Shabbat Vayikra – Drash By Rabbi Lisa Edwards, March 31, 2017
This week we begin a new book of Torah — Vayikra/Leviticus — not everyone’s favorite of the 5 books of Moses.
Parashat Vayikra’s opening chapters with their varied, often bloody and detailed ways to slaughter animals in sacrifice to God, are too graphic for many of us, and not only for the vegetarians and vegans among us.
But as squeamish as this Torah loving Jew is, every year when we arrive at Vayikra, I welcome the opportunity to search for what might connect us to our ancestors who found such different ways to draw near to God than the ways we find — or maybe more accurately — than the ways we search for today.
I use the term “draw near” to God quite deliberately here because this is the term that the Torah uses. The word for sacrifice or offering in Hebrew is korban, and it comes from the Hebrew root kuf resh vet — to come close
קִרְבָה the Hebrew noun with same root, means
Close proximity; even kinship; similarity; relationship, connection
The implication seems clear, doesn’t it? Offering up animals on an altar as a gift to God is intended to bring us closer to God. And vice versa. By the time we arrive at this part of the story of our people, the event of the Golden Calf — that painful alienation between God and the people — is behind us, and the people (and God) are struggling to make amends and to bring themselves close to each other once again. The offering of gifts seems at the moment to work for God and for the humans who seek to come close.
Vayikra el Moshe is how the hebrew of the book Vayikra begins. And He [God] called to Moses va-yidaber Adonai eilav mei-ohel mo-eid, lei-mor… and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying…
In every single Torah scroll the word Vayikra — the first word of this whole book of Torah — is written with a little tiny aleph at the end of the word — the letter aleph in every hand written copy of Torah is noticeably smaller than the other letters. Why? No one knows for sure — theories abound. The one i like is based in part on a comment from the medieval commentator Rashi, or maybe his comment is based on the tiny aleph — that when the word vayikra — and he called — is used it means God is calling out to Moses with affection. And other commentators suggest the small silent letter aleph means only Moses could hear God’s voice this time around, unlike when everyone heard God’s thundering voice from Mt. Sinai.
I love the image of God whispering in the ear of Moses — “Bubbeleh, here is how people who want to draw near can draw near to Me.”
Sweet, right? Less sweet when we find out the way to do so is bringing animals to slaughter and offer up on an altar.
I’ll stick to whispering sweet nothings in each other’s ears. And eventually that is what happens — Jews stop killing animals as an offering to God, and instead offer up the words of our lips, the meditations of our hearts — think how often those images appear in our liturgy. In fact, liturgy itself, the fact that we pray with words and sing songs to God and to each other is what became our korbanot — our offerings, the way we draw near to God.
Also in this Torah portion we continue to learn about teshuvah, about repentance, about turning from wrongdoing and making amends for our insufficiencies and mistakes and errors.
Consider some of the reasons given in this Torah portion for offering korbanot — sacrifices to apologize for wrongs committed.
Among the varied reasons for bringing offerings are:
People who sinned inadvertently
People who don’t know they’ve sinned, but just in case, they bring an offering.
People who sinned knowingly but are ready to change their ways.
People atoning for the whole community whether it sinned knowingly or unknowingly.
Those are my paraphrasings of how Torah describes them, but here’s an actual translation of another group whose offerings will bring atonement:
“If it is the whole community of Israel that has erred and the matter escapes the notice of the congregation, so that they do any of the things which by God’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt, when the sin becomes known, then shall they offer…”
I love that. Here is a way to make up with God when we didn’t mean to sin, and we didn’t realize we had sinned, and then somehow we do realize (probably somebody points it out to us), and as a group we let everyone know and then we apologize to God (and maybe also to each other) with offerings.
Wow! That might seem so complicated, and yet it happens a lot doesn’t it? Have you ever tried really hard to do something nice or good, and then it doesn’t turn out at all the way you meant it? And someone gets upset about it? A boss or a client or a friend or a colleague or your constituency if you’re an elected official, etc., and they let you know about it — and then everyone feels bad. How do we repair such situations? How do we repair relationships when they get strained? We only can if everyone involved really wants to do so. And if we all do, then we certainly can, though it may be difficult.
It’s happening a lot in our country lately — people misunderstanding each other. People wanting the best but really at odds about what “best” means, about what direction to take, about how to help the most people or who is really deserving of help; about what’s important, about what or who takes priority.
It’s a rough time in our world, to say the least.
