Vayikra, Leviticus, is my favorite book in the Torah. Its first portion, also called Vayikra, appears to deal mainly with the priestly cult and laws of sacrifice. But this describes the portion only at the most basic, simple level. When we look more closely, we see that there are several important, relevant lessons to learn that can speak to each one of us today.
Our first lesson: It’s all about communication. The book of Leviticus starts with the word Vayikra, “and [God] called.” God calls out to a human being, an extraordinary and challenging concept, right at the first word. The text does not begin with the more common, Vay’dabeir, “[God] spoke,” or Vayomer, “[God] said,” but rather “[God] called.” The second verse goes on to instruct Moses to “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them . . . ” using both the roots dalet-bet-reish and alef-mem-reish: “speak” and “say.” Altogether, the first two verses use three kinds of communication: call (God to Moses); speak; and say (Moses to the Israelite people). One might think Vayikra is about sacrifices, but the core of the parasha is about communication. And it makes us ask ourselves: Who calls us and how are we called? Do we hear that call and respond? Can we come to believe that we, too, can be “called” by God – perhaps a call to be our best selves?
Our second lesson: Communication is all about closeness. The word for sacrifice, korban, comes from the root kuf-reish-bet, meaning “to bring near.” A form of this word appears four times in the second verse and numerous times throughout the book. How do we achieve closeness with God? How do we achieve closeness to each other while still retaining our individuality and uniqueness? We “call out” to a person, we “call upon” a person, and we “call to” a person. Each way of relating to another human being is an attempt at closeness. We “call out” to gain attention, to be heard, to be recognized, to be found, or to find. We “call upon” to build a community. We “call to” for a conversation that will help us understand one another better.
Our third lesson: In our day, we do not offer animal sacrifices to God, but we can relate to some of the values that underlie the old system. Although we do not believe that the Divine needs or wants our appeasement through food or other objects, we do know that reverence, and particularly gratitude, remain powerful tools for expressing our deepest feelings for everything we have and are.
We find sentiments of gratitude to God in our Siddur (prayer book); when we rise in the morning, we recite Modeh Ani, “I am grateful,” to God for bringing life to me each and every day. In Birkat HaMazon, the Blessing after Meals, we thank God for sustaining the world with goodness, kindness, and mercy. Through the prayer Modim Anachnu Lach, (“We are grateful to You,”) which we sing so beautifully at our Kabbalat Shabbat services, we thank God “for our souls, which are in Your keeping; for the signs of Your presence we encounter every day; and for Your wondrous gifts at all time.” Life is a divine gift. We are born through no will of our own and die when our time is due. In between, while facing challenges along the way, we encounter many rays of beauty, and these we must acknowledge. So, we must express our thanks, and do so verbally and often, for our good health, for the companionship we cherish, for our parents and children, for everything we have learned from our mothers, fathers, teachers, friends, and students. And then we must turn this sense of gratitude into actions that benefit others.
Our fourth and final lesson: We need to take a serious look at the concept of unintentional sins (or wrong doings). Have we all not found ourselves in situations where we have hurt someone, unintentionally, but nonetheless, have caused them real pain, a circumstance with complicated emotional upheaval as the unintentional ‘sin’ often involves the people we care for the most? And have we not, perhaps to lessen the sting, responded with a simple, but ineffective, “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean it”?
We learn in Vayikra that we must atone even for unintentional sins: a simple apology may not be enough to reinforce the sense of accountability that we should have for all our actions. In Chapter 4 we read about the chatat, the sin offering, that the Israelites were required to bring when they had transgressed a known commandment, as well as when they had committed an unintentional sin, either because of their ignorance or through carelessness or oversight.
Our ancestors understood that they were responsible for all their actions, whether intentional or not. “Only by doing an overt act to atone for one’s sin, by taking rams from the enclosures and bringing them to the Temple, giving them to the priest, and perform the entire rite as prescribed for sin offerings, only then can one impress upon one’s soul the extent of the evil of the sin and take measures to avoid it in the future.” I must say that I’m thrilled not to be required to sacrifice animals, but I am reminded to take unintentional sins seriously. We are certainly no less responsible for our actions than our ancestors were over 3,000 years ago. We, too, need to be more conscious of our words and our deeds and make a greater effort not to hurt the ones we care for, even unintentionally. Clearly implicit in our prayers during the Yom Kippur confession, is the acknowledgement that we need to show greater care and foresight in our interactions.
At the same time, Vayikra reminds us that we are fully human and as such, flawed. In that humanity, we will all stumble and fall. We’re then often deeply disturbed if we cause harm by accident or oversight. Perhaps our ancestors were fortunate for the ceremonial atonement of sacrifice for it relieved the troubled conscience. Guilt, as we know, has a life of its own, and today, without the ritual sacrifice, we need, in addition to that heartfelt apology, a thoughtful way to help repair the wounds and, in fact, our own souls. Torah gives us a way of getting back up when we are down, so that we can feel forgiven and be able to start fresh. May we all be blessed with that needed clean slate and ultimately a peaceful soul and a full heart. Ken yihi ratzon.