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Vayikra 5782      March 12, 2022

Shabbat Shalom

     In the play and the movie, “Fiddler on the Roof” Tevye often talks to God, and when he does he lifts up his eyes and addresses the sky. God is in heaven and Tevye turns toward heaven when God becomes part of the conversation. It is a very common move. We look at each other when we are in conversation and so we look up when we include God in our conversation. In the book of Psalms, Psalm 121, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come? My help is from Adonai, who made the heavens and the earth.” When it comes to addressing God, we turn our eyes upward.

     We see this again in the Torah, in the book of Bamidbar, when there is a plague of fiery snakes, Moses is commanded to make a bronze image of the snake and place it on a tall pole. Any Israelite who was bitten by the snake, could look up at this bronze snake and be cured of their snakebite. The later Rabbis, who feared that this snake could be a pagan image, declared that the bronze snake did not cure them, rather when they looked up, and directed their attention to heaven, God would send them healing.

     We are starting this week, the book of Vayikra, the book of Leviticus. The beginning of this book, almost the entire first half of the book, is about sacrifices. The English word “sacrifice” defines these rituals as things that we are supposed to “give up” to sacrifice what we own as a way to “please” God. Seeing the smoke rise from the altar, once again directs our eyes upward in order to find God.

     But the Hebrew word for a sacrifice is “korban.” It is not about what we are giving up. Korban is from the root, karov, which means “to bring closer.” It can refer to your relatives, those who are close family to you. It can refer to someone who comes close to share a secret. Korbanot are the way we draw closer to God. The way it works is like a family meal where we have invited God to dine with us. We are no longer talking about a God who is way up in the heavens; we are now referring to a God that we want to hold close in our hearts. And this is a very different way to approach God.

     The very first word in our Parsha and in the book of Leviticus is “Vayikra.” (The Hebrew names of the books of the Torah derive from the first words in the book. This is like calling Charles Dickens classic, “A Tale of Two Cities” by its first words, “Best of Times”). Vayikra means “God called” and the person God is calling to, is Moses. But the word at the beginning of our book is written in a strange way. The final Alef in the word is written in a smaller font. Not a lower case letter, Hebrew does not have a lower case. It is just written smaller than the letters in the rest of the word. You can see this in your Humash, right at the beginning of Parsha Vayikra. We have to ask the question, Why? Why make the final Alef smaller? It is as if the book wants you to notice that God is calling Moses. God calls on Moses a lot in the Torah. That is why we call the Torah, the five books of Moses. God and Moses have many conversations. Why call attention to this one?

     The Sages have an interesting answer to this question. When we last saw Moses, at the end of the book of Shemot/Exodus, Moses was overseeing the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary to God that would travel with the people through the wilderness. Moses makes sure that everything is built according to God’s specifications. When the building is complete, the presence of God, symbolized by a cloud, comes down to the Mishkan and fills the entire tent. It is so full that there is no room for Moses to enter. After all that building, Moses cannot step inside. There is no room for him when God fills the tent with God’s glory. We leave Exodus with Moses stuck outside the Mishkan.

     We see this all the time. A builder builds a house to our specifications and does a great job. But once he is finished, we never invite him in again to our home. Our relationship with him was to build a house. The house is now finished and so is our relationship to the builder. His job is done, and he moves on to the next building project. In last week’s parsha, God now has a house among the people of Israel. Aaron and his sons will officiate, Moses is no longer needed. He is no longer able to come into God’s house.

     So, our parsha this week has God calling Moses. The entire sentence is odd. “God called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.” Either God called to Moses or God spoke to Moses, we shouldn’t need both and yet we have both. The Sefat Emet, the Hasidic master from the end of the 19th century, notes that if Moses was feeling left out, God calls Moses to draw him back in, to come closer to God. It is like seeing a good friend when you are having a party. You need to spend time with all the guests, but you call your friend over to be with you. Not a loud boisterous call, but a quiet, personal call, “come here, be with me.”