And people aren’t yet at the point of realizing where we’ve contributed to the difficulties instead of helping repair the problems.
With all this polarization — it seems to be growing and growing — How might we instead learn to draw near to one another? How do we prioritize together? How do we learn to listen to one another, to respect each other, to come to understand what the other person thinks or feels or knows?
This desire to draw near, to come closer, to work for the common good is a lot what the book of Leviticus is about. And it’s a lot what the creation and nurturing of a community – a congregation – is all about too.
If you had the opportunity to join us this past Sunday for the concert in celebration of BCC’s 45th anniversary, you heard two songs written by two BCC people that speak to the heart of this desire to likrov – to draw near.
And you also heard two speeches — one from our own Richard Lesse and one from our own Agnes Herman — that reminded us of how BCC over the decades has been a place — a community — that tried not only to draw near to God, but also to each other, to provide a safe haven for so many of us that had experienced rejection or had been marginalized in other places, in other parts of our lives.
As it turns out, way not according to plan, the food we were given to eat at the event wasn’t very good — and we’re oh so sorry about that — but the food for thought, and the music of the heart, and the company of friends and new friends that we were fed on Sunday — ahh, that makes all the difference, doesn’t it? — that allows us to really celebrate who we are, and it reminds us why we continue to come together in community and to forgive each other when mistakes and apologies are made and why we choose to live in the midst of people who care about each other and this congregation and this country and God’s world.
Vayikra — God called — or God whispered — when you desire to draw near…really desire it — that’s when i will be glad to welcome you.
Cantor Juval and Tamara Kline each wrote a song they shared with us on Sunday — beautiful songs — about all this. I wanted to read you some lines from them because I can totally imagine God whispering their words too affectionately into our ears:
Can we create a safe space, sang Cantor Juval [“Theology”]
Between the sacred and the profane?
Can we let peace flow where love grows?
Can we create a safe space?
Let’s live life while we’re in it
Infuse it with our harmony
Let’s make it our theology
If we see through the love inside
Who knows what we might find?
Wherever we go we’ll feel like home
What if I could see the world through your eyes and you could see the world through mine? Asked Tamara Kline when she and Gwen Stewart sang Tamara’s new song to us on Sunday [“What if…?”]
What if we could feel each other’s pain and understand each other’s side
What if we didn’t have to hate when we strongly disagree
Would it change things for you, would it change things for me?
What if I could get to know your family and you could get to know mine too
Would it broaden our perspectives? Would it change our points of view?
What if we could look ahead with hope not with anger or despair
Respect the ways we’re different – and remember all we share
The music, the rest of the words, of course contribute so much more to what our songwriters and singers were asking of us. But I wanted to share some of those words anyway tonight, without the music, because they reflect so well who we are as a queer and Jewish community in this time and in this place.
And I wanted to offer some of those words tonight without music because as you know Cantor Juval will be leaving us after tonight for 3 months — a well earned and well deserved sabbatical.
It seems somehow so appropriate for Juval to take time off just as we enter zman kheruteinu — the season of our freedom — as Passover/Pesach is sometimes called. We hope you enjoy a little freedom in the next few months, Juval.
And it worked out so well to honor musicians this past Sunday who have meant a lot to BCC over the years, because we were reminded how other voices, other singers, will soon be bringing their gifts, their offering to our community, including our Cantorial Emerita Fran Chalin, who was also honored on Sunday. Fran will be with us twice a month while Juval is away.
What a gift our ancestors gave us, God gave us, so long ago, to teach us the value of drawing near, even while showing us that there are many ways to do so.
We are all grateful, I’m sure, that we live in a time when words, actions, music all help shape our offerings to God and to each other. A time when we can call out to each other — or maybe whisper into one another’s ear — I love living in community with you.
May we offer you a tefilat haderekh — a prayer for safe travel — as you prepare to go on your way?
May your time off turn into a splendid and satisfying interlude
May you let peace flow and love grow in every encounter along the way
May you find safe space wherever you go
May you see the world through other’s eyes
And may that view bring you
to see through the love inside
May you feel truly alive these next 3 months,
and may that feeling infuse your life with harmony
And may you bring that harmony back home to us
Bringing us all closer to you, to one another, and to God
May you be blessed as you go on your way, be blessed with love be blessed with peace.
And let us all say, amen*
*this prayer is based on Juval’s song, “Theology” and last line from Debbie Friedman’s Tefilat haderekh son