Vayikra: Raise Up What You Already Have

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Vayikra

Vayikra, or Leviticus, is the third book of the Torah, and is largely but not exclusively concerned with the laws of the ancient priesthood. This week’s portion teaches about various korbanot, or offerings, including offerings brought for sin and atonement.

Dear Friends: Sorry for my inability to make it to your in-box last week, but I’m glad to be back with a short thought connecting this week’s Torah portion with the upcoming Pesach holiday, and then, in the email which follows, you’ll find an annotated guide to great internet Pesach resources.

Let’s start with the opening verses of our Torah portion:

“The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them:

When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock. . . .’ ” (Vayikra 1:1-2)

Our friend Rashi explains this verse in great detail, and notes that that the verse seems a bit redundant- if a person is presenting an offering of “cattle” [behemah], then why tell us he should choose it from the herd or flock? Isn’t it enough to simply say, presents an animal? No, explains our French friend, because behemah is a general term for animals and you might then think that a wild animal is also acceptable for an offering. Thus the Torah limits the category by saying, “herd or flock” so you know it means the animals that are close at hand, with no special or exotic requirements.

In other words, Rashi wants to stress that the ancient offerings were not an esoteric or exotic system but rather a matter of taking what was close at hand and raising it up. This, in turn, is very much my own conception of normative Judaism: while we certainly have some unique spiritual practices, like tallit and tefillin, for the most part Judaism challenges us to take what we have at hand- our eating, speaking, spending, working, dressing, giving- and raise it up to the level of mitzvah, or sacred act. Judaism has lots of practices, but in the end, it comes down to a pretty simple (but not easy) idea: love God and love others in all that you do.

This, in turn, brings us to Pesach, which has its rules and customs and laws and texts and practices, but is, in the end, a simple (but not easy) idea: that which we call God enables our liberation from servitude, and therefore we are conscious, grateful, and responsible for our freedom. The seder expresses this idea using the materials at hand: words, music, food, text, sounds, smells- it’s all commentary on the basic idea of liberation and joy.

Matzah may seem exotic, but it’s the simplest thing: flour and water, baked quickly. It is both the symbol and the actual experience of liberation because it represents simplicity- it IS simplicity. That is, if you can experience tremendous gratitude and joy at a meal of matzah (maybe even matzah with bitter herbs), then your joy depends on no external factor and you are liberated to choose your path of service.

Returning to our Torah portion, Moshe tells the people: “serve God- but don’t make this too complicated- just offer up what you already have.” That’s a message I think we need to take to heart the week before Pesach, when the core ideas of the day can get overtaken by commercialization, logistics, cooking, shopping, family dynamics, competitiveness, and preparations. If Pesach is about joy and liberation, it also means that we can resist becoming enslaved by religious, emotional and spiritual anxiety brought on by the holiday itself! Pesach is really so simple: put away the chametz, tell the story, eat the matzah and maror (which is just another way of telling the story), sing our joyful praises- the rest is all commentary (go and study.)

To be clear: I love the holiday in all its potential complexity. The email that follows this one is all about preparing the home, heart and brain for the Yom Tov- I just want us to do it in simplicity and joy, without fear, resisting commercialization, authentic to the story of the Jewish people and our own individual stories as Jews.

That, to me, is always a great and wonderful miracle!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Neal

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