27 Iyar 5782
To listen to the recorded message, click on https://youtu.be/VuYwcTB9STM
As I look back at the book of Vayikra to summarize, I am more and more amazed to see how the Torah ties different themes together with a single goal: Keeping God’s Covenant with his people valid.
The book of Shemot ends with the Eternal hiding himself due to the mistakes made by Israel, a nation recently born out of the anguish of slavery in Mitzraim, from their inability to assume responsibility for their actions because they had lost the capacity to make decisions and from that cloud of concealment, we begin this book, Vayikra, “And he called.” As we take a step back, we can see that the Eternal created an “antidote” for us to be able overcome the mistakes of our past and prepares us for the renewal of His Covenant with us. This antidote involves both “our visible areas and “our internal areas that others cannot see” and is called “holiness”, set apart.
We begin with the basic premise that “God wants to dwell among us” (Shemot 25:8, 29:45-46; Vayikra 26:12; Bamidbar 35:34), and that His love towards His people is so great that unlike any other cultures and religions, our God wants to interact directly with us. He teaches us how to make “korbanot” (offerings) i.e., how to “approach” Him properly, since God does not move away from us, rather we move away from Him on purpose. As Jeremiah 29:13 says, “You will seek me, and you will find me when you seek me with all your heart” with the aim of finding life as Amos 5:4 says, “Seek me and you will live“.
Once we approach God, He, being such a loving father, gives us the “protocol of life” so that we can be continually fit or presentable before Him. Vayikra is a book called by our sages “Torat Cohanim – the teaching of the priests”, and although that title is true, to me the instructions in this book are not only limited to the Cohanim, but they include all of Israel, since the Torah states in Shemot 19:6 that regardless of our origin “we will be for the Eternal a holy nation and a kingdom of priests”; therefore the instructions described in this book are applicable to the entire house of Israel. It is here that we witness a kind of spiritual crescendo, raising us to various levels of maturity; these are not theoretical, they are very practical.
First, Vayikra begins with our “intentions, our kavanah”. Why do we want to draw near to God? Is it so that He would dwell in us or so that we can get a favor from Him? There could be no excuses for why we wouldn’t want to approach God; all the Korbanot, the offerings were extremely inclusive: from a social point of view, since the poorest to the richest, the most powerful political leaders, the priests could all participate; all were equal in the sight of the Eternal. It was also inclusive because it showed respect for human dignity, since only those who presented themselves before the Eternal could know whether it was due to a mistake or out of gratitude. Even financially since the offerings ranged from being quite inexpensive to being very expensive. Everything was designed so that anyone who wanted to approach the Eternal could do so for whatever reason: out of gratitude, from guilt, having made a mistake, or asking for forgiveness, celebrating with their family, or just out of the simple desire to offer something to the Eternal.
Second, Vayikra emphasizes the importance of approaching the Eternal with reverence and respect. There was no difference between the common people and the Cohanim after the sons of Aaron perished, unlike other religions in which people were sacrificed to “appease their gods.” The Eternal makes it clear that it is not our position that allows us to remain alive in his Presence, rather it is our intention and our attitude toward Him that produces life.
Third, Vayikra gives us the instructions on how to live a separated life, a holy life in a practical way, in how we eat, how we maintain purity by not coming into contact with the dead or emitting bodily fluids; by sanctifying our tongue (no lashon hara) in order to avoid tsaarat; in our relationships with family and neighbors (in areas of sexual behavior, idolatry, taking care of our bodies, exercising justice, and how we dress); sanctity in marriage by choosing who we marry; holiness in the choice of our offerings to the Eternal; setting apart the time to celebrate His Moedim, (Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Yom Teruah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot); sanctification in business matters, labor relations and finances (through the Yovel, the Shmita, timely payment of wages, no slavery, granting of loans, tithes, offerings, etc.); sanctification in our worship of God (not to engage in any type of idolatry or witchcraft and having respect for the Eternal); and finally by how we love others (we are to love our neighbor as we love ourself).
And that is how we come to the fourth part, which is this portion, Bechukotai. Until now, the laws have had a certain logic for why we were to follow them but now, the Bore Olam is presenting us with the chukkim, the ordinances which put our mind to the test, because they require sheer trust, Bitachon, just as we obey our parents, our protectors, because we trust that they want the best for us. When we manage to place our fears, doubts, anxieties, and mistrust in His Hands, then we can see that His redemption appears, as it says in Tehillim (Psalms) 9:10: “Those who know your Name trust in You, because You, LORD, never abandon those who seek You”.
In this portion we see the consequences and warnings, (the tochecha) about what will happen if we obey and if we disobey. Why is He so explicit about the consequences of disobedience? It is because God does not want us to suffer the consequences of our actions and is therefore very specific about what happens when we do not listen to His voice. I am struck by chapter 26:21 “And if you treat me as casual, and do not want to listen to me, I will add seven punishments corresponding to your sins.” Personally, this had a great impact upon me because the word casual (קֶרִי -Keri-) refers to something that we see as common, as a temporary concern, or something that we regard with contempt. And the problem begins when we take for granted that God “will always be there for me“; when we stop seeing Him as our Eternal, as our Bore Olam, Creator of the universe and now He has become a “utilitarian servant”. It seems to me that a murderer and a denier of the existence of the Eternal did not suddenly arrive at that state of being, but if he observes his life, He will see that the moment he eliminated the Fear of Heaven, that is where his decline began. So, when we stop regarding the Eternal as our God, and see Him as just “something else” to do on the list of tasks to fulfill during the week, we begin a spiritual, moral, and physical decline.
Our prophet Jeremiah is clear in saying: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord and puts his trust in Him” (17:7) because these people won’t be afraid, they won’t be distressed, and they will be fruitful. I close with the prayer of Jeremiah 17:14 “Heal me, LORD, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, because You are my praise.” Some of those who listen or read this message need redemption from the Eternal in areas such as physical, economic, work-related, judicial, family, sense of life, or integrity due to the dangers around them; others require healing in their soul for emotions, traumas, loss, or deep pain that affect their lives, interpersonal and family relationships, or to be physically healed from chronic disease or a recently detected illness. I am not saying that there’s a magic formula to solve all our problems, and perhaps these problems are irreversible, but as Rabbi Percy (or as we call him Ranebi) once told me: “suffering with the Eternal is not the same as suffering without the Eternal, because in one case there is hope and peace, while in the other, there is only despair and loneliness”. Tehillim 34:4 says: “I sought the Lord, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears”.
No matter what your fear is, God will deliver you from them if you seek Him, obey His Commandments (even if you don’t think they’re logical in the short term, or if they challenge your “cognitive knowledge”), for they give life. God wants to renew His pact, His Covenant with everyone so that “He may be our God and we His people, and thus shall we be a blessing to the nations of the Earth”, and this is achieved through living His Torah and obeying His words.
Chazak, Chazak, Venitchazek Be strong! Be strong! Be strengthened!
Shabbat Shalom! Mauricio Quintero