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.