Vayikra: when a Jew tries to come closer to God

Beginning the book of Leviticus we enter into a world which so far has been peripheral to the thrust of the narrative since Adam and Eve left the sheltered privacy of Eden and entered the real world. Even the long and cumbersome details of the building of the Mishkan,, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness, which took up some sixteen chapters at the end of the book of Exodus hasn’t really prepared us for the focused detail of the sacrificial system, the almost obsessive choreography involving altars, animals, incense and blood

The book of Leviticus brings a whole new approach to religion. People and their actions are categorised and prescriptions given to make restitution for having broken God’s commands. For particular kinds of sin you would bring particular kinds of animal. You might bring an animal from your herd, and would lay your hand of the head of the offering, which would then be slaughtered, cut into sections, laid on the altar and burned. Five different sacrifices are detailed at the very beginning the book of Leviticus, each one with its own set of regulations.

We look today at the book, described in rabbinic literature as ‘torat cohanim’ the priests legal and practical manual, and it makes very little sense to us. Animals brought to the sanctuary, identified as being expiation for our wrongful behaviour, and killed. Some parts splashed, some parts burned, some parts made into a thick smoke and some parts even sometimes eaten. A fixed ritual for a category of behaviour. It seems miles away from our current spirituality which trends to be personal, private, sedentary, tailored to our particular experience – modern.

We experience the text as atavistic, regressive, somehow uncivilized, or else maybe we see it as a way for people who didn’t know better to try to relate to their God. We have moved on to using prayer, to building relationship on our own terms, to introspection. We no longer need to make a public sacrifice, to act out any external ritual, to follow the rote and regulation of offerings for knowing sins and unwitting misdeeds, for individual breaking of vows or the collective responsibility of communal wrongdoing.

So we read through the book of Leviticus with our minds neatly closed against the horror, the smells, the hierarchy, the blood – and the meaning behind them all.

The sacrificial cult is, it is fair to say, anachronistic. It is not of our time. But that does not mean that it has no lessons for us, or that we can’t draw out real spirituality from exploring the things our ancestors did, and were so anxious to make sure that we could know how to do so too.

Firstly for these Jews, what they were doing was ‘korban’ a word meaning to draw near to something, to come closer. The building of the tabernacle had been effected by freely given offerings, by taking the best of what they had to put to the service of God, but the whole purpose of the building and of the system which it was designed to service was not simply giving up wealth, of sacrificing something of value, but it was korban – drawing nearer to God. In terms of the purpose of worship, over all this time the foundational idea simply hasn’t changed – we still want to experience closeness with the divinity.

When people offered up an animal in the specific rituals laid down in Leviticus, one of the things they were doing was showing how they were not defined by what they owned – before approaching God they would let go of the materialism that distorts and distracts all human beings from can and Abel onwards. It is a problem we wrestle with to this day – coming from the outside world with all the pressures and problems, we walk into the synagogue still defined by the things which seem to own us, our problems and situations, as well as clinging as if for dear life to all the external validators and bolsterers of our identity. It’s hard to let go of the world and our preoccupation with it, to relax into the state of being a Jew at prayer, offering the service of the heart with full attention and intention. Without some sort of structure it is more than hard – it is practically impossible.

So still today we create a structure for our own korbanot, our own drawing closer to God. Maybe it isn’t so clearly recognisable a construction as the rituals described in the book of Leviticus, but it is a construction nevertheless.  Be it the habit of daily prayer, or simply the formal system at work in the siddur, we still today go on our spiritual journey clutching a map and a set of implicit directions which, if written out, would probably rival the words of Leviticus in their attention to detail and in their unfamiliarity.

The service prescribed in the siddur is built to take us somewhere. We follow it carefully, even if it sometimes happens that we know longer have a deep familiarity with the signposts. It has taken on some of the elements of magic that must also have been perceived by those who followed the ritual of the tent of meeting – which bits are important, which bits left over from another meaning are no longer distinguishable to us.  One of the most significant changes of the reform movement 200 years ago was to take out of the siddur whole swathes of repetitious texts, as well as texts devoted to the sacrificial cult, the Temple and the messiah. We edited the siddur and tried to bring it back to its core purpose – a means of bringing us closer to God. We kept in the concept of Avodah, of work and worship, we kept in the idea of korban, of approaching God, we kept in too the distancing of the material world, the shrugging off of the layers of worry and doubt and of making a living and striving to have ownership of things. We created, and continue to create, a siddur to be proud of, a siddur which can really lift us in prayer, elevating the holy in our thoughts. But there is something which continues to nag at me and which I miss – though we took out a lot of things that needed to be excised, the accretions of a long and complicated history of trying to come closer to the mysterious divine, we also took out the idea of being active in this search, of action that is so much an intrinsic part of the sacrificial system.

We honed a beautiful liturgy and created a more coherent theology while doing so, but we have left it innocent of much ritual, and ritual, bizarre as it seems to the outsider, is part of worship too. Now I’m not advocating a regression to the sacrificial system, nor that we suddenly take up what is sometimes known as prayerobics, the shochelling of yeshiva bechurim while they chant their texts, but I do feel that a bit of action and taking part, together with a bit of unpredictability which must also have been a component of the sacrificial system, would be in order in our oh-so-orderly prayers. With all the senses awash with sensation, the sacrificial system would have overwhelmed the person who came to pray, brought them into a spiritually different place. Our more hygienic services can also be experienced as bland, neutral, less than spiritually satisfying, making it hard to let go and really sense the presence of God as we pray the beautiful words of our prayers. For all its directions and instructions for an ancient – and to our eyes cruel – practise, I sometimes wonder which generation really understood what is important to do when a Jews tries to reach God.

