This week, our Torah portion contains the opening chapters of the book of Vayikra / Leviticus. In Leviticus, we will generally be taking a hiatus from the engaging narratives of Genesis / Breishit and Exodus / Sh'mot . . . and we will take up the narrative again in a few months when we embark on the book of Numbers / Bamidbar.
In the meantime, we will immerse ourselves in a book of the Torah that is refered to in our traditional sources as "Torat Kohanim" . . . basically an instruction manual for Aaron and his descendants, the Israelite priests / kohanim. What kind of sacrifices need to be brought to the Mishkan / the Tabernacle? Who shall bring those sacrifices? When?
The Kohanim function with the absolute authority of God behind them and their role in the community is established by birth: Aaron, his sons, their sons for all generations constitute the priests, the kohanim of Israel.
Rabbi Stephen Parness
Rabbi Marc Bloom
The Torah sets out parameters for priestly behavior and dress. Unique garments were created embodying the sanctity of their tasks.
The artist's rendering above is based on the descriptions in the Torah of the garments and accessories worn by Aaron and the High Priests who followed him.
Today's rabbis look a lot different ... and the roots of our office are also very different.
Rabbi David Rosen
Rabbis, as you see from my photograph above and the photographs of my three immediate predecessors at Torat Yisrael, come in all shapes and genders. We have no garments which embody the sanctity of the tasks we perform. We wear kippot and tallitot as do the members of our congregations because our role is not established by birth, we are not the descendents of anyone chosen by God.
In fact, the roots of the rabbinate can be found in something of a populist revolution beginning in the last century or so before the Common Era. Through the establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem, the priestly caste had evolved into a sort of Israelite aristocracy . . . a closed circle with an essential power base, the Temple and its sacrificial cult. To be a priest, a kohein, your father had to be be a kohein. That was the only way in.
In houses of study around the Land of Israel, scholars were gathering to study the Torah and ask existential questions about the nature of Jewish practice in an economy and a cultural setting that was fundamentally different than life in the wilderness during forty years of wandering. These sages began to ask a question that we are still striving to answer today? "What is our 'best practice' as Jews in this time and this place?"
Unlike the kohanim, the only thing you needed to become a rabbi, one of these sages, was a good head on your shoulders, the willingness to study Torah with an open mind and a profound commitment to the survival of the brit, the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
These are the roots of the rabbinate which I share with Rabbi Parness, Rabbi Bloom and Rabbi Rosen . . . it has nothing to do with who our fathers were, it has nothing to do with being invested with esoteric divine powers like a priest . . . or a pope . . . it is about dedicating our lives to keep alive the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people. And that, my friends, is a privilege.
Our congregation's move to East Greenwich engages us in the life of the greater East Greenwich community more fully than in previous years, when we were still rooted in Cranston. The faith community here in East Greenwich is a mutually respectful and supportive coalition of houses of worship in town. We saw this ourselves when the clergy of several East Greenwich churches wrote letters on our behalf to the East Greenwich Zoning Board and came to testify at a number of Zoning Board meetings as well. My clergy colleagues in these churches have told me that together their congregations sustain and maintain an Interfaith Food Cupboard housed at St. Luke's Episcopal Church on Peirce Street. This is a model of community cooperation with which we are familiar through our participation in and support of the Edgewood Food Pantry housed at the Church of the Transfiguration on Broad Street in Cranston. East Greenwich enjoys a reputation as a beautiful town with affluent residents and a superb public school system. This is a hard-earned and well-deserved reputation. There is another side to East Greenwich from which many of us are sheltered: there are hungry adults and children in town who the professionals call "food insecure." That means they do not always know if there will be a next meal, let alone where it is coming from. Chris and Steve Bartlett, who run the EG Interfaith Food Cupboard at St Luke's have reported that in July alone 256 individuals received food from the Cupboard, and this includes 21 new families who had never turned to the EG facility for this support in the past. This coming Shabbat is referred to in our calendar as Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. The consolation is God's response to us on the loss of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 AD at the hands of the Roman Empire. The loss posed a fundamental theological challenge to Judaism, as it was through the korbanot, the sacrifices at the Temple that Israel drew closer to God and atoned for their transgressions. In an early rabbinic gloss on the Mishnah (Avot d'Rabi Natan 4:5) Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai consoles a colleague who is mourning the loss of the Temple. Rabbi Yohanan says: Be not grieved, my son. There is another equally meritorious way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain atonement through deeds of lovingkindness. For it is written (Hosea 6:6): "Lovingkindess I desire, not sacrifice."
