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Calling to Each of Us; How Will We Respond?
Rabbi David Straus
Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1-5:26
This Shabbat, we begin the third book of the Torah - Vayikra, or Leviticus. In his introduction to Leviticus, Dr. Gunther Plaut writes, "This third book of the Torah contains some of the loftiest passages found in the Bible. It is in this book that we read, 'Love your neighbor as yourself' and 'Proclaim liberty throughout the land.' "
But this third book, he notes, is also one of the most difficult books for us to understand and enter. Much of it is devoted to matters completely removed from our present-day life - directions for sacrifices, and rules of ritual defilement and purification. And many of these laws ceased to function after the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 C.E.
Even a casual reader of this book (and this book demands we not be casual) will notice how difficult the images are to understand in our world. In speaking the language of sacrifice, tameih and tahor ("ritual purity and impurity"), we enter another realm, and are immediately reminded of how ancient a people we are. Even as metaphor, these are dense concepts and ideas, often difficult to understand as spiritual truths in our modern world.
To add to this complexity, it's fascinating to read the Haftorah (readings from the prophets) our tradition has often assigned to these readings. To note a few verses, we will read in the coming weeks:
"To what purpose is the frankincense that comes from Sheba, the sweet cane from a far country. Your burnt-offerings are not acceptable to me, nor are your sacrifices pleasing to me."
And Samuel said, "Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offering and sacrifice as in harkening to the voice of the Lord? Behold it is better to obey than sacrifice, to hearken than the fat of rams."
Verses like these led classic Reform Judaism to teach that prophetic Judaism was to be the ideal. And yet, this third book is called by rabbinic tradition Torat Kohanim, the priestly code.
If we believe (and I do) that we are called to be "a nation of priests and a holy people," then surely contained in this book are the mitzvot and ideals of how to attain this status and communion with God and holiness.
First, let us understand for a moment what these sacrifices were all about. When we hear the word "sacrifice," we understand it to mean an act of deprivation, or giving something up. The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban. It comes from the root KRV, which means to draw near (probably to the altar). One function of sacrifice was to help us draw near to God, the holy, and ultimately, to one another.
So one approach to this topic is to ask: How do we draw close to God, to the holy, today?
Here, I think our tradition is quite clear. While we no longer perform sacrifices, we still seek to draw close to all that is holy - through prayer, mitzvot and deeds of sharing by acting as the hands of God through study. In these and other ways, we seek to draw nearer to the holy.
The first word of this week's portion contains a powerful lesson for how to draw near. Our book begins, Vayikra, "God is calling." God is calling each and every one of us today; how will we respond? What can we do to better hear God's call to us?
We live in such a narcissistic age. Vayikra comes to teach us another way: There is more in the world and more to living than fulfilling our wants, our desires, even our own happiness. And that comes by drawing near and connecting with others and with the holy.
It comes by learning to live with and look at one another, and ask: "How do I live so that the divine, the holy, the godly, shines forth in both of us?"
It comes by learning to listen for that call, and then responding with our hearts, our souls and our hands.
Rabbi David Straus is the religious leader of Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood.