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.

Ekev: justice and mercy, individual and society, unity and interdependence from the Shema to the Days of Awe

Ask most Jews to explain the Shema and chances are they will think only of the first paragraph. They will speak of the Affirmation of the unity of God, the centrality of that belief to Judaism. Many Jewish commentators wax lyrical about the Shema as confession of faith through the ages. There are stories of those who die “al Kiddush HaShem”, prolonging the words of the Shema until they expire, leaving this world with the proclamation of their belief in the one God. Others speak of  the duty to love God that is spoken of in the prayer, the requirement to keep Gods commandments and to teach our children to do so. They remind us of the awareness of God that is to be present at all times and in everything we do – whatever we look towards, whatever our hands are busy with.

So central to Jewish theology is this prayer, that the early leaders of the Reform Movement made a deliberate policy to highlight it during the services, and hence many progressive congregations would stand whilst the first paragraph is being recited, and some even open the ark so as to further underline the point.

But the Shema itself is actually comprised of three paragraphs, and in our zeal to highlight the first we have cast the other two into shadow. We are aided and abetted in this by our own siddur which offers other passages for reading in silence as well as the full text of the shema.

It is not surprising that the reformers were less keen to proclaim the sentiments of the second paragraph, for whilst the first has an underlying principle of Loving God, this one had as its essence the principle of Fearing God.

Here we have the God of Righteous Retribution. The powerful God of Justice whose requirement and commandments must be fulfilled on pain of death. No room for negotiation here, only unswerving dedication and acceptance of the mitzvot will do. This time God is perceived as rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. There is no middle way and there is no way out. If you truly listen go God, love and obey completely, the rains will come at the right time and the land will be fertile and productive.

If however your heart strays to other gods, then there will be no rain, the land will not produce and disaster will come

The equation is simple and horribly clear. Obeying God means remaining in the land which is lush and fertile; disobeying means the likelihood of a horrible death from famine.  Jeremiah, describing one such drought wrote: “Judah is in mourning, her settlements languish. Men are bowed to the ground and the outcry of Jerusalem rises. Their nobles sent their servants for water; they came to the cisterns they found no water. They returned their vessels empty. They are shamed and humiliated, they cover their heads. Because of the ground there is dismay, for there has been no rain on the earth. The ploughmen are shamed they cover their heads. Even the hind in the field forsakes her new-born fawn because there is no grass. And the wild asses stand on the bare heights, snuffling the air like jackals. Their eyes pine because there is no herbage”( Jer 14:1-6)

Rain in its due season, life giving water, is a gift from God. God may choose to withhold it and so cause wholesale death as punishment. This is the theology of the fundamentalist  who blames the difficulties we experience as punishment for someone’s (usually someone else’s) sin . It is a perception of God that is both childlike and horrific, a god without mercy who dispenses reward and punishment with machine like efficiency and no extenuating circumstances to be taken into account.

Small wonder the Reform Movement had no desire to weight this paragraph with the same glory as its predecessor. Small wonder the MRJ siddur took to printing it out only once, and in other places laconically writes “during the silence the second and third paragraphs of the Shema may be read, or the following” and then gives us uplifting selections from Isaiah, Proverbs or the Holiness Code in Leviticus.

Traditionally the three paragraphs are printed in full whenever the Shema is to be read, and the rabbis of old had other way of dealing with this rather frightening aspect of the almighty. Prayers for rain in their due season are recited in services, the principle prayer being recited during Musaf on the last day of Sukkot and from then until Pesach the sentence “mashiv ha ruach umoreed ha geshem” is inserted into the Amidah (who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall). After Pesach another prayer for dew is recited and there are several other petitionary prayers recited at the appropriate times of the year.

The prayers for rain are amongst the earliest of all the liturgical texts and are clearly a response to the fear of divine threat that would withhold rain as punishment. If these prayers do not work, then the Mishnah lays down another response – that of fasting. The structures become greater the longer the period without rain, from people of merit fasting during daylight hours for three days to eventually the whole community fasting a total of thirteen days, with no washing, little business transacted and so on. The bible may describe certain punishment, but the rabbis modified it to take account of repentance.

Other responses take account of the fact that we do not often see the righteous rewarded nor the wicked punished in everyday life, though the development of the idea of an afterlife is later than the text here in Deuteronomy but once it appears in our philosophy, it means that punishment need not be tied into the agricultural year.

The book of Job was written as a response to the convention wisdom that all who are afflicted in life have in some way deserved it. Maimonides coped with this threat of divine retribution by writing that people should first serve God for a reward in order to learn to serve God without any motive – he took the view here (as with the sacrificial system) that ideal worship has to be learned and will not come without a process of weaning away from other forms. Hence this was a necessary stage in the history of the development of the relationship of the Jewish with God.

A more modern attempt to cope with this difficult second paragraph is to look at it in context with the first. In the first paragraph the underlying principle is love and the wording is in the singular – you will love God and do God’s commandments.  In the second paragraph the underlying principle is that of fear, and through the fear will come the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments – most of which cannot be done without other people.

The wording is in the plural precisely for that reason. One can fulfil the first paragraph alone, but for the second paragraph to be valid, other people are vital. The shema moves from the relationship of the individual with God to relationships within society. For these relationships to work there must be rules and sanctions, boundaries must be set in place for the security of all concerned. Love alone will not enable a society to function smoothly – courts of laws are needed to.

We are moving towards a time of the year when the image of God as Judge is becoming stronger. Soon we shall be entering the moth of Elul with its lead up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Nachmanides wrote that Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgement with mercy and Yom Kippur is a day of mercy with judgement. Either way both mercy and judgement are part of the unity of God, interdependent and of equal importance just as we see in the full shema.

There is a Midrash that before God made our world God first made and destroyed other worlds. Some were made only with justice but no one could survive. Some God made only with mercy and love but the inhabitants were anarchic and constantly destroyed each other. Finally God made a world with a blend of the two, an imperfect but pragmatic world that worked. And that was when God knew that it was good.