Our consolation, at this distance of two thousand years, should also be expressed through acts of lovingkindness. I hope you will all take a moment during the summer weeks that remain to drop off non-perishable food at our TY house for all three of our food-support projects: the Edgewood Food Closet, the Chester Kosher Food Pantry, and our East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard. You can designate where you want the food to go, or you can leave it to Beverly Goncalves, our Social Action Chair, to divide up the food and pass it on to those who deliver it.Here is some basic information about the EG project:
East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard
The Interfaith Food Cupboard, located in St Luke’s Parish house on Peirce Street, is open from 10:30 AM -12:00 noon
each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
The service is available to any East Greenwich resident, member of an East Greenwich congregation, referral from a clergy or someone in need of emergency food.
We are currently asking for donations of the following food products: canned ham, chicken or fish, cereal, oatmeal
, canned fruit, soups, pasta sauce, juice and juice boxes, jam/jelly and crackers.
Other products that we always need include staples like cooking oil, mayonnaise, salad dressing, mustard, sugar, flour, coffee, tea, etc.
If you would like to make a cash donation rather than food, your check can be sent to your clergy or directly to the EGIFC. We have a very dedicated volunteer staff and on their behalf, we thank you for your support of the East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard. Chris and Steve Bartlett
In this week's double parasha/Torah reading, we begin with the aftermath of a tragedy . . ."aharei-mot"; after the death of Aaron's sons . . .
The tragedy is recounted, not in the immediately preceding parasha, Metzora, nor in the parasha before that, Tazria, but in the third parsha preceding this week's reading, Shemini. It is there that we read a perplexing event: Aaron sacrificed the animals, then lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them. Then Aaron and Moses went inside the Tent of Appointed Meeting. When they came out again, they blessed the people, and the glory of God revealed itself to all the people. Fire went forth from before God and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted for joy, and fell on their faces.Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire into it and placed incense upon it. Then they brought before God strange fire that God had not enjoined upon them. Then fire went forth from before God and consumed them and they died before God.
Moses said to Aaron, “This is what God said, 'I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire peoples.'” Aaron was silent.
How can we possibly understand and integrate into our understanding of Judaism a God that kills two young men who display spontaneous love and devotion to God?
It is in this moment that we confront an essential difference between the Israelite religion described in the Torah and the rabbinic Judaism our people have practiced for 2000 years: The Israelite religion of the Torah was cult of sacrifice led by an oligarchy, a dynasty of priests. From Aaron to his sons, to their sons . . . . until the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, Israelite service to God was channeled through a series of sacrifices of various categories mediated by and facilitated by the kohanim, the dynastic priesthood. For all the information provided in the book of Vayikra/Leviticus about the conduct of the sacrificial system, there was esoteric knowledge that was shared only with successive generations of kohanim. This was a hierarchical system structured in a society that shared certain assumptions about the service of God and the relationship between the people, the priesthood and God.
Nadab and Abihu broke those esoteric rules and it may well be that the story of their death was meant to be a cautionary tale to subsequent generations of kohanim who might seek to create their own traditions beyond the bounds of priestly disciplines.
The rabbinic Judaism we practice today is the result of a revolution: the Judaism that has evolved and grown and reflected the real-life commitments and passions of Jews around the world for 2000 years was born of discussions by scholars in houses of study 2000 years ago. Around those tables were Jews of all backgrounds, rich and poor; Jews of all categories, kohanim, levi'im and plain Israelites; tradesmen and merchants and men (yes, men) of independent means. The only path to advancement was your learning, not who your father was, not how much money you had. The learning was guided by a number of principles: all opinons brought in humility and faith are equally important and worth preserving; we respect and name those who have contributed insight and learning to our tradition; learning is accessible to all who seek it.
In the world of rabbinic Judaism there is no punishment for spontaneity in devotion, there is no rejection of creativity and honest exploration of our tradition. It is the rise of rabbinic Judaism, born in the discussions of the Mishna, Tosefta, Midrash and Talmud that is responsible for the fact that Judaism is alive, well, thriving and evolving to this day. We look back at the tragedy of Nadab and Abihu with compassion and self-differentiation . . . their actions today would have brought them closer to a God who has grown with us instead of condemning them to death.
