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Torah Sparks

Parashat VaYikra
March 16, 2013 – 5 Nisan 5773

Annual: Leviticus 1:1-5:26 (Etz Hayim p. 585; Hertz p. 410)
Triennial: Leviticus 4:27-5:26 (Etz Hayim p. 599; Hertz p. 419)
Haftarah: Isaiah 43:21-44:23 (Etz Hayim p. 607; Hertz p. 424)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

Parashat Vayikra begins the third and shortest book of the Torah, It reflects the central role of the priestly cult and of ritual law in the worldview of both the Torah and biblical Israel. The Book of Leviticus is indispensable reading for people who would trace their religious experience and link their spiritual enterprises to scriptural origins. It is thus essential to avoid the temptation to dismiss the book's detailed description of the sacrificial cult as of importance only to a bygone age. This tendency is lyrically described by political journalist David Plotz in his bestselling reaction to the Bible, Good Book:

"Some of my friends doubted that my Bible reading would last past Exodus. Oh, it's all thrills and giggles when you're dealing with the ten plagues and the Tower of Babel – but wait till you get to Leviticus! They mentioned Leviticus in the same hushed, terrified way that mariners mutter, ‘Bermuda Triangle,' or Hollywood executives whisper, ‘Ishtar.' Leviticus… makes even learned pastors weep with boredom, and turns promising young Talmudic scholars into babbling US Weekly subscribers. What would it do to an amateur like me?"

In contrast, Jewish tradition prescribes that Leviticus be the first text to which young students of scripture should be exposed: "Children are pure. Therefore, let those who are pure come and study matters of purity!" (Vayikra Rabbah 7:3). In that spirit... Parashat Vayikra outlines the principal types of sacrificial offerings and accompanying ritual procedures: the burnt offering (olah), grain or meal offering (minchah), and well-being or peace offering (zevach shelamim – described as "sacred gifts of greeting" by Professor Baruch Levine). These voluntary offerings constituted the regular religious expression of everyday Israelites, their leaders, and their collective community. Obligatory expiatory sacrifices (chatat and asham) were of a more limited scope and intended to effect reconciliation between the sinner or the community, and God in the wake of a religious offense or specific transgression.

Theme #1: "What a Fuel Believes"

"The sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire upon the altar and lay out wood upon the fire." (Leviticus 1:7)

Derash: Study

This is not to be relegated to the Levites; this is a mitzvah for the Priests, to be carried out by not fewer than two of them. (Ibn Ezra)

Even though the fire will descend from Heaven, it is a mitzvah that it be brought by a mere mortal. (Rashi, citing BT Chullin)

"It's just like intimacy between human beings: nobody can force it or will it to happen, but one can create the conditions under which it's more likely to happen, by extending and opening and softening oneself. That's why humans have to bring the fire to the altar- it must be a mutual reaching out for the relationship to be real. A fire from heaven, a fire from the human heart – but one flame. This is an image of true prayer, true service, true love, true intimacy, true devotion, the truest experience of being human, one made in the Divine Image. It's terrifying and beautiful at the same time, and it's entirely up to us to bring our fire to make it happen. (Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger)

If our homes reverberate with Jewish art and music, with Jewish deeds and ritual, with Jewish books and videos, then not only will our tables be an altar but the repeated moments of our teachings, laden with warmth and wisdom, will stand a chance of transforming our children into lifelong Jews. (Rabbi Ismar Schorsch)

In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit. (Albert Schweitzer) Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life. (Buddha)

Heat cannot be separated from fire, or beauty from The Eternal. (Dante Alighieri)

Questions for Discussion

How might Chancellor Schorsch apply the insights of Rashi and Ibn Ezra to his metaphor of the Jewish home as Temple and family table as altar?

How did the Kohanim in Temple days – and how do religious leaders and educators today – "rekindle the inner spirit" of their religious charges? What steps can you take to ignite a sacred spark of faith in your peers? Community? Children?

Arranging wood and kindling fires – though necessary to the sacrificial cult – are mundane, even menial chores. In what "practical" tasks do you find spiritual meaning – a "spark" of the sacred? Cooking for Shabbat? Cleaning for Pesach? Maintaining the physical plant of your synagogue and religious school? How can these chores be understood as "priestly" in their own right?

