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Vayikra with Rabbi Shaanan Gelman

Rabbi Shaanan Gelman

Our guest this wek is Rabbi Shaanan Gelman, leader of Kehilat Chovevei Tzion in Skokie, Illinois. Rabbi Gelman was born in Buffalo, NY and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a B.S. in Computer Science at Yeshiva College and Semicha from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanon Theological Seminary. He spent three years studying in Israel, two at Yeshivat Hakotel and later on at the Gruss Institute in Bayit Vegan. He was a Kollel Fellow in the Boca Raton Community Kollel, where he served as spiritual leader of the Explanatory Service as well as held the Gimmelstob chair in Education at the local Jewish Federation.  Rabbi Gelman is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, and serves on the executive board. He is an active member of the Chicago Rabbinical Council as well as serving on the board of the Associated Talmud Torahs of Chicago. Rabbi Gelman is a fervent Zionist and is active in AIPAC.

This week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26) – is the first portion of the book of Leviticus. The portion introduces the sacrificial service and describes five different kinds of sacrifice. Our discussion focuses on the Moses and Aaron relationship and on sibling relationships in the Bible.

 

Words to the whys at your seder

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

PARASHAT VAYIKRA (LEVITICUS 1:1-5:26)

This week, in many synagogues around the world, we begin to read a new book, Sefer Vayikra, Leviticus. Here we are taught: “No meal offering that you offer to the Lord shall be made with leaven, for no leaven or honey may be turned into smoke as an offering by fire to the Lord” (Leviticus 2:11).

The two times the Torah forbids leaven (chametz) is in this verse referring to the altar and also on Passover. What is the link?

According to Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, in his “Ha’emek Davar,” leavened bread is the human attempt to add onto the natural state of creation. The closer we stand in our relationship with God, the less we need to manipulate nature. The altar was in the Beit HaMikdash — the dwelling place of God’s presence on Earth, a place of intense proximity. There is no need for our chametz intervention. Likewise, with Passover, we bind our souls to God as we eat the “Bread of Faith.” There is no need for extra tinkering.

As Vayikra, in ever a slight way, turns
our attention to Passover, let us jump in
with a few holiday-related gems to share at the seder.

Paying for Hope

Buying Chanukah candles and paying for the four cups of wine on Pesach are the only mitzvot that require a poor person to sell their clothes, if need be, in order to be carried out, according to Jewish law. Why only these two items?

Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner explained that at the root of this law is the notion that every poor person must know that even in the middle of their darkest hour and their darkest exile, God brings light. The promise of Chanukah and the hope of the four cups, both of which celebrate pirsumei nisah, the publicizing of the miracle, underscore the point that in the moment when things are most difficult in our lives, we are going to find that salvation.

In the Kiddush, we say that Shabbat is first among our holy days and is “a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt.” What does this line mean?

The bodyguard of the Seer of Lublin, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi of Ropshitz, shares his take: The amazing power of the Exodus is imbedded with the ability to help us transcend above levels that we couldn’t ordinarily attain. So the beginning of a great and triumphant renewal starts within the darkness — moments when we thought all hope was lost. Right at that moment, God says, “Hold out your hand, and I will help you move to places you never dreamed possible.”

A Holy Effort

Why does wine have its own distinct blessing? We don’t make a separate blessing on the meat or the chicken that’s brought out later. Rav Chaim Zeitchik says it’s not because of wine’s precious value. I’m sure that we could find a rare food that has a higher dollar amount, perhaps caviar.

You know what’s precious about it? Dvar mitzvah habaah mitoch yagiyah chashoov. Something that comes through work, a process, is more important, much more powerful. The blessing upon wine is special because it took work to get to it. You take grapes, you have to wait for fermentation, you have to press them out in order to bring it to your wine cup.

Something is much greater when you get it through effort. It is for this same reason why the beautiful stones the priests wore in the temple are mentioned last out of all of his clothing in the Torah. According to the tradition of the Talmud, these stones came to us via the clouds. In other words, they were a freebie. We didn’t work to get them and therefore they are less precious to us.

