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Parashat Vayikra 5777 — 04/01/2017

Parashat Vayikra 5777 — 04/01/2017

L’ilui nishmot Paul Handelman and Sean Ferguson

Vayikra 1:1-5:26

Leviticus, as its Latin name implies, deals with the realm of the Kohanim and Levi’im (the Kohanim were themselves of course of the tribe of Levi) – that is, the Temple service and the offerings. In Rabbinic parlance the book is referred to as Torat Kohanim, the laws / teachings regarding the Kohanim. The Ramchal’s explanations again take us into an examination of the relationship between chesed and din, between kedusha and tum’ah. The purpose of the offerings is to create a balance between chesed and din, with chesed predominating, in order that kedusha should be established and tum’ah be removed.

For example, the Olah offering (which is completely burned on the Altar) atones for improper thoughts:

Our Sages derive from the juxtaposition between the requirement for semichah (leaning on the animals head with all one’s weight while confessing one’s sin) and the slaughtering, the principle of immediately following leaning there is slaughtering (Zevachim 33a).

On a deeper level, given that the intent of this offering is to rectify a spiritual imperfection, there is the concern that the tumah will attempt to thwart this rectification. The halachic mandate to slaughter the animal immediately following the semichah serves to prevent any tumah from standing in the way of rectification and atonement. Any delay between these two stages would make this rectification vulnerable to the influence of tumah.

It’s almost as if tum’ah is a very refined oil and unless there is no gap between the two procedures, it will seep in and spoil the entire procedure. Perhaps this is better understood by considering that tum’ah is a kind of spiritual dis-coordination that affects our ability to connect with Gd. If this is the case, then by coordinating closely the semichah and the slaughter we disallow this dis-coordination to disrupt the smooth flow of the offering, our intention and focus remains on the offering and what it is supposed to accomplish – we run a tight ship, with no flapping ends.

There is another situation where we need to have this kind of tight coordination, and that is during the Shacharit (morning) prayer service. There is a requirement to “link the geulah with the tefillah.” The geulah (prayer for redemption) is the last blessing before we begin the Amidah prayer (Blessed are You Hashem, Redeemer of Israel). The tefillah (“prayer” par excellence) is the Amidah. In practice, this means that the congregation says Blessed are You Hashem, Redeemer of Israel along with the prayer leader, does not interrupt with “Amen,” and immediately begins the Amidah.  Now this is not that hard to do actually. You just have to keep your mind on what you’re doing and it goes very simply and naturally.  Joining semichah (which was done in the Israelites’ part of the Temple courtyard) to the slaughter (which was done closer to the altar, in the northern part of the Kohanim’s part of the Temple courtyard) would have been somewhat more difficult.

Nevertheless, the Talmud in tractate Berachot (9b) reports that “Rav Bruna once said ‘Geulah’ [Ga’al Yisrael] right before ‘Tefillah’ and smiled the entire day.” Now why would something simple enough that I can do it give such joy to one of our great Talmudic Sages? I actually asked that question of the Rabbi at the synagogue I was attending in Winnipeg and he immediately pointed out to me that the 14th century commentary of Rabbeinu Nissim deals with this very question. The geulah, Rabbeinu Nissim says, refers to complete surrender to and clinging to Gd. In fact, this kind of a relationship with Gd is the essence of Redemption, for it brings us back to the Source whence we (that is, our souls) came. The tefillah, on the other hand, represents our requests, the expression of our individual needs and desires. Joining the geulah to the tefillah then, means linking our individuality to Gd’s Universality – taking our individual, particular desires and projecting them from the source of all manifestation in creation. If we can learn to project our thoughts from this level, they will be powerful indeed, as they will be not only our will, but Gd’s Will as well, as we read in Pirke Avot (II:4) Make that His will should be your will, so that He should make your will to be as His will.

In the case of an offering, the slaughter is analogous to the geulah in the sense that both are expressions of self-abnegation (bitul ha-yesh) – the complete surrendering of individuality to universality. In the case of geulah this is a mental thing only, but in the case of an offering, the animal actually surrenders its life to the altar. When we make an offering we are supposed to have in mind that we are really offering ourself on the altar, but Gd graciously allows us to offer an animal in our stead. The semichah, with its associated confession, corresponds to the tefillah – it is the impulses of our will that we connect to the self-abnegation that allows us to associate our will with the Divine Will.

In either case, if there is a gap between the surrender of the individual to the universal, apparently tum’ah can creep into that gap. Now, as we discussed a few weeks ago, it is theoretically impossible to be completely precise in the physical world. It is physically impossible for me to have absolutely no gap between the last word of the ge’ulah (“…ga’al Yisrael“) and the first word of the tefillah, and we discussed above that there is necessarily a gap between the semichah and slaughter as well. Thus it seems that there is no way to seal off the tum’ah completely. Why is that?

Perhaps the answer is that in order for an individual to be able to experience universality, there has to be some individuality left to be the experiencer. We experience through the medium of the human nervous system; if we are completely subsumed into the transcendent, body and soul, then the transcendent will be all that there is. What fun is there in that? As Gd tells Moshe Rabbeinu: A person cannot see My Face and live (Ex 33:20). “Seeing Gd’s Face” means being totally consumed by the Transcendent, and while the Transcendent, which is eternal, may be real “life,” it certainly is not life as we experience it. We can minimize the gap, but never erase it entirely. Literally, we have to live with the gap and its tum’ah, in order fully to appreciate the ultimate reality.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parshat Vayikra

Although in the last parshah, Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting “because a cloud rested on it and the Glory of Gd filled the Mishkan”, in this parshah Gd prepares the Children of Israel to enter the Tent of Meeting by describing to them how the offerings shall be prepared and offered. The Hebrew word for “offerings” is “korbanot”, which means “draw near” — the purpose of offerings is to draw near Gd.

Although in this parshah, the korbanot are physical — animals and meal — in our time we offer prayer, recitation of passages from Torah, Talmud and Mishnah, instead. As part of the Morning Service, we recite passages from Torah, Talmud and Mishnah that describe the commandments regarding the five offerings: burnt/elevation, grain, peace, sin and trespass offerings.

The physical korbanot, taking the burnt offering as illustrative, were to be unblemished, offered willingly. The same is true of the prayers we say during Arising, Morning, Mid-day, Evening and Bedtime: the same is true of every aspect of our life: we draw near to Gd when we willingly live with the purpose of connecting to Gd, doing our best to make our behavior, our thoughts, our feeling unblemished.

In addition to these prayers/passages, our Morning Service contains many prayers that are not generally what we often think of as prayer:  requests that Gd does something for us. Rather, they are blessings, statements of the Blessed Nature of Gd. We draw near to Gd by reminding ourselves of Gd’s Nature and thus drawing near to Gd.

One sign of our drawing near to Gd is the increase of Joy in our life — happiness that is independent of any gain, that remains steady and growing even during what seems to be loss.

Put it another way, one sign of our drawing near to Gd is the growth of Love in our life — Love that flows through us, around us to all, Love that enables us to directly experience our neighbor as our Self.

We are making progress! Faces of our congregation and our community shine with Joy and Love.

Thank you, Gd!

Baruch HaShem