My drash on Viyakra
Shabbat Shalom everyone, again I am honored and blessed to be able to talk to you about my thoughts on our Parsha. Quick disclaimer, please understand that, for me, God does not have a gender but our language, unfortunately in this case, does. I would interchange she and her in my drash, but I am concerned that people will get distracted by my use of the words. Please excuse me only using he and him, it is a shortcut to not distract from my larger message.
While reading the passage trying to find something to talk about, I went through some of my usual suspects – different meaning of sacrifices, yada yada yada. But then on one particular reading I was really struck by the first three words – Vayikra el Moshe – and the English translations – God called to Moses.
This is not God said, which is how he talked to Avraham or Noah. What does it mean to call to someone? It is most often used in a loving way. There are times when we yell, speak, tell, or have other ways of talking to someone. I certainly yell, speak, tell, or lecture my kids. But when I call to my children – not only does it involve something loving, but it is usually a message I deliver in a softer tone. Our culture also uses calling when talking to a lover: “I called to my lover.” Even in our own liturgy we call to God when we need something. Here we have God calling to Moshe. Why might the roles be reversed, with God calling to Moshe?
If we take a quick look back to the previous book of the Torah, there is some setup for how we got here. There were some tough times between Adonai and the Israelites. The rough spot starts right from the beginning – bricks without straw. “Thanks for nothing” might best sum up the Israelites response to God’s help. There are many fights from there on, with both sides getting really angry. The Israelites become so lost in their relationship with God that they actually build the golden calf. Moses has to step in and stop God from destroying the Israelites. Then God lays out the deal; accept the Torah and you will be my people. One of my favorite midrashim is that God actually held the entire mountain of Sinai was over the Israelites to help “sweeten” the offer.
As Rabbi discussed last week, we end Exodus with the building of the Tabernacle – a place where God will dwell and talk with Israel. It was a community effort and it is the foundation needed for all that follows.
Calling for the building of the tabernacle is God realizing his relationship with humans has gotten really off track. He needs to be able to be closer and more involved with his children.
As our Rabbi has taught many times, the Torah is also a beautiful story about a loving relationship developing between Hashem and humans. As we look at the trajectory of the Torah, we see God getting more and more specific about rules. He has come to learn that humans are bad with ambiguity. When terms are left ambiguous, people fight with themselves and get themselves in trouble with God.
Vayikra is not only the name for this weeks parsha, it is the name for this whole book of the Torah. This whole book is God’s attempt to tell us how to love him. These clear rules give us a way to talk to God. They also give us a clear way to make things better when we don’t do what God has asked. Finally they also how to restore our bonds with people in our lives. We are given a set of rules to help us navigate all our relationships.
But why have the relationship be in terms of plant and animal sacrifice?
At the time he gave us the Torah, he needed to speak in acts the people would understand. The Israelites are herders, their life revolves around livestock and it is one the currency they use when making trades. The cultures around them were all making sacrifices to their Gods. They lived for generations among the Egyptians who also used animal sacrifice.
The dominant way for people of that time and region to talk to the divine was through animal sacrifice. Rather than God telling them “you will talk to me on my terms and in a language you don’t understand” he is meeting them where they are at. “You understand sacrifices, the animals are important to you, and I really want us to understand each other – this should be clear and familiar to you”.
Finally, God goes one step further and tells the Israelites, when you make sacrifices to me, make sure it is the first born or a good animal. Much of the Torah commentary I read about this suggest the main reason for this is to emphasize that the animal never truly belonged to the human in the first place.
All you had was because God gave it to you. By putting this issue in our face when we go to talk to God, he tries to help us insure our humbleness in the universe. For even the best herder with the largest flock and the finest sheep – it was all a gift from God. Even if you didn’t have a great flock you could still give your best animal or your best dove.
A quick aside, I absolutely love how God, in this parhsat, specifically recognizes economic differences among people. The sacrifices move from those with most economic wealth down to people with lesser means. He still gives them a way to talk to him. God has not set up a way of being loved that is only available to one class of people.
For me, naturally, I think of how would God make the language of love with us as moderns. Some of us raise chickens or bees but other than that, the language of husbandry and animal sacrifices are no longer a meaningful way for us to talk to God. Yes we have prayer and yes our tradition tells us that, given that we no longer have the Temple, prayer is a substitute for sacrifice.
I believe this parshat also calls on us to do more than pray. The words prayer and sacrifice are different and I think both can be valid ways to talk to God. God didn’t ask our ancestors to just do things with their mouths and their minds; sacrifice requires actions and giving up or forgoing something.
I want to take on the challenge coming out of today’s drash “What does it look like for us to use sacrifices to talk to God”?
Money seems a clear answer and we do have the rabbis talking about tithing, or taking 10% of our income for tzedkhah. But it feels to me that there could be other more meaningful ways.
I wracked my brain and the first thing that came to mind as an analogy was our Tequila club for kiddush. Perhaps we should take a shot off each bottle when we first open it and give it to God. Not sure how we would give it to God since we no longer have an altar (and even though the Rabbi is away, I still don’t think we could pour it on the bimah).
In the end I find myself to be stuck. I can think of things that are important to me that I could offer as a “sacrifice”:
- My ability to teach
- My time with my children
- My time with Angelina
- My video games
- My car
- My clothes
- And other things I am fortunate Hashem has given to me
But how should I sacrifice these things in a way to talk to God, to show love for God. For the Israelites in the desert, it was either burn the sacrifices on the altar or have them eaten by the priests.
What does that look like now? How much do I give – how many sheeps = 1 hour spent teaching kids to program for free?
The sacrifices had elaborate steps and instructions, there was a clear way to know the right way to do a sacrifice. What are the rituals making it different and special if I take an hour every month to do tzedkah with the kids or Angelina.
While I think these questions are too big for me to cover in working on a parshat I do think they are important and meaningful questions for me to work on. I don’t have Moses to act as the messenger to God. Instead, it is now left to me to figure this out and then try to live by it.
I think today’s parshat, as it sets up the whole book of Vayikra, can push us to think deeply about how God would call to each of us. How would Adonai ask us to sacrifice, to give some of that which is already a gift. How should we perform these acts to make them worthy of our loving conversation with Hashem. Todah Rabah and Shabbat Shalom.