Vayikra – Setting the Scene

Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1−5:26

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg

As we begin Vayikra, The Book of Leviticus, we say goodbye to the Biblical stories that we may be more familiar with. The foundational narratives of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, and Joseph and his siblings have passed. In Vayikra, the Israelites are well on their way to the Promised Land. The focus of this book is laws. Yes, it has stories too, but the spotlight is on healthy practices and detailed descriptions of sacrificial offerings. The Hebrew word for sacrificial offering is "korban," which means, "to draw close." This is ironic, since today we may be put off by the sometimes-gruesome descriptions of the ritual preparation of animals. However, we can learn from the ancient practices of the near east about being strategic and purposeful with setting the stage for meaningful ritual.

Our tendencies might be to brush off these sections of Torah. After all, we haven't made sacrificial offerings for more than 2,000 years. However, as a rabbi, my advice is to do the opposite and turn our attention to these Biblical words, though they may appear irrelevant at first glance. Yes, we can find meaning from these detailed descriptions, even when they include grotesque slaughtering, slicing, and scorching. All our senses are engaged. For example, Leviticus 2:14-16 describes:

"You shall bring new ears [of grain] parched with fire, grits of the fresh grain, as your meal offering of first fruits. You shall add oil on it and lay frankincense on it; it is a meal offering. And the priest shall turn a token portion of it into smoke."

Let us imagine ourselves as ancient Israelites witnessing the Mishkan MishkanThe portable tabernacle.  (tabernacle), the religious shelter where the ancient priests made regular korbanot(sacrifices). As we approached, we would have been presented with a medley of experiences for our senses. Obviously, there would have been unique sights to see; perhaps most noteworthy would have been the smoke representing mysteries rising to the heavens. The sounds of the crying animals would have been off putting, but also perhaps grounding as matters of life and death were placed front and center. The smell would have resembled a campfire, something which may call to mind both meaningful and scary memories for many of us. Touch was mainly experienced by the priests. They were empowered to ritualize these gifts and create a sacred space.

Our modern practices are very different, but our intent of "drawing near" parallels that of the ancient near east: becoming closer to God and one another. Our faith journeys are also enriched by our sensory experience. Clergy and lay leaders alike are regularly called to be meticulous about creating a sacred space. In fact, all of us can consider ourselves priests as we facilitate rituals in our own homes. When the COVID pandemic was at its peak, I would regularly ask virtual worshipers to make sure that their space was free from distractions. This could mean tidying it up or finding a relatively quiet space. Similarly, on the bima bimahבִּימָהThe platform in the synagogue from which which worship services are led and from which the Torah is read. The bimah, usually raised, can be placed in the front or the middle of the sanctuary. , we place great care in making sure that the image is one of rich symbols, formal dress, and coordinating colors.

As a Movement, we pride ourselves on the music we offer. There are more subtle sounds too, like the sparking of a match to light the Shabbat candles. Granted, less emphasis is placed on smell in today's services, but nothing beats the aroma of fresh baked challah on Friday afternoon. On Havdalah havdalahהַבְדָּלָהLiterally, “separation." The Saturday night home ritual that separates the Sabbath from the beginning of the new week. The ritual uses wine, spices, and candles to transition from Sabbath to the weekdays. , spices are used to ensure that we keep a bit of Shabbat with us in the coming days.

Touch is an interesting sense to reflect upon. While we've depended on holding our siddurim in our hands for generations, today we often depend on virtual t'filah t'filahתִּפְלָה"Prayer." . This shift leaves our hands free to clap, hold hands, and even embrace.

Formal prayer is no longer an everyday experience for some of us. To lift our spirits and find comfort, we are called to rely on creating a setting that speaks to each of our senses. In other words, we need to set the stage. This responsibility falls on all of us. When meaningfully assembled, we can draw near to God and each other, making offerings of ourselves. When delving into the stories of Leviticus, rather than creating distance, let's try to close the gap and do the best we can to follow the Israelites as we make a sacred space.

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