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.

Va’etchanan and Nachamu:In approaching God with our desires we may yet find comfort and the chance to rebuild

The Shabbat where we read parashat Va’etchanan is named for its haftarah: it is Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of consolation.

After three weeks of haftarot that speak of rebuke, that have ratcheted up the anxious anticipation of the forthcoming cataclysm that is Tisha b’Av, we now begin the seven weeks of consolation, leading us to the possibility of a new start with God at Rosh Hashanah, reminding us that whatever the catastrophe, God is still there for us.

For a period of ten weeks we are liturgically reminded that it is time to put in the work to repair our relationship with God.

Va’etchanan begins with Moses reminding the people of his asking for God’s graciousness, asking to be allowed to enter the land that his whole life has been dedicated to guiding the nascent Jewish people towards.  He says “I besought God at that time saying, Adonai Elohim; you have begun to show your servant your greatness, the strength of your hand. For which god in heaven and earth can exist who does like you do? Please let me cross over so that I will see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and the Lebanon.  But God was angry with me because of you (the way you behaved) and did not listen to me and said to me, ‘Enough, do not speak more of this matter’…  Go up to Pisgah and look [in all four directions] …and command Joshua and strengthen him and encourage him….”

Va’etchanan ends an era, albeit with the pain and frustration of Moses played out publicly before the people. A line has been drawn; it is time for the next leader, the next stage of the people’s history.

Nachamu begins with the repeated imperative to “Comfort yourselves”. It goes on to speak to the heart of Jerusalem to say that that her time of service is over and her guilt paid off, that she has received from God double for all her sins.  A voice is calls: Clear the route of God in the wilderness, make a highway in the desert for our God. Every valley shall be raised, every mountain and hill diminished, the rugged will be levelled, the rough places smoothed.  And the glory of God will be revealed and everyone shall see it, for the mouth of God has spoken it”

One can read the Isaiah as a counterpoint to Va’etchanan, a response to Moses’ anguish that he will not be there to guide and escort the people in the land they are ready to enter: – Isaiah stresses the point that while yes the people will stray, God will still be there for them. The pathway that has led from Egypt to Mt Sinai, and from Mt Sinai to the Promised Land in a wandering and circuitous route, will become clear and defined and will link the people and God in a pathway that is easy to see and to tread.  The repetition of the imperative “Nachamu” echoes the repetition of the angel calling to Abraham at the site of the Akedah, reminding us that when we are so involved in our own ideas and world view it takes more than one call to drag us out of our intense concentration to be able to see a bigger picture.

But I think the Isaiah speaks not only to past time, but to present and future time. The passage speaks of a change in the landscape so that all the landmarks we are used to have gone, a levelling so that the valleys and mountains are brought together to one flat plain where no one and nothing can hide. It erases the peaks and the troughs, the domains of the heavens and the earth which shall never quite meet. Instead it speaks of human mortality and the eternity of the word of God. It speaks of catastrophic worldly and political change and of the consoling continuity of our relationship with God.

Whose is the voice calling in the wilderness demanding proclamation?  Whose is the voice asking what should be proclaimed?  Like the voice of the shofar at the revelation of Mt Sinai, these voices are ownerless in the text; we can claim them or project onto them.

The voices can be ours, demanding justice, demanding fairness, demanding relationship with God. Just as we are told that “the mouth of the Eternal has spoken” we are given a voice to speak back, to have a dialogue not only with each other but with our creator.

We are in the liturgical run-up to the Days of Awe, when God is said to be more present in the world, more willing to listen to us, more focussed on repairing the gaps that have emerged between us. As Isaiah reminds us “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever…. O you who tells good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with strength, lift it up and be unafraid, say to the cities of Judah “Behold your God”. Behold the Eternal God will come…even as a shepherd who feeds his flock, who gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them in his breast…”

Immediately after Tisha b’Av in the shock of the loss it commemorates, it is important to re-orient ourselves from mourning to life, to repair our own lives and to work for the greater good of our communities so that the glory of God is to be revealed, so that everyone shall join the work of repairing our world.