Saturday, March 24, 2007
Teaching from Rabbi Diane: Vayikra—A Call to Return
“Vayikra el Moshe, And He called to Moses….” In last week’s double parashah, Vayak-hel-P’kudei, Moshe set up the Mishkan with the Ohel Mo-ed, the Tent of Meeting at its heart, and it was filled with the cloud of Holy Presence, the Shekhinah, the In-Dwelling Divine. So full of God was this place, that Moses hung back and could not enter. He had to be called by Ha-Shem, invited into relationship with the Holy. In order for a human being, even one so awake as Moses, to enter into direct relationship with the Divine, space must be made. The Mystery must draw back a bit into itself—and so “vayikra,” he called, the first word of our parashah, has a tiny aleph at the end, smaller than the rest of the letters, to symbolize, according to some, God’s tzim tzum, the pulling back of Self that makes space for another to enter.
Vayikra, the book of Torah that gives in minute detail the particulars of priestly service in the Mishkan/Temple, can be read as a tractate on holy relationship. When we look through the surface of its instructions about sacrifices and purifications from skin diseases and emissions to the spiritual truths hinted at in its depths, we may begin to understand the brilliance of our tradition in offering us a blueprint for right relationship, the means to practice the art of teshuvah, or return.
What makes possible the maintenance of a brit, a covenant with the Divine or with a person for that matter, given our humanity and the inevitability of our falling away from clarity and devotion, is the ever-present possibility Vayikra lays out of t’shuva—the ability through our focused intention, our actions, our prayers, to clear the clogged channels of connection. We easily distracted, easily obsessed human beings are here gifted with the means to restore awareness, to restore balance, to return to a loving state, in our relationships with each other and, underlying , supporting, and shining through those, each in our unique relationship with the Mystery, the Great Truth.
For the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness, the Presence was always visible as a cloud by day and a fire by night hanging over, resting upon the Mishkan. What is this powerful image of God-made-visible to an entire people? None other than the cloud and the fire of the ever-present, ever-active sacrificial altar, emanating morning and evening a ray-akh ni’khoakh, a pleasing aroma, meant to soothe, placate, re-calibrate the relationship between this visible earthly plane and the invisible, unimaginable realm of the Divine.
So what can be our sacrificial altar, the locus of action and focus of attention that helps us maintain clarity and flow in our earthly and our heavenly relationships, within ourselves, with our friends and family and community, and with the Mystery that Sources and Holds us all?
This past week, in sharing her profound Torah Journeys, Rabbi Shefa Gold taught us that “the blessing of Vayikra is the call to come into harmony, balance, connection and intimacy with the God who has freed us for this love,” for this loving service. (Torah Journeys, p. 104) And the challenge is to continually grow into that freedom through practices of return. Reb Shefa asks us to make our prayer practice as powerful, as visceral, and as intense as the sacrifice of animals was for our ancestors. Can our davennen engage every sense—the sense of smell, of vision, of taste, of kinesthesia? Can it awaken our blood and vibrate our souls? And can our actions in the daily world—our words, our deeds, our work, our care for others—be informed by such practice, engaging us in a constant web of interconnectedness that grows God in the world? As for the power and primacy of teshuvah, of which our prayer practice is an integral part, Rav Kook quotes Yoma 86b: “Great is teshuvah for it brings healing to the world, and an individual who returns is forgiven and the whole world is forgiven with her.” (Bokser, Abraham Isaac Kook, p. 56) “Teshuvah was planned before the creation of the world, and it is for this reason the foundation of the world.” (Ibid., p. 55) “This quality of raising what is lowly in life toward greatness never ceases at any time, at any hour. This is the meaning of full teshuvah….”(Ibid., p. 98), an ongoing day-by-day, moment by moment process, not something we do once a year during the High Holy Days, but, along with the practice of Shabbat, Judaism’s core spiritual practice. Through teshuvah, an ongoing consciousness practice that allows us to restore right relationship in all dimensions we become “a nation of priests and a holy people,” a gathering of persons striving toward connection with the Holiest of Holies.
