The supermarket shelves are filling up with boxes of matzah. Some of us are working out how many people we can have at our Seders; others are deciding where to spend Seder night. There is a special kind of Jewish electricity around at this time of year. Pesach chimes with the natural world; the daffodils are out, the evenings are getting lighter, there is a feeling of freedom in the air. Reflecting this sense of anticipation, in the Jewish and natural world, the first Shabbat of Nissan, the month of Pesach, is marked by Shabbat HaChodesh, in which we have a special Torah reading about the Exodus, to announce the festival.
Pesach is one of the most accessible Jewish holidays – together with Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Chanukah; it is probably one of the most celebrated in the annual cycle. The message is eternally relevant – freedom from slavery, oppression and liberation. But this year, the regular Torah reading for Shabbat HaChodesh is Vayikra (Leviticus), which is not always an easy Book to access, at least for contemporary Jews. It is a long litany of priestly duties, going into great, often gruesome, detail about animal sacrifices. If one were intending to resume animal sacrifice to atone for our sins at some point it would be a great guidebook. But assuming none of us want to do that, why are we still reading it? And what is its connection with this season of our liberation?
The Hebrew word for offering, or animal sacrifice, is korban, from the root, karav, meaning to come near or to approach. Something very specific is going on in the act of offering sacrifices to God. The burnt offerings are an attempt to come close to God, to form a relationship. The word “sacrifice” is derived from the Latin sacrificium, meaning to perform sacred rites. It loses something in translation from the Hebrew. The point of this whole litany of slaughtering bulls and scattering of blood, is to come close to the unknowable Divine Other, the empty space at the heart of the sanctuary.
In the ancient world, animal slaughter and burning was common spiritual currency – in the same way as most world religions now pray in some form or another, in the Ancient Near East they mostly slaughtered animals. The point is not the method it’s the intention. Skip a few thousand years and the methods, thank goodness, have changed; but the intention really hasn’t.
I think those of us who engage in any kind of religious activity are all spiritual seekers in some form. We are all searching for something we cannot name, and do not entirely understand, but we want to get close.
The exchange of goods is used to seal relationships in many cultures, including our own; we exchange presents on birthdays, buy each other rounds of drinks, invite people back to dinner after they have invited us. It makes sense that some kind of offering might feel like building a relationship with God. Oxen were extremely valuable in the ancient world; I’m not sure words of prayer really represent that same sense of value – but I think the offering of time might.
The time involved in making space in one’s life for some kind of spiritual practice might be the first step in getting close to whatever it is that is commonly called God.
The opening words of the parashah and the Book, vayikra, are God’s call to Moses. God speaks to Moses from the Tent of Meeting, giving him instructions for the Israelites to carry out. Rashi points out that this means God must have spoken to Moses without anyone else being able to hear. The sound was so quiet it could not be heard outside the Tent. Rashi cites Numbers 7:89 where it says, God spoke to Moses, “from between the two cherubim”, meaning that the volume was even more limited. It really was a very still, small voice. It’s a long way from the thunder and lightning of Revelation at Sinai. It’s the kind of voice you have to stay very still to hear. The kind of voice you might hear on your own, even if you are in a tight spot – especially if you are in a tight spot.
The story of Pesach tells of two kinds of liberation – physical and spiritual – and the two are interwoven throughout the Haggadah. We have the story of Moses freeing the slaves, which in a society where slavery is alive and well and being practised in the UK, is as important to re-tell now as ever. But we also know that when whole societies achieve liberation, if they don’t think through what they are doing they can become trapped again by new leaders, speaking revolutionary rhetoric but practising old oppression.
So we tell a larger, older story, beginning with our ancestors, beginning with Abraham’s pagan parents, and ending not at the Sea of Reeds, but at Sinai, with a commitment to new obligations and a new way of life, and ultimately to a messianic age, where Torah will be embedded in our hearts and everyone will have peace, freedom and justice.
If we want to take the first steps towards this larger spiritual liberation then we need to come close to whatever sense of Divine Other we have, we need to build relationships with each other and with our inner selves, and stay still in our Tents of Meeting. Vayikra includes a whole section on Zevach Shelamim, which can be translated as a peace-offering sacrifice or sacrifice of well-being. The root shalem, can mean peace, shalom, but can also mean wholeness, completeness, perfection. If we want to recreate the Passover story, it is important that we do the inner work as well as the outer work, and find a way to make ourselves whole, in an increasingly fractured world.
Although our parashah, Vayikra, deals with burnt offerings, the Book that it lends its name to also includes Parashat Kedoshim, which contains some of the most basic tenets of Judaism, including the injunction to love your neighbour as yourself. There is something about offering of yourself, coming closer to a sense of the spirit, to a sense of God, that can lead to a better, more holistic way of living, and a kinder, more just society. That’s the ultimate aim of the Passover story that we are getting ready to re-enact; and that, I think, is the ultimate message of Vayikra.
Student Rabbi Naomi Goldman
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.