 A Roman Custom

At specifically placed times throughout the seder, we recline by leaning to the left. The Talmud mentions a pragmatic reason for this: so that we shouldn’t choke. The rabbinic tradition favored another reason, and that is that reclining is a symbol of our freedom.

Rabbi Norman Lamm asks a great question: Why did we adopt a symbol of freedom that was synonymous with the Romans, especially given that there are so many beautiful Jewish customs and cultural idiosyncrasies.

Look around. Our seder is incomplete. We are missing the korban Pesach, the Passover offering, which was the highlight of Passover in the ancient Temple. We are missing so much because the Romans laid waste to our divine abode. We went into exile because the Romans sent us into exile. And so, ironically, we recline to display a great remembrance, a zecher l’mikdash. We remember our Temple while those who ravaged it no longer are here. 

RABBI SHLOMO EINHORN is rav and dean of Yeshivat Yavneh and the author of “Judaism Alive” (Gefen Publishing, 2015). He also holds the record for the longest continuous Torah class at 18 hours.

Our beastly selves: Parashat Vayikra

What is a dedicated vegetarian, who is also a believing, contemporary Jew, to make of the book of Leviticus, specifically this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra? From the very beginning of the portion, we are confronted with animal sacrifice, with grisly descriptions of blood and torn flesh, of butchering and roasting — never letting up for the entirety of the portion. 

The Torah is my sacred text. I believe the Torah always offers relevant lessons to all who will seek them. What am I, therefore, to make of Vayikra? I am forced to look for signs of divine metaphor — a poetic theology of hidden meanings, of celestial shadows and heavenly whispers.

I begin my search at the first verse of Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1: “And he called out to Moses, and God spoke to Moses from the Tent of the covenant, saying …”

Immediately, I am moved to ask: Why “Vayikra” (“and he called out”)? And who is “he”? Why not the more prevalent opening, “Vayedaber Y’H el Moshe l’emor” (and God spoke to Moses, saying …”)? 

There is a mysterious, undefined, urgent call. But why the urgency, why the need to call out — why not just speak? 

I believe that humanity itself is the reason for the urgent call: It is our imperative as human beings to confront our dangerous flaws and frailties before it’s too late. We are the guardians of the world, and we are responsible for its well-being.  

The Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher rebbe, expounding on the kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, identifies various levels of the human soul. He begins with two major categories: nefesh behemit and nefesh elokit — a beast-like soul and a divine soul. 

This theology then breaks down each of those two levels into five rungs, adding up to 10 levels. Symmetry is crucial to all kabbalists: We were created in the image and likeness of God. God has Ten Emanations (the Ten Sefirot); God spoke the Ten Utterances (the Ten so-called Commandments). We who are made in God’s image and likeness have 10 toes, 10 fingers and 10 levels to our soul.

Our creation as human beings is no mere accident — we are meant to be living icons, if you will, walking metaphors of God, a means by which all who encounter us may be reminded of our creator. Even more importantly, the divine attributes we carry are meant to ignite within us a desire to be true to our origin — to seek closeness to God. 

So long as we are distant from God, lost in the exile of amnesia, we are doomed, and together with us, the entire world is doomed. That, I believe, is the reason for the clarion call of Vayikra

Leviticus 1:2 says: “Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: A man, should he offer a sacrifice of you (from you), as an offering to God — from the beast, from the cattle, and from the flock shall you bring near your sacrifice.” 

Why the strange wording? Both the alter rebbe and rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks point to this curious wording, for it would seem to suggest that one is being asked to offer oneself as a sacrifice. 

I also wonder how the second verse flows from the first. If there is urgency here, why talk about sacrifice? 

There are a few possible answers. The first is offered by the actual Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban. The Hebrew is rooted in the word karov (near, close). A sacrifice is meant to draw us near to God. But this raises another question: How could offering up the life of an innocent animal possibly move us closer to God?

The answer to that question may be found through the Alter Rebbe’s explanation of the two levels of soul — the beastly and the divine: Offer up your “beastly” soul as a sacrifice to God. Bring forward your basest, most unyielding, material core, and offer it up on the altar of holiness; burn your inner beast so that it may become a pleasing scent unto God.

