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Parashat Vayikra 5772 – 03/21/2012

Parashat Vayikra

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Vayikra el Moshe / And He called to Moshe (1:1)

Adam ki yakriv mikem / When an adam offers from among you (1:2)

Nefesh ki takriv / And a soul that will offer (2:1)

Last week we discussed Moshe Rabbeinu’s humility, and indicated that it was his very closeness to Gd that was both the cause of that humility and the result of his humility.  When we are in proximity to greatness we naturally evaluate our status in terms of that greatness.  When we become aware of Gd’s infinite greatness, we naturally evaluate our own finite nature as completely insignificant.  This is the ultimate humility. 

On the other side, if we are full of ourselves, it is impossible to draw close to anyone else, and certainly impossible to draw close to Gd.  An infant is full of itself; its bodily sensations are just about all it knows.  It demands to be fed and cleaned and cared for.  As the saying goes, “If babies weren’t cute, the species would never survive.”  As we mature our perspective expands and we learn to take into account the feelings of others; we become less full of ourselves; we make room for others.  Full maturity is making room for Gd.  The Kotzker Rebbe asked “Where is Gd?”  His Chassidim answered, “Gd is everywhere.”  The Kotzker replied, “No, Gd is where we allow Him to be.”

As Sefer Shemot ended, the Mishkan is set up and ready to open for business.  What is the business of the Mishkan?  It is the offerings that take up most of the first two parshiyot in Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus, so called because the services of the offerings, are performed by the Kohanim and Levi’im – all of the tribe of Levi).  While the commentators differ as to the purpose of the offerings, all agree that the root of the word korban (translated variously as sacrifice or offering) is karov, or “to come close.”  The purpose of the offerings is to bring the individual and the community closer to Gd.  Some korbanot are voluntary, and bring us from whatever plane we are on to a higher plane.  Others are obligatory, and repair damage that we may have caused to our relationship with Gd.

Now, as we have seen, in order to come close to Gd, one must humble oneself.  Arrogance is the one character trait that Gd detests, as it were; our Sages have Gd saying “There is no room in the world for both the arrogant man and Me.”  The first few verses indicate this prerequisite.  In previous years we have mentioned the unusual orthography of the first word in the Book – vayikra.  The aleph at the end of the word is written smaller than the other letters as I have tried to indicate with the English transliteration.  The Sages of the Midrash explain that in place of vayikra, “He called,” which indicates a loving desire on Gd’s part to be in contact with his creatures, Moshe Rabbeinu want to write vayikar, “He happened upon,” which indicates an almost random occurrence.  When Gd insisted on vayikra, Moshe, in his humility, wrote the aleph small “in protest.”  Vayikar has a secondary meaning of “to become ritually impure from a seminal emission.”  If one humbly listens to Gd’s call and is prepared to do whatever Gd asks of us, well and good.  If we allow our ego to stand in the way, to mangle Gd’s meaning into something we find more appetizing, then it is as if Torah is telling us that we have allowed impurity to enter our life, instead of Gd’s life-giving radiance.

In the very next verse Torah tells us that the offering must come mikem – from you.  When discussing the minchah (flour) offering it describes the offering as coming from our very soul – this is especially appropriate for the minchah because it is a very inexpensive offering, brought by a person too poor to afford even a small bird – this offering of a few pounds of flour is truly like offering up his soul to Gd.  And this, in fact, is ultimately the purpose of the offering.  It must come from us, that is, from the deepest level of our being.  We are enjoined to see ourselves as lifted up on the Altar and offered in our entirety to Gd. 

Now of course on the physical level Gd does not desire our death (as He made clear to Avraham at the Akeidah).  What  Gd wants is our life, a life to be completely devoted to Him.  In Chassidic thought this state is called bitul ha-yesh, nullification of the individual being.  When Gd created, He created yesh mi-ayin, “something” from “nothing,” although ayin, “nothing,” also corresponds to the infinite, which is no-[specific]-thing.  That is, Gd contracted the infinite into finite beings.  The highest of these finite beings, at least potentially, are human beings, who are able to reverse the process, so to speak, by nullifying their yesh, that is, transcending their individual existence and re-merging with the infinite ayin, while maintaining their yesh as well. 

When the Temple stood, we accomplished this process through offerings.  Now that the Temple has been gone for 2000 years, what are we to do?  In a famous verse the prophet Hoshea tells us Let our lips substitute for [sacrificial] bulls.  This means that prayer has been given us as the way to recognize our own smallness and develop humility, and thereby raise ourselves up closer to Gd.  How does this work?  I can only give some of my own experiences, limited though they may be.  The three main parts of prayer are (a) praising Gd and recounting His greatness, (b) asking Gd to supply our needs and (c) thanking Gd for all the goodness He has bestowed on us.  This structure is followed in the Amidah and it is followed in the structure of the prayer service as a whole.  Part (a) puts us in a frame of mind where we are focused on Gd as the infinite source of all existence, including our own life.  There is nothing but Gd, and He, in His goodness, allows us  to recognize this fact.  Part (b) underscores to us that every aspect of our life – our health, our livelihood, our ability to think and act – are totally dependent on Gd.  Without Gd’s constant input, creation would dissolve back into nothingness and we would be lost.  Finally, in part (c) we express our love and devotion to Gd; we recognize that He has sustained us, stood us on our feet, opened out mouths and given us the ability to relate to Him.  In all these aspects it is continually impressed upon us that Gd is infinite and in charge of every aspect of cosmic life, and we are finite and in charge only of our attitude towards Gd.

A wise man said “That which we put our attention on grows stronger in our life.”  The service of the offerings in the Temple, our prayer services which have replaced them, our Torah study, and all the other activities of a Jewish life all have the purpose of keeping our attention on Gd, the infinite source of our being and of all being.  If we live mindfully, Jewishly, we can approach the ideal of bitul ha-yesh, subsuming our individual life in Gd’s infinite Life the way the light of a candle is subsumed in the radiance of the noonday sun.