How do you understand the symbolism of the flame on the altar? Our spirit? The Presence of God? The "warmth and wisdom" of Jewish religious life? The mutuality necessary to shared religious experience? The mutuality of our relationship with God? How do you keep these burning?

Rabbi Loevinger and Albert Schweitzer seem to be discussing very different kinds of relationships. What might these two thinkers say to each other? How does each contribute to our understanding of the altar flame?

Theme #2: "Keep on Leaven Me, Honey"

"No grain offering that you offer to the Lord shall be made with leaven, for no leaven or honey may be turned into smoke as a gift to the Lord." (Leviticus 2:11)

Derash: Study

Because the Evil Inclination is like leaven, and for the same reason Scripture prohibits honey, for the Evil Inclination is sweet and appealing to us as honey. (Baal Ha-Turim)

Let the sacrifices offered to the Lord be neither too sweet nor too sour. The spirit behind the sacrifice must be neither too crude nor too familiar. (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk)

Leaven was regarded as a symbol of fermentation and corruption; and man's tendency to sin was later viewed as a process of moral fermentation. Honey was deemed in heathen cults a favourite food of the gods, and its prohibition was intended to free the mind of the Israelite from any degrading notion that sacrifices might be the food of God. (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

Yeast and honey… are external catalysts, one which induces the leavening process, the other having the ability to make the sour sweet. Perhaps the Torah's message, in forbidding these items, is to allude to us that it is that which dwells in man's heart that Hashem truly desires, pure and untainted. (Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffman)

These violent delights have violent ends, and in their triumph die, like fire and powder, which, as they kiss, consume. The sweetest honey is loathsome in his own deliciousness, and in the taste confounds the appetite. (William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet)

Questions for Discussion

Are the Kotzker Rebbe and Shakespeare in agreement? What is the danger (potentially explosive, according to the Bard!!) in making our worship or our love too sweet? How might this spiritual peril manifest itself in contemporary Jewish life?

If honey represents a variety of negative influences – the Evil Inclination, corruption, and excess among them – why is it such a central and familiar symbol of Rosh Hashanah?! How are we to understand this paradox? Are there spiritual perils inherent in the High Holy Days? How are they less than typical of Jewish worship? Can a symbol carry seemingly contradictory meanings?

Most sacrifices – being unleavened – were kosher for Passover!! (The Shavuot offering is a notable exception.) Is there a logical connection between the restrictions of Pesach and daily worship?

What are the "external catalysts" that concern Rabbi Hoffman? Are such influences necessarily negative? How might they enhance, rather than "taint" our expressions of piety and religious expression? What are the limitations to his emphasis on "that which dwells in man's heart"?

Historic Note

Parashat Vayikra, read on March 16, 2013, takes its name from the very first word of Leviticus 1:1… "Vayikra el Moshe" – "The Lord called to Moses." The letter aleph, with which the word Vayikra ends, is customarily written in the Torah Scroll (and in many printed texts) in a conspicuously miniaturized form. According to some, the small aleph is a reflection of Moses' intense personal modesty. On March 16, 1850, "The Scarlet Letter," by Nathaniel Hawthorne, was first published… with its infamous punitive "A" and indictment of ministerial misconduct.

Halachah L'Maaseh

Birkat Ha-Ilanot – the Blessing of the Trees – is recited once a year, when one first sees fruit trees blossoming: Baruch atah… she-lo chisar ba-olamo davar, uvar bo beriyot tovot v'ilanot tovim l'hanot bahem b'nai adam – Blessed are You… for nothing is lacking in His world, and he created in it goodly creatures and goodly trees, that humanity might enjoy and benefit from them." There is a body of rabbinic opinion that this berachah may only be recited during the month of Nisan (See BT Berachot 43A; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 226, Levush, Aruch Ha-Shulchan ad loc; Rabbi S.Z. Auerbach, Halichot Shlomo, Tefillah 23:121). Mishnah Berurah and Rabbi Ovadyah Yosef, however, say that Nisan is mentioned in earlier sources only because that is when trees typically blossom; the blessing may be said whenever that happens, though recitation of the blessing in Nisan is optimal. In, e.g., northern Europe, where winter ends late, or in the southern hemisphere, where trees blossom in Tishri, rabbinic authorities agree that the blessing may be recited in the applicable season (See Responsa Tzitz Eliezer 12:20, Aruch Ha-Shulchan 226:1).

 
 
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