It is only through our daily, unending struggle with our beastly selves that we improve step by step. It is only by bringing our darkest, deepest and coarsest element as a gift that we purify and refine ourselves — and through us, the entire world.

As a vegetarian and as a lover of kabbalah, I am deeply moved by the metaphor offered up by the Alter Rebbe. The seemingly gory verses of Vayikra are transformed as I am called to look inward and to offer up my inner beasts. 

And so I read: God cried out to Moses — tell the Children of Israel — the God wrestlers — to offer themselves, their sacrificial core for the benefit of God and humanity.

May our daily struggles with our imperfect souls become a pleasing scent for the entire world. 

Calling Moses

Jewish tradition instructs that young children should begin their Jewish education by studying the book of Leviticus. Even a cursory reading of the blood and gore that make up the sacrificial rites described in the third book of the Torah would lead most teachers to conclude that these verses would likely be the beginning of the end for a child’s Jewish education.

I imagine children running screaming from the heder as their teacher describes to them, in detail, how an animal is cut this way and that, its blood sprinkled and splayed upon the altar as a pleasing sacrifice to the Eternal. Granted it was a different time, but just the thought gives me nightmares.

To be fair, the tradition actually gives a reason to start a child with Leviticus. Much of the book concerns itself with the laws of purity, and as the midrash explains, “Children are pure, so let them start their studies there” (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3). Some commentators further explain that we begin with the teaching of sacrifice to remark from the outset that life involves sacrifice. I cannot disagree with the reasoning, but I think there is another, more child-friendly reason to introduce our children to the words of Leviticus — although I would start with just one word, the very first word, Vayikra.

In this week’s portion, Moses stands outside the Tent of Meeting that the Israelites were commanded to build in the last chapters of Exodus. God’s presence fills the tent. Moses, in awe and reverence, remains outside, along with all 600,000 Israelites, waiting to see what happens next, not daring to enter until summoned. The portion therefore begins, “And God called [unto] Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” (Leviticus 1:1). The great Torah commentator Rashi teaches that it was necessary for God to call out to Moses because he was outside the tent and God was inside — pragmatically God had to raise his voice to be heard. And so, “Vayikra” — “And God called out [to Moses].”

The last letter of Vayikra is alef, and in the Torah it is written smaller than all the other letters of the word — about half the size. Why?

Imagine you are standing with 600,000 people and a voice booms forth from the heavens calling your name. The first time you hear it, I imagine you would be overcome with terror. But if this is a regular occurrence for you, your reaction might be one of self-importance and arrogance. “The boss needs me again. Sorry guys, gotta go — seems he just can’t run the world without me.” But not Moses; he is humble in the face of all the attention.

How does a tiny alef teach us this? First, the word alef by itself means “to teach,” and it is written in such a way that we can see it as both part of the word and separate from it.

But the deeper lesson is to remind us that Moses saw himself as small, like the aleph — he did not read his own press. Moses does not feel inflated because God calls him. If anything, Moses is humbled that God singles him out in front of everyone. Remember, it was only two weeks ago in our reading that Moses’ humility saved the Jewish people. After the incident with the Golden Calf, God offers to destroy the Children of Israel and find a new people for Moses to lead, but Moses turns God down.

Rashi points out that Moses argues to God that if the Israelites could not survive by the merit of our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they would never be able to survive by the merit of Moses alone. He says, “If a chair of three legs cannot survive God’s anger, a chair of one leg will stand no chance.”

Maybe we should indeed begin a child’s Jewish education with “Vayikra” — not for the blood and gore, but for the example of humility that Moses provides.

Children so often become the center of attention — they need parenting and guidance, they can’t drive, they need help with schoolwork. That is appropriate and necessary. But just because we make them the center of our world — in an effort to build them into citizens and menschen, and simply because we love them — that doesn’t mean they should think the world revolves around them. Moses was God’s “go-to guy,” and even he knew to wait to be called instead of busting into the Tent of Meeting and demanding an audience. A little alef teaches a big lesson about humility. If Moses, for whom seas part and bushes burn, can be patient and wait to be called on, then so can our children — indeed, so can we all.

Dan Moskovitz is a rabbi at Temple Judea (templejudea.com), a Reform congregation in Tarzana.