Torah from Around the World #158

By Rabbi Stanley M. Davids, Jerusalem, Israel

Jewish tradition maintains that when children begin their religious studies, the first text that they encounter should be the Book of Leviticus, the third Book of the Torah. Leviticus Rabbah 7:3 suggests, ‘Let those who are pure and without sin begin with the study of the laws of purity.’ A bit of honey is placed on the page for the children to taste, indicating our hope that the study of Torah will ever be sweet in their lives. Leviticus is referred to in Hebrew as


, and this week we read the opening chapters of



Scattered among the detailed descriptions of sacrifice we discover passages of soaring ethical significance, such as the Holiness Code (Leviticus 19), and passages that are deeply troubling, such as the story of Nadab and Abihu who were burned alive by God for having approached the altar in a way that violated God’s intentions (Leviticus 10).

Leviticus speaks of a world of separations: separations between the holy and the profane, between the pure and the impure, between the priestly class and all others, between the forbidden and the permitted, between the quotidian and the transcendent, between the moral and the immoral, between sin and reconciliation, between Israel and all other nations. Uniting these separations is a commanding God Who has specific expectations of the people Israel.

What we do matters

, and despite our distancing today from the physical act of offering sacrifices upon an altar — that perspective continues to shape how many of us live our lives as liberal Jews.

What we do matters


The Book of Leviticus begins with God calling out to Moses, demanding that Moses transmit God’s will to the people. The opening words are “

VaYikkra el Moshe…

And [God] called to Moses and [then] the Eternal One said to him…”

Rabbinic commentators are fascinated by an anomaly in the text. The last letter of


is an aleph. But that


is smaller than all of the surrounding letters. Since, according to the rabbis, nothing can be considered superfluous in a sacred text, what does the presence of a miniature


tell us?

Moses is reluctant here, even as he was at the Burning Bush. He sees himself as unworthy of the tasks before him; he cowers before the enormity of what lies ahead. As we read in last week’s Sedra, God’s presence now is manifest within the newly dedicated Tent of Meeting.  But Moses stands outside of the Tent, unwilling to take up his task. He sees himself as but a tiny aleph in the presence of the Almighty.  But without Moses, God would be without a voice. So God demands that Moses enter, and only when he does so can the future be shaped.

God called; Moses responded, and then the Eternal speaks. And only when WE respond can the voice of God be heard in our own day. Without us, there will be silence.

Resa and I served as the High Holy Day clergy team at the World Union-affiliated Reform Jewish Union in Mumbai for four wonderful seasons. We fell in love with the community; we treasured the opportunity to come to know the 2000 year old world of the Bene Israel. But I remember once being driven through the vast slums of Mumbai, asking how it is that people can tolerate the chasm that separates the poor and the middle class. I have never forgotten the response: “We don’t see them and they don’t see us.” No one would enter the tent.

The worship of guns and the celebration of real and virtual violence in American culture must be addressed by those of us who are committed to liberal values. The slaughter of innocents in tree-lined suburbs and in the most desolate of urban slums will not be tempered unless we step inside so that we can hear the voice of the Moral Imperative.

The recent presidential campaign in the United States brought into sharp focus the challenges that exist in American society regarding all who are not aging males of European origin. We cannot pretend that full equality for those of color, and for those who do not fit into antiquated categories of ‘acceptable’ gender definitions, and for those whose parents entered the country illegally, and for women whose right to control their own bodies is increasingly being challenged – we cannot pretend that these do not require us to step inside so that we can hear the voice of the Moral Imperative.

We cannot pretend that the nature of Israeli civil society is not of concern to liberal Jews no matter where we live. When enforcement of the law is applied differently to settlers and to Palestinian Arabs; when the Ultra-Orthodox can exempt themselves from the normal obligations of citizenship without fear of legal reprisal; when government coalitions turn a blind eye to religious coercion;  when isolationism allows the Israeli government to act as if it can forever ignore the need to be proactive in pursuit of a two state solution —  then we are called to step inside so that we can hear the voice of the Moral Imperative.

When our young people need to be empowered, not surveyed; when Jewish education must rise beyond the mechanics of B‘nai Mitzvah preparation; when Jewish communal structures and denominational imperatives seem no longer relevant to Jewish life; when Jewish peoplehood is decreasingly understood and decreasingly experienced; when Zionism is considered a pejorative and not an opportunity – then we are called upon to step inside so that we can hear the voice of the Moral Imperative.

The first word of the third book of the Torah, VaYikkra, has a tiny aleph at the end.  Modesty and humility have their place, but they must not be allowed to hinder us from responding to the moral and ethical demands of what it means to be a progressive Jew today. God called Moses to enter the Tent of Meeting so that he could hear the voice of the Eternal. We are no less commanded to open ourselves up to that Eternal voice – and then to respond.

What we do matters.

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