I write to you from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, central hub of NATO and Allied support. War continues to rage on. When and where will it end?
In the Jewish world of sacred reflectional reading, this week marks a major transitional period, as we progress onward and forward through the holy pathways of Torah.
Sadly, we say farewell to the wisdom and the glory of Sefer Shemot, the storied Book of Exodus. But as is true with all sacred endings, a new beginning always awaits us, if our hearts are truly open, and seeking holy renewal. And the holy renewal that awaits our welcoming hearts this week is the enlightening presence of Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus. So “Shalom” Sefer Vayikra, and parashat Vayikra. I personally look forward to humbly wrestling with your wisdom, and to sharing the insights with all who are willing to hear. Before we wrestle however, a bit of background on the basics of what your book contains.
Sefer Vayikra is positionally third in the five books of Torah. The centrality of its position makes it structurally, and possibly even theologically, the central book in, and of the Torah. According to tradition, Sefer Vayikra is the first book that young children begin their studies with, because “the pure should study the pure” (Vayikra Rabbah 7:3).
The setting of Sefer Vayikra is grounded, and rooted, and located in the environs of Mount Sinai. It contains both narrative and legal genres, and its central personalities are Moshe, Aharon, Nadav, Avihu, Elazar, and Itamar.
Two of the key themes that permeate much of Sefer Vayikra are: 1) to bring the Jews of that time into a place of intimate understanding of God’s infinite holiness, and 2) to have this holy awareness manifest itself in morally righteous living, and loving. It is not by accident that the word “holy” is mentioned more times in Sefer Vayikra, than in any other book of the Bible. The medium for this holy encounter was the mishkan, the portable sanctuary of the Israelites’ post exodus wanderings, and the mediators were the Levitical priests, who oversaw the offerings and ceremonies conducted within its confines.
For most of us, parashat Vayikra offers a window into the world of Judaism that is not only historically and culturally distant, but one that is soulfully speaking, borderline alien. My husband, Rabbi Joe Charnes, describes it as “blood, guts, and cootie theology,” just to get people’s attention. He then, of course, immediately goes on to redeem its enduring message for us in this time, and for all time.
One redeeming insight began to develop and blossom after several focused, and dedicated readings. There appeared to be an intentional rabbinic contrast brewing between the honored place of sacrificial offerings found in parashat Vayikra, and the condemnation of the sacrificial offerings found at the beginning of the haftarah that the rabbis traditionally paired with parashat Vayikra (Isaiah 43:21-44:23, though not read this year because of Purim). The rabbis in general chose haftarot from prophetic readings that were theological complements to the parasha, meaning the haftarot “resemble,” highlight, complement, and thematically support the key ideas or concepts found in the parsha (Megillah 29b). Why choose a counter haftarah here?
Parashat Vayikra is the Torah’s inaugural message describing the mechanics of the korbanot, “offerings,” from the Hebrew root “to draw near.” The korbanot were the animal and grain offerings that people brought before the priests for various sins, and for offerings of gratitude. The priests would offer them up, either in part or in whole, within the precincts of the mishkan, the temporary sanctuary of our desert journeys.
Parashat Vayikra describes the formal mechanics of sacred practice and offerings. When speaking of the sacred, we must always remember that descriptive mechanics are never a sacred end, in and of themselves. They are rather a means, and a medium, and a metaphor to a sacred end. And to this end, I believe the dynamic, almost adversarial rabbinic pairing of this week’s haftarah with parashat Vayikra acts, or serves, as a critical and cautionary reminder and guide, leading us to more deeply presence of mishkan, so we are able to experience the metaphor of mishkan. The inner metaphor of mishkan. Through this rabbinic pairing, we are being offered a way, or a means, to redeem tabernacle form, from potential tabernacle formalism.
Again, the actual haftarah chosen by the rabbis as the instructional, thematic complement for parashat Vayikra, comes from the book of Isaiah, 43:21-44:23. In Isaiah 43:23, God laments our attempts to bring offerings before God’s presence. God says, “you didn’t honor Me with your offerings.”
The juxtapositioning of the haftarah decrying offerings as dishonoring God, coupled with the repeated refrain in the parasha describing sacrifices as “a satisfying aroma” to God (9 times), is truly a tragic, thematic complement crying out to us, (not just them) to redeem our offerings by actually drawing near, with heart, and with presence.
My prayer for us as Reform Jews is that we may once again be drawn to our congregational temples, so that we can offer together, and be drawn to offer. Oseh shalom bimromav…May the One Who makes peace above, bring peace now.
*Branch Chief of Plans and Programs at Ramstein Air Base, Germany and Doctorate of Ministry student on academic scholarship at Wesley Theological Seminary. In August, Rabbi Schechter will be the Installation Chaplain at the Defense Language Institute, Foreign Language Center at the Presidio in Monterey, California.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).