     The last time Moses encountered God in a cloud was on Mt. Sinai. The voice was loud and strong. God called Moses up the mountain. God’s voice was so loud that it scared the entire people who told Moses that he should go up the mountain while they all stand back, and later Moses can tell them what God said. It is as if they are saying, “you go talk to God and we will stand back here where it is safe.”

     Now, God is no longer on a mountain. God has a home right in the middle of the Israelite camp. No loud voices needed to hear God. In a warm and quiet voice God calls to Moses to enter into a discussion with him about how people can feel close to God. How do we know that God spoke in a quiet voice? That is why the Alef at the end of the word, Vayikra, is so small. It stands for the still small voice of God. This is not a voice that brings fear, it is a voice that calls us closer.

     Rabbi Aviva Richman describes it this way: This reading of Vayikra evokes the way a parent recites their child’s name obsessively, or the thrill of speaking your lover’s name, or hearing a lover speak your name. Vayikra holds the sense of intimacy that comes with knowing that another person consistently wants to be close to you, to grow with you. The continued “naming” by the other bears witness to an evolving self; each time the name is articulated, it is with new knowledge of who this person is and what it means to love them.”

     Sacrifices are a physical act, but they are also Korbanot, calling us closer toward a spiritual union. God is not supposed to be far away in heaven. God is near us, very close by, close enough to be able to sit at our table. A relationship with God is not supposed to be based on fear, fear that if we say or do the wrong thing, we will get zapped (“God will get you for that”). Judaism has us finding God close by, near enough to hold us when we are afraid, and to strengthen us when we need to be strong.

     We are created in the image of God. This tells us that as God acts, so should we act. We must not be distant from each other. We should not be so far apart that we don’t know what is going on out of our sight. Our relationships with each other should not be based on fear, but we should stay close together. We should comfort each other in our moments of grief. We should cry with each other in our times of pain, we should celebrate with each other in times of joy and look together into the future, helping each other on the paths that we tread.

     The world calls us every day to draw closer to those who are in need. This war in Ukraine must remind us about what we are being called to do. We need to draw closer to the people of Ukraine, we must comfort them, we should walk with them as they leave their homes unsure of where they are going. We need to be the safe destination that they seek for themselves and their children. In a time of war, we must work for peace. We must stand with those who fight for their homes and for their freedom. We must find the words and find the way to hold these people close to our hearts. More shooting will not end this war. It must be our quiet insistence on peace that will, in the end, make a difference.

     And it is not just Ukraine. People are shot in the streets in this country as well. Certainly, we are not being bombed and shelled. But people are dying none the less. Some of them are innocent bystanders, shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Can we draw close to those who are victims of gun crimes? Can we find the words to speak to end the carnage on our own streets? Can we, with our quiet voices silence the shouting of those who scream of fear and anger? Can we show that the world will be a safer place if there were fewer guns in this country?

     The war in Ukraine has showed us that freedom is not about not wearing a mask or refusing to be vaccinated. Freedom is not about being able to do everything we might want to do. Freedom is about responsibility to each other. We are not in this life alone. We share our city and our country and our planet with each other. Life is not about who can shout the loudest or who can bully everyone else. It is the quiet call to be closer to each other, to care about each other, to want to build together a place of peace and not a land of discord. We cannot allow lies to be repeated over and over again until they are believed. We need to quietly speak the truth to bring people closer together.

     That little Alef at the end of the first word in our parsha reminds us that bombs and guns and shouting are not the way to be closer to God nor is it the way to be closer to each other. Being loud only scares people away. It is the soft voice of friendship and intimacy that will bring humans closer to God and closer to each other.

     May we hear the soft voice of God calling us to spiritual connection and may we also hear the quiet voices of peace and love for a humanity that will draw all of us closer to each other, no matter if they live on our street or over the horizon. May God who brings peace to the heavens bring peace to us, to all our people and to all humanity…. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Mon, February 26 2024 17 Adar I 5784