Vayikra: The Unstoppable Force

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According to nuclear science, there are two ways we can create vast amounts of energy. The first is called fission, where by using heat or pressure, the nuclear bonds that hold the nucleus of atoms together are severed.  The process releases an explosive amount of energy directed away from the center at tremendous speeds. When you think of an atomic bomb exploding, you are witnessing in your mind the process of fission.  

There is an opposite force that creates energy as well, where the atomic nuclei combine together and by doing so they release an incredible amount of energy. That process is called nuclear fusion. When two atoms are combined, they transmute into something more powerful, and in their coming together, heat and light are produced. Fission, discovered almost a hundred years ago, is a process that powers civilization, in the form of nuclear reactors.  It also, as we know from history, destroys civilizations through the horror of the atomic bomb.  Fusion, on the other hand, is even more powerful; the light that is produced through fusion ignites the stars. The warmth of a summer day, the energy that is transformed into our food, and the iridescence of a flower are all because atoms are fused millions of miles away in the heart of the sun. 

We can live without fission; we cannot live without fusion. 

These two forces, fission and fusion, are at play all the time. Today, when we are told to be isolated and alienated from each other because of the COVID-19 virus, we are experiencing our own kind of fission. Our bonds are under threat and could be broken.  As we all stay home it’s so easy to look outside our windows and feel the fission.  What was once very familiar to us, like going to a concert or spending time with friends in the park, now feels like a memory from some distant shore. A hug, a slap on the shoulder, even holding hands, is now forbidden on this strange new planet where the very idea of encounter is menacing.

This moment of fission affects us greatly, but while this unseen force threatens everything that keeps us together, other equally unseen forces are rising to meet it, both physically and spiritually. In my community, Valley Beth Shalom, three babies were born this week, a couple was married, a stranded young woman made it home safely and children are learning. In my garden the jasmine is budding. These moments of new growth and of new life, these moments of intimacy and epiphany, these are the moments of sacred fusion. Where bonds are made stronger, not weaker, and great energy and light explodes forth. The first contact of a baby on her mother’s breast, the first kiss under the wedding canopy, the message that says, “Mom, I made it home safe,” the first time we hear a child delight in their learning, each one is a moment of love. Each moment shows us that love is the most unstoppable force in the universe. 

We can live without fission; we cannot live without fusion. 

These competing forces are brought to our attention most sharply in this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, which begins the third book of the Torah, Leviticus.  Many of us moderns don’t know what to do with this book. It feels arcane with its menagerie of animal sacrifices and hierarchical structures, but it is my favorite book of the Bible by far.  

I love the stories of Genesis, and the nation building of Exodus and Deuteronomy, but it is Leviticus that touches the heart like no other. There are no stories in Leviticus, there are no epic tales of prophets and kings, no war, nor is there the familial strife over inheritance or property; there are no miracles either.  The protagonist of Leviticus is not God or Moses  — the main character of the story is not some noble priest or prophet.  The main character of this book is you. The sacrificial system and moral codes found within it are an attempt to answer the immortal questions of life and how to live in a world beset by the unseen forces that drive us apart  — like illness and brokenness and the unseen forces that drive us together, like joy and holiness. 

The Torah portion opens with the lines, “God called to Moses and said…when one of you offers a sacrifice to the Lord, the sacrifice must be taken from the cattle, sheep or goats. (Lev. 1:1-2).  Everything we need to know about this holy book is found in these two lines. Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the founder of the Hasidic dynasty of Chabad, expertly shows that the Hebrew grammar in the second verse is startling.  We would expect the verse to read: adam mikem ki yakriv, “when one of you offers a sacrifice” as it is translated above. Instead, the Torah says in Hebrew, adam ki yakriv mikem, literally translated as “when one offers a sacrifice of you.” The power of sacrifice, said R. Shneur Zalman, is in what we offer from within ourselves. The physicality of sacrifice – an animal laid upon the altar – is only an external manifestation, a carnal conceit to our need to see and feel that which is unseen.  The essence is not in what is “out there” but the inner dimension, mikem, “of you.”

Which leads us back to the opening lines of the first verse. “God called Moses.”  The word calling, kria, is always used in the Bible as an expression of tenderness and love. (See Rashi ad locum)  God called to Moses from the burning bush. (Ex. 3:4) God calls upon the people from Mt. Sinai. (Ex. 19:3)  At the dawn of creation, God calls upon the earth over and over again, naming the foundation of the world. (Gen.1:5)  Every time God calls, God draws closer.  From above the firmament to the top of a mountain, to right at your doorstep, to inside your heart, God’s calling draws God closer to you and you closer to God.  Leviticus is the manual that asks you to give of yourself as God has given to you. Leviticus is God’s call, and God’s call is sacred fusion. 

At the heart of Leviticus is the heart itself, reminding you that in moments of great uncertainty, when it looks like we can be blown apart by fission, what God is calling for is to bring your shame, your guilt, your well-being, and ultimately your love to the center of of the universe in a monumental act of sacred fusion.  Know that you are loved powerfully, and you have the capacity for a powerful love.  

Because love is the most unstoppable force in the universe. 

Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay loving. 

Shabbat Shalom

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