Nisan 3                                        Taken from Ranebi’s message on Vayikra 5780

Can you sense that God is calling you?

This third book of the Torah is Sefer Vayikra, known as Leviticus, and also called the Sefer HaCohanim, the book of the priests.  It has three themes: First, the area of the Korbanot, the offerings; second, Tahor and Tamei, clean and unclean, proper and improper and third, Holiness and the separation of His people. This book also describes the duties of the Cohanim and is takes place in a period of one month as we know from the book of Numbers where it says that they were on the first day of the second month of the second year.

The most important aspects of the many teachings and principles in the Torah are for us to learn to apply them to our lives. It shows us that the LORD is always with us; no matter how difficult our situation may be, we are not alone. Since Covid19 broke out and the many additional strains, we are experiencing something new since most of us were not around during the Spanish Flu, the last plague of 1918,. This pandemic has paralyzed the modern world forcing us to be separated and isolated. Some of us are relearning how to be a family.  Our modern way of living has created the environment where people have become so independent and individualistic, that very few care about those around them. Now, by having gone through an enforced isolation, we are seeking ways of getting closer to others. There is a relationship of this with this portion even though we may not see it at first glance.

The last letter “ אAleph” (called z’air – זעיר – tiny) of the Hebrew word Vayikra is written smaller than the other letters in Torah scroll, depicting that God does not want to impose Himself upon us but wants us to pay attention to what He is saying. If the Creator humbles Himself before us, how much we more do we need to humble ourselves before Him!  This is not easy for humans to understand.  When we are born we are the center of the universe but as we grow, we learn that this is not the case. Vayikra means that the Creator wants us to listen to Him for He is “calling” each of us for something special. He knows us better than we know ourselves. He will direct us on the right path even though we often prefer to go on our own way.  Some prefer to walk through walls rather than walking through an open door.

In Vayikra the Creator is giving each of us a special assignment.  It begins with an idea called Korban קָרְבָּןwhich comes from the root kerev – קרב – meaning to “come near, draw close or approach”. Thus, He would instruct the people. We all have a different understanding when it comes to reading the Scriptures. I call it Biblical Judaism. It is of how our Creator reveals Himself to us, especially through Moses who brought us His Words,  His Ten Commandments. They are universal – they are for all mankind. It is sad that our sages have at times, taught things other than what the Torah teaches, since our people we are supposed to teach the true Word of God, not the opinion of man. The Ten Commandments are for everyone; received by God to be given to the world, they form our constitution. We were to be light to the nations, ohr l’goyim.

I don’t know how many of you have grown up with other religions but we have all been influenced by certain teachings. Being young, we accepted ideas and have developed paradigms which now form our beliefs. Now whenever we are challenged by something that lies outside our system of beliefs, we feel uncomfortable and even rebel. Don’t ever worry about being challenged, worry more about not being willing to be challenged. Here Israel is just coming out of slavery, out of an idolatrous, pagan environment in which they had been living for over 200 years. That had become natural to them and their children were accepting these as truths. The Creator was taking them out whether they wanted to leave or not. They had become very comfortable and preferred to stay but the Creator would force them to change their focus from dependency on paganism to the one God.

No one likes to be in a situation where we feel out of control. That is exactly what is happening to us today with this pandemic. On whom can we depend? Many of us do not know when we will see our next paycheck.  Many are afraid to go outside in case we come down with the virus.  It was like that in ancient Israel.  They had been totally taken care of, but now they would have to care for themselves. It was terrifying for them. The Creator had to slowly regain their trust. How would He be able to do that?

The Creator allowed the korbanot of the sacrificial system because they were accustomed to those ideas from the pagan practices of the Egyptians, but He would slowly start to change their meaning and the direction of their focus from the pagan gods to Himself. He was leading them to focus upon Him instead of the many temples with their many gods which served them in whatever area they needed. Now they would see that there were no other gods like Him.

Now they would no longer be able to set up altars wherever they wanted but they had to congregate in an orderly fashion since our God is a God of order.  He is the God who says, “Come let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). When we are in a stressful situation, we need to slow down; getting overwhelmed gets us nowhere. Then we can stop and focus on what we can do to solve our problems. That’s when we can see that the Creator is covering us and that we are not alone.

Our God is like our father and mother.  In this process, He was like our mother.  We were like babies who needed to be breastfed in order to grow. He taught the Israelites and then He would slowly wean them from paganism as a mother weans her child from nursing. This process would not be simple because it is easier to be totally dependent and have someone else solve all our problems.  He gave us the next step, the idea of Free Will.