Parashat Vayikra HaChodesh: organising time and encountering nature. Or “our experience of nature reflects and enhances our experience of God”

“This month shall be for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year.” (Exodus 12:2)

This is the very first commandment given in bible to the entire nation of Israel and rabbinic tradition understands that it commands us to sanctify each new month, and gives us the authority to declare which is the first day of the month. This declaration was done originally through the examining of witnesses by a Beit Din – rabbinic court – in Jerusalem. Talmud gives very detailed instructions about this activity, not surprising given that this declaration and authority over the calendar by the Rabbis is said even to bind God – the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 8b) declares that the verse in psalms (81:4-5) “Sound the shofar on the new moon for our feast day, for it is a law for Israel, and a ruling of the God of Jacob” (a piece that is central to our Rosh Hashanah liturgy), means that the Court Above does not enter into judgment on Rosh Hashanah until the Court Below has declared the new month of Tishri.

This commandment gives the Jewish people the authority to decide about time. The whole Jewish year, all of Jewish Time, including deciding the date for legal or taxation or deciding ages or festival observance, is dependent on the Court declaring the new month, having listened to and examined all the witnesses who came to speak of having seen the new moon. This control over deciding time is extraordinary, giving the Rabbinic Court a power akin to God’s, Who created time. Being able to control one’s time means being free in a very powerful way – slaves do not manage their own time, and in modern times the balancing of work/life is a critical part of how we experience our lives.

The declaration of the new moon was one of the three activities seen as fundamental to Jewish identity and therefore banned by the Seleucid Empire, against whom the Chanukah revolt took place. The other two were the observance of Brit Milah (circumcision) and Shabbat.

There are two rituals today in which we are able to observe the turning of the month. The first is familiar to many, the Birkat haChodesh read out in synagogue on the Shabbat before the New Moon (except the new moon of Tishri) to remind the community of the fact. Along with the announcement of the date the New Moon would be seen we read: “May it be Your will, our God and the God of our ancestors, that You bring this month to us for goodness and for blessing. May You give us long life – a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of physical health, a life in which there is fear of heaven and fear of sin, a life in which there is no shame nor humiliation, a life of wealth and honour, a life in which we will have love of Torah and fear of heaven, a life in which our heartfelt requests will be fulfilled for the good. May the Holy One, Blessed is God, renew it for us and for all Your people, the Family of Israel, for life and for peace, for joy and for gladness, for salvation and for consolation, and let us say: Amen.”

But there is another ritual called Birkat haChodesh – and sometimes (wrongly) called Kiddush Levanah – the Sanctification of the Moon, when we bless God as we stand under the night sky in the presence of the new moon. The ritual comes from Talmud, where in Tractate Sanhedrin we find the text of the Blessing: “Praised are you, O Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who created the skies with Your word, and all heaven’s host with the breath of Your mouth. You gave them appointed times and roles, and they never miss their cues, doing their Creator’s bidding with gladness and joy. God is the true creator who acts faithfully, and who has told the moon to renew itself. It is a beautiful crown for the people carried by God from birth (Israel), who will also be renewed in the future in order to proclaim the beauty of their creator and God’s glorious majesty. Praised are you, O God, who renews new moons.”

Around the Talmudic text we find the idea that the ceremony should take place on a night when the moon is growing (not necessarily the New Moon), preferably on Saturday night when the celebrant will be wearing their best clothes and will be happy. There was a custom of showing one’s joy by dancing and leaping towards the moon, raising the body on tiptoes three times while reciting the formula “As I dance towards you, but cannot touch you, so shall none of my enemies be able to touch me!” and everyone should say to each other “Shalom Aleichem”: “Peace to You”

I have taken part in this ritual within a community exactly five times in my life, but each time have become more aware of the praise of nature and of God’s role as the creator of nature, which is something that we lose often in our liturgical mainstream. Each time the symbolism of the moon, which waxes and wanes, which sometimes hangs low and almost tangible in the night sky and which sometimes is hidden; the moon which influences our world so powerfully but so invisibly – from the flow of the tides to the stable axial tilt; from the comfort of light at darkest night and darkness of a moonless night – the moon symbolises so much more than just a satellite orbiting the earth and lit by the sun. It symbolises continuity, growth and renewal, weakness and ending followed by increase in strength and fulfilment. It is no wonder that Jewish texts liken the people Israel to the moon, with our fluctuating history and our constant return to life – the moon symbolises hope, renewal, constant change within a clear set of parameters. Talmud tells us that Rabbi Yochanan said “reciting the blessing over the moon at the appropriate time is like being in the presence of the Shechinah (Divine Presence).. and the school of Rabbi Ishmael said “if the Children of Israel are privileged to greet their father in heaven once a month, it is enough”. Now while I am not advocating a connection with Jewish ritual only once a month, it is a powerful reminder that our experience of nature reflects and enhances our experience of God. And we can experience nature at any moment – currently the blossom is out on the trees and the spring bulbs are flowering. The encounter with nature only takes for us to open our eyes and see – and from that looking at our world we can feel hope and a sense of the continuity through the changing world. Be it the moon, be it other aspects of creation, be it the Creator, the privilege of perceiving this hope must be enough.

Image by Eric Teske (CC BY-NC 3.0)