The Korbanot as Spiritual Technology
There are five types of sacrificial offerings described in our parashah:
the olah, or burnt offering, which calls for a male animal is completely burnt, all going up as smoke to Ha-Shem;
the minkhah, or grain offering, which is partially burnt and partially eaten by Aaron and his sons;
the zevakh sh’lamim or peace offering, in which a male or female animal from herd or flock may be offered, and in which the choicest parts—blood and fat are offered to Ha-Shem and the rest eaten;
the khatat or sin offering, made when an individual or a group has unknowingly transgressed, and which involves the offering of different animals, depending upon the transgressor;
and finally the asham or guilt offering, which cleanses from contact with death and relieves the guilt of unintentional treachery.
Notice that the sacrifices are an effective means of redressing sin or cleansing guilt only when the act has been unintentional. If a transgression is intentional, the system of justice, capital punishment and reparations were to come into effect (though, interestingly, in the rabbinic literature, when a capital offense was committed, some of the blame redounded to the High Priest on whose watch that offense occurred.) The Aliyot
All our aliyot (calls to Torah) today are prayers for the redress of balance in our relationships, to remind ourselves that our connection with the Divine is always present in our human connections and visa versa.
First aliyah: We read about the minkhah offering, the gift or tribute offering, a meal offering that goes to feed both God and those who tend the fires of spirit for the whole community. It is never to be leavened or sweetened—so in offering it, we are to leave behind any puffed-up-ness of ego—any way in which we avoid seeing our part in a difficult situation or imagine that we are not implicated. The meal is always to be salted with the tears of our recognition and parched over the fires of our passion, our desire, our anger. We pour over it the soothing oil of surrender and redeem it with the sacred aroma of frankincense, the kind of sweetening that’s not forced or artificial, but comes of having opened to the possibility of Ha-Shem’s Presence in the midst of difficulty.
This aliyah is for those who wish to make offer the gift of your ego, to let go of some way you’ve been holding your self that has separated you from other beings and from God. Come to the Torah to affirm your desire to let go in order to reconnect with the Divine and to strengthen your intention of restoring balance in a difficult situation or relationship.
Second aliyah: We read here of the sh’lamim offering—the offering that restores inner peace and returns you to wholeness. If some interaction with which you are or have been engaged has pulled you away from the core of your true self, if you are having trouble perceiving the shining Divine Nature of another or find your own God nature clouded in the interaction, please come up for this aliyah. W offer the blood and the fat—the “choicest parts,” representing the passion that keeps conflict alive and the layers of denial that insulate your ego and hold distress in place—to Ha-Shem. The rest is for you to “eat,” to digest and move through you and out.
Third aliyah: The khatat or “sin” offering is brought to redress unintentional transgression. In Torah, the sin is transferred to the animal to be sacrificed through a process of “smikhah,” a laying on of hands by the High Priest. The blood is then sprinkled on the altar to purify it, and the choice parts—blood, fat, kidney, liver—are sent up in smoke as an offering to Ha-Shem. The khatat may be offered by the High Priest, a secular ruler, an individual, or by the whole community, when the community becomes aware of a missing of the mark that had been obscured from the eyes of the congregation. This aliyah is for our whole community, that we may make a commitment to shine the light of consciousness as brightly as possible on our interactions with each other and with other communities—a commitment to create communal structures to bring to light omissions, unintentional misses and to clear them, that our mission might remain strong, flowing, God-connected.
v’zot ha-torah asher sam moshe lifnei b’nei yisrael al pi adonai b’yad moshe
God-connected aspect of yourself,
before all the parts of you that struggle, make excuses, can’t perceive Holiness,
and want to take their toys and go home—
Wisdom coming to you spontaneously
and with love
from the Mystery beyond understanding
© 2007 Rabbi Diane Elliot