The Creator told the men to bring a voluntary offering to Him. Notice that He doesn’t use the Hebrew word “ish” for man, instead He uses the word “adam” – אָדָם. The use of adam suggests the universality of the message. The offering was not obligatory, rather it was for any man who wanted to bring it. He never forces anyone to believe in Him or to take anything to Him. This puts the onus upon the person to bring the offering voluntarily to the Ochel Moed. In this way, we are responsible.  Many religions teach us that believing in God means that all we need to do is to cross our arms and pray and He will protect us. For example, Islam is growing rapidly; it means, “submission.”  They believe that if you are crossing the street and a car is coming, you don’t need to run because it is up to Allah whether or not you will be protected. This is blind submission. Our God gave us legs to run and brains to think for ourselves.

When we bring offerings to the Creator, it is not because we want to appease Him as other religions teach, we want to honor Him and thank Him.  As an illustration, when people come to our home for Shabbat dinner, they bring a gift;  it is voluntary and they are showing that they want to honor us for inviting them. We are showing the Creator that we want to honor and draw near to Him.

One good thing about this pandemic is that parents have been forced into spending more time with their children. Their early development years are the most important and they have been, for the most part, absentee parents. This has repercussions on our children. There is nothing more beautiful when you are a child to have your parents close to you. They give you a sense of security, safety, belonging, of our identity.  Man of us haven’t had that.  Our heavenly father spends time with us. That is way this book is so important.

This book speaks of five different types of korbanot, offerings: The first is the Olah – עֹלָה – translated as burnt offering but a better meaning would be ascend or elevated; the second is the Mincha – מִנְחָה – dry cereal or grain offerings, the third is Chataat – חַטָּאת – translated as sin-offering but again, a better meaning would be “missing the mark”; fourth,  Shelamim – שְׁלָמִים – the peace or thanksgiving offering, and fifth is Asham – אָשָׁם  –  guilt offering, the most difficult to understand.   Each one plays a very important role within our psyche, in our behavior.

The first, the Olah concerns our relationship with God alone.

The Mincha shows us that blood was not needed to forgive our sins. The Mincha, the dry offerings could be used for Chataat, Shelamim and Asham offerings. Our God is not a bloodthirsty God, as a matter of fact, drinking blood is a pagan concept.

Bringing these offerings to God demonstrated that they were willing to acknowledge what they had done wrong…even if “unintentionally” and wanted to be forgiven; they recognized who He is and wanted to give Him thanks.

It is important to note that there is no offering that would bring forgiveness for intentional sins which could only be forgiven through “teshuva”, i.e., turning back to God, not through any blood sacrifice. They still had to face the consequences for their crimes.

Why does God put the Olah first and the grain offering second?  Everything is related to the Torah. They point to the first two offerings of Cain and Abel in Genesis. Cain, a farmer, brought “a” mincha – grain offering (מִנְחָה – a mincha – Genesis 4:3 ) and Abel, a shepherd, brought the “first fruits” of his animals (מִנְחָתוֹ – his mincha – Genesis 4:4). Both grain and animal were called mincha!

Abel’s offering was accepted by God while Cain’s was rejected. Many theologians Cain’s offering was rejected because it was not a blood sacrifice. The Torah teaches us that it is not what we offer, but how we offer it! It had to do with their “kavanah – intention”.  If you read the verses carefully you will see that Abel brought the best while Cain simply brought “an” offering. When we serve God and the community, it needs to come from our whole heart.  When we pray, do we pray because we have a relationship with the Creator or because we want to get something from Him?

The next step after Bechirah Chofshit, Free Will, is Kavanah, Intention. That’s what our Creator measures.  During these dark days, filled with isolation and separation, let us lift up our prayers to be accepted by Him, praying wholeheartedly not only because we need Him but especially because we love Him. He is our Heavenly Father who  is taking care of us throughout these difficult days. Although we may not be able to see things clearly, we can know that we are not alone; we have the hope because of who He is. As we say at the end of each book in the Torah, Chazak, Chazak V’nitchazeik, Be Strong and be Strengthened. I encourage you to remain close with each other in our community. Living Torah is doing and helping one another through our behavior. Our God is a practical God, a God of action. He loves us and gives us a sense of security, safety and belonging.

Rabbi Netanel Ben Yochanan