Parashat Vayikra Torah Reading: Leviticus 1:1-5:26
This Shabbat we begin to read the third book of the Torah, Vayikra / Leviticus. In traditional rabbinic sources, this book of Torah is also referred to as "Torat Cohanim" . . . "instruction for the Priests" . . . serving as a how-to manual for the conduct of the sacrificial cult established first with the completion of the Tabernacle/Mishkan in the wilderness and continued with the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
There is such a pronounced shift in the mood of this book compared to the narratives of Genesis and Exodus: instead of engaging stories of patriarchs, matriarchs and enslaved tribes we witness a detailed catalogue of categories of sacrifices, types of animals, types of grains, types of occasions, instruction in preparation and [literally] execution.
Truth to tell, these are difficult passages to relate to in 2011 for so many of us who even find modern liturgy a challenge to relate to.
In the face of all of this, the Israeli biblical commentator, Benjamin Lau, posits in his introduction to Vayikra / Leviticus that this book is all about showing us how to increase our intimacy with God. The first word in the book is the key to this "secret", Lau explains. The first word is: Vayikra spelled vav yod kof reish aleph . . . and if you look at the word in the Torah scroll you will see that the last letter of the first word, "aleph" is written smaller than the rest of the letters. This is meant to draw our attention to the difference between this same word without the "aleph", which would read: "vayikar" and the word with the aleph which, of course reads "Vayikra."
Without the aleph, Lau teaches, the word can be read as "randomness," "chaos," a state of being that lacks principles and values. With the aleph, however, we are invited to respond to God's call. The first time we see the word "vayikra" is in the Garden of Eden when God searches for the newly-embarrassed Adam and Eve . . . Vayikra . . . and God called out to the human and said 'where are you?' Here we are, many chapters and verses later, and God is calling out to us once again.
I hope that in our journey through the book of Vayikra/Leviticus this year, we will be able to respond to its message of responding to God's call. If we stay focused and resist that temptation to day dream as we read our way through sacrifices and grains and oil and transgressions and celebrations perhaps we'll find the gems that will bring us closer to God.
Shabbat Shemini Torah Reading: Exodus 9:1-11:47
In this week's Parashah/Torah portion, we have a front row seat to a long-awaited moment. For weeks of Torah reading, for months of real time, materials have been gathered, utensils have been crafted, vestments have been prepared, an altar has been constructed, purification rituals have been established and followed and now the first sacrifice is to be brought to the altar of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that travels through the wilderness with the wandering Israelite nation.
Early in the parashah we read: "This is what the Lord has commanded that you do, that the Presence of the Lord may appear to you." The "this" is the sacrifice. In Hebrew, the word for sacrifice is "korban," built on a three-letter Hebrew root ק ר ב which means "to draw near." The sacrifices, in their original conception, are meant to draw Israel and God nearer to each other.
From the distance of almost two millennia during which there has been no sacrificial cult in Judaism, we might wonder what we can do to draw God's presence into our lives. Was this awesome power lost when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70?
After the destruction of the Temple, Israelite sacrifice-centric religion was superceded by the rabbinic Judaism we know today: the Judaism of Torah study, acts of lovingkindess, worship, mitzvah/commandment and community. The dynamic of sacrifice in order to bring God closer still works, but the content of our sacrifice has changed.
Those of us who acknowledge even modest achievements in our lives know well that we attained those achievements through sacrifice. We studied instead of played and thereby earned our degrees or vocational certification; we put the needs and preferences of others before our own and are thereby blessed with the mutual support and regard of loving relationships; we set aside the pleasures of foreign travel or five star restaurants in order to invest in our children's education and well-being and thereby equip our children to be independent and productive adults themselves.
In Judaism, a myriad of blessings await us if we are ready to make modest sacrifices to bring God into our lives:
We forgo the delights of pork and shellfish and thereby elevate our table to a place where we see food as a blessing; we invest a signficant portion of our discretionary income to support our synagogue and thereby are nourished by the social, intellectual and spiritual gifts of Jewish community; we set aside a modest amount of time to study our tradition and thereby gain entry to an infinitely engaging and meaningful legacy of values, faith and insight.
Small, accessible sacrificial moments like these bring God's presence into our lives, just as our parashah promised.
All this should get us to a surprising place: the word "sacrifice" is now transformed for us. Instead of avoiding sacrifice as an unwanted burden, we should be on the lookout for opportunities to sacrifice . . . for the blessings that sacrifice can bring are infinitely nourishing and engaging.