Vayikra: The Book We Need Now

I watched as hundreds of our children came back on campus this past week through our Day School and Religious school. For many, it was the first time they’ve been on campus in over a year and the energy was palpable. One moment, however, piqued my interest. As a young student came running with his backpack toward his teacher, I saw in her eyes two conflicting emotions. The first, shared by educators across the globe, was joy. Every teacher lives for the moment when a student is happy to be in school with an open mind and an open heart. In Judaism, the pleasure of making connections and putting the pieces of a puzzle together to form knowledge is a religious act. It’s why we make blessings over learning and prioritize the teacher/student relationship above all others. To see a student so excited to learn is a form of communion; it is sacred joy in real time. 

But the other emotion I saw on the teacher’s face, witnessed just briefly behind her mask – was fear. In this COVID world, touching, whether it’s shaking a hand for a business deal or getting a hug from a student, the physicality can be overwhelming. What if I get sick? What if I make others sick? Hopefully, as vaccines are rolling out, and with continued protections, the terror of touch will abate. But in that moment I saw it in her eyes. She wanted so desperately to hold this student and to teach him, but was afraid for him too.  

Joy and fear. These emotions are the heavy freight we carry as we get to know each other again. 

If this pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that intimacy is the thing we long for the most and the very thing we fear the most. And it’s not just with schools, teachers, and students. It’s with all of us. How many of us want to be vulnerable, but are afraid to do so because we might be ashamed? How many of us want others to know us deeply, but are afraid to let others in? How many of us need to shed the guilt of our mistakes but are afraid of being judged too harshly? How many of us want to know that our life has purpose, that we ourselves are needed by others but are unsure how to start? 

Every one of the most important moments of life involves intimacy. All of your relationships, whether physically with your family, emotionally with your friends, or spiritually with your past and future – all of them depend on coming close to that which touches you and is also beyond you. You cannot feel loved fully unless you know what love feels like. You cannot free yourself from shame unless you know what freeing others feels like. You cannot move into the future as a better person unless you can envision a future for yourself as a better person.  

The idea of intimacy teaches us that what we long for the most is what makes us most afraid. 

The book we begin reading this week, Leviticus, called Vayikra in Hebrew, is the most intimate book of the Bible. In Genesis, God is a Creator, fashioning a world out of chaos. (eg. Gen. 1-4) In Exodus, God is a Redeemer and Revealer, gathering the masses to the Holy Mountain to lay out the Law. (eg. Exodus 20) In Numbers, God is the Power Broker, pushing the fledgling nation to become strong enough to go back home. (Numbers 9) In Deuteronomy, God is the Teacher, instructing a new generation of Israelites how to build a nation. (eg. Deuteronomy 6)  And while Song of Songs speaks of love, and the Book of Psalms has its poetry, there is no book that attempts to drive towards the interior life of a human being like Leviticus. 

There are no stories in Vayikra.There is no family drama between brothers or national emergencies that need to be handled. There are no stories of miracles or of warring parties. The protagonist in the epic of Leviticus is you. In my experience there is nothing scarier than when we realize that we are the authors of our own story and we are responsible for our own covenants. Leviticus asks you not to reenact the drama of someone else’s life, as we do in Exodus and Deuteronomy, but to take responsibility for the joy and the fear of your own. In fact, Vayikra begins with God calling out to Moses from the newly completed Tabernacle, beckoning him to come inside.( Lev. 1:1). God who began as outside all of creation and moved to the mountain top, has now moved to the most interior of spaces, saying, “come close to Me.” God in Leviticus, no longer outside the world, but inside its heart. God calls for the very thing that we long for, but are afraid of: God calls for intimacy.   

What follows in the book to many seems like an arcane cookbook of sacrifices, complete with instructions of what to do with every last bit of the animals, oils, and grains. Many teachers and rabbis skip over these sections, finding them a bit gruesome and boring, and I can understand that. It’s hard to make sacrifices interesting, especially with all the details. As in this line concerning an animal offering, ”Its entrails and legs shall be washed with water, and the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an offering of elevation; pleasing odor to the LORD.” (Leviticus 1:9) While the details matter because they speak of the need for intentionality in spiritual life, I would like us to not confuse the medium with the purpose. The word for sacrifice in Hebrew is korban, meaning communion or to ‘come close.’ Over and over again, God asks us to bring our pain and our sin, our joy and our shame to God’s table. The Talmud adds, pulling from Psalm 50, that God does not need food to eat or a fire to see. Like anyone who has ever loved another, what makes God pleased is that each of us is willing to be vulnerable enough to lay bare our pain, confront our shame, and grow as a person. (Menachot 110a

Finally, the center of Leviticus is the Holiness code. A series of maxims to take care of the poor, the elderly, and the stranger. At the center of the code are the most important ethical ideas: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” (Lev. 19:18) teaching that the intimate act of loving yourself and then others, spirals into a virtuous cycle where the whole world is capable of being loved and of sharing love.  

If we want to heal spiritually, both as individuals and as a global community, then the book we need now is Leviticus. It is a manual of how to be vulnerable, to address our fears and celebrate our joy. It is the book that shows us how to find our way back to love and to build a world based on that love. God is calling us; all we need to do is step inside. 

Shabbat Shalom

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