Vayikra: Famous for Being Famous
I live in Los Angeles and if anything, this town is full of artists. There are murals everywhere and music on almost every street corner. In every cafe there are folks talking about their scripts or what parts they want to play. This town is filled with folks whose biggest ambition is to make art that everyone loves. I know many of them-the writers and dreamers who work very hard to make the entertainment that the whole world enjoys. This town is full of art and artists, it’s one of the things that makes LA so dynamic and why life here keeps evolving.
There is a different side to LA, though. There are also many people that landed here just to get famous. Some of these folks are artists, but many just want to be celebrities. They want to be as cultural critic Malcolm Muggeridge put it years ago, “famous for being famous.”
In the world of social media it is even worse. We’ve built a system where men and women take a thousand photos of themselves in the hopes that one of them, with the help of Photoshop, will garner thousands of likes. We see great human beings make outlandish videos doing dangerous things, or filled with the contempt and anger so that their video goes viral. Has anyone stopped to think why the way to become famous on the internet is to be likened to a virus?
There is a difference between being famous and being known. Being famous means having lots and lots of people know your name. Being famous means curating your look and style and watching your tone and message Being famous means having fans. Being known, on the other hand, is not having fans, but friends. Being known is having a community that cares for you despite your failures.Being known is having people that know what hurts you. Being known means you can be vulnerable. No hairspray. No filter. No Photoshop. Just the greatness that is you.
God does not favor the famous any more or less then the common person. God does want you to be famous. God wants you to be great. God wants you to be known.
God makes this clear in the this week’s Torah portion is named Vayikra. It is the first portion Jews read in the third book of the Bible, called Leviticus. Essentially all of Leviticus takes place over a one month period beginning on the day that the Tabernacle, God’s place on Earth, is finished. What follows seems to be one part cookbook, one part ethics manual, and one part medical journal. The book opens with a list of animal and grain sacrifices that are brought to the altar for various reasons including sin, guilt and well-being.
What does this have to do with being famous? Or better, what does Leviticus have to do with being known? Many people don’t see how Leviticus applies today because it feels too archaic or too ancient. For me it is my favorite book of the bible. At the core of this book are the questions of how do we live in the world with God. How do we become better people? In other words, what does God want or need from us so that we can be holy and thriving individuals? To me, Leviticus has less to do with God becoming God and more to do with each of us becoming more fully human.
Vayikra begins with God calling out to Moses, “The LORD calls (lit. yikra) out to Moses from the Tent of Meeting.”( Lev. 1:1). God in Leviticus moves from outside to inside and from the role of Creator (Genesis) and Revealer (Exodus) to that of Redeemer. The Torah uses the same word to establish God’s relationship with the world. On the first day of the world God “called (lit. kra) the light day ‘day’ (Gen. 1:5) and later God calls out to Adam and Eve in the Garden. (Gen. 3:9) Each time God reaches into the world to draw it closer. In Exodus, God uses the same word when coming down from the Mountain and calls out to Moses to give him the Tablets of the Law. (Ex. 19:20) Now in Leviticus God calls out again. Moses is outside, God is inside. God calls to Moses and says, “come in here.” It’s a call not just of space, but of attitude. God is no longer outside the world, but inside its heart. God calls not from without but from within.
What does God need from you? God’s greatest gift to the world is you, because you are made in the image of God and the Holy One does not put average inside of anyone. You might feel average, but you are not, you are made of the cosmos. God does not want you to hide, especially from yourself. God does not need more famous people. As the midrash teaches about this Torah portion, “Anyone who runs after greatness, greatness will run away from them. Anyone who runs from greatness, greatness will seek them out.” (Tanchuma 4:1) When you think your world is about you. You will lose the world. When you think you are a gift but do not act like a gift to others, you will be alone. When you try to fill the air with noise to distract you from what is important, you will never hear the call that is always there. The call from within, saying “You are a great already, now find it in others.”
The greatness of life is not to be famous, but to be known. God wants you not to have fans, but to have friends. The entire system of Leviticus teaches us that God wants the fullest expression of your humanity. Your edges, your messiness, your guilt and your mistakes. Bring them to the center of life. Bring them to God. That’s what the sacrifices are really about. No filter. No airs. No perfect life, just you.
Your greatness is not so that you can feel great. God wants you to be known because it is what is inside of you that counts the most. Humanity is to need what is inside of you. We all need each other to build a more loving and holy world together.