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Biblical Sacrifices and Choosing a President

  • Biblical Sacrifices and Choosing a President

    Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1−5:26
D'var Torah By: 

The season of electioneering is upon us. Following the four-year cycle, as in the past, citizens of our nation currently face the awesome responsibility of choosing our next president. In the coming months, we will be courted and regaled with tales and testimonials about the various candidates' best and worst traits comprising character, accomplishments, and the promise of capability. At the end of the information fest, we will be called upon to assess what we have heard and measure each contender according to criteria of our own making.

You may well ask, what does this have to do with Parashat Vayikra ? The Book of Leviticus, the first five chapters of which compose our parashah, is also called in Jewish tradition Torat Kohanim, "the Torah of the Priests."In chapter 19, you can find a model of ethical laws designed to transform the Israelites into a holy people, and chapters 17-26 include passages that are part of the larger Holiness Code. But the major topic of the Book of Leviticus, and of our parashah as well, is sacrifices and cult. The sacrifices are set before us in a highly organized and ordered manner. You can find excellent introductions to the entire Book of Leviticus, the biblical concept of sacrifice, and our parashah in The Torah: A Modern Commentary (ed. W. Gunther Plaut, rev. ed. [New York: URJ Press, 2005], pp. 643-659) and in The Jewish Study Bible (ed. Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Michael Fishbane [London: Oxford University Press, 2004]). Scholars have described the content of Parashat Vayikra in different ways, but the labels "gift offerings"for Leviticus 1:1-3:17 and "expiatory sacrifices"for Leviticus 4-5, are sufficient to categorize the numerous sacrifices to be detailed in this material.

Although the Jerusalem Temple, the priestly cult, and the sacrifices ceased to function in the years after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in 70 c.e., the ancient Rabbis placed the study of the institution and practices—including sacrifices—at the center of the study of Judaism. Talmudic and midrashic literature is filled with halachic discussions of sacrifice. Yet when the Rabbis turned to the Book of Leviticus as a source for preaching, they concentrated not on the details of offerings but on questions and themes of a broader Jewish and human significance.

The midrash Vayikra Rabbah is a collection of homilies (sermons) on the first few words of the Torah portions from the Book of Leviticus. It is organized according to the ancient Palestinian triennial cycle of Torah readings (in contrast to the annual cycle, which has its origins in Babylonia). The first sermon in Vayikra Rabbah (translations below by R. Lewis Barth) focuses simply on the opening sentence of Leviticus: "The Eternal One called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying:"(Leviticus 1:1). How does one build a sermon from that verse—and how is that connected to our present presidential campaign? Underlying the many interpretations contained in this homily is a simple question: If God called Moses and spoke to him, what were the unique qualities and personality traits God found in Moses that would make Moses worthy of such an honor and such a responsibility? From this homily, three qualities and personality traits are especially appropriate to our inquiry.

Moses's Capacity to Hear the Word of God
The sermon opens by quoting Psalm 103:20 and ultimately applying this verse to the Israelites and Moses: "Bless the Eternal, O God's angels, mighty creatures who do God's bidding, ever obedient to God's bidding." Vayikra Rabbah 1:1 looks very closely and perhaps overliterally at the Hebrew for the last phrase, "ever obedient to God's bidding," L'shmoa b'kol d'varo and understands it as "to listen to the sound of God's word."Then, it explains as follows:

Rabbi Tanchum bar Chanilai said: In normal human experience a burden that is too heavy for a single person is easier for two, [a burden that is too heavy] for two [is easier] for four. Is it conceivable that a burden that is too difficult for 600,000 to bear could be easier for a single person? All Israel was standing in front of Mount Sinai and saying, "If we hear the voice of the Eternal our God any longer, we shall die"(Deuteronomy 5:23). But Moses heard the sound of the voice [of God] itself and lived! Know then that this is so: that from all of them the divine word only called to Moses. Therefore it is said, "The Eternal One called [only] to Moses"(Leviticus 1:1).

The Tanach is filled with terrifying images of the power of the sound of God's voice—it causes the mountains to tremble and breaks the cedars of Lebanon. Though the Israelites heard the word of God directly at Sinai, they couldn't continue to bear it and feared they would die if God kept on speaking to them. Unlike the rest of the people, Moses had the capacity to hear God's voice and live.

Moses's Trait of Humility
Later, in Vayikra Rabbah 1:5, 1:7, the homily continues by quoting Proverbs 25:7: "For it is better to be told, 'Step up here,' than to be degraded in the presence of the great."In its biblical context, this verse is both practical advice not to be pushy in the presence of powerful people and a suggestion to have the humility to wait your turn to be called to leadership. Here is how this is applied to Moses:

Rabbi Akiva teaches this in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai: Distance yourself (by moving down) two or three places and sit down. Move down so that people say to you, "Move up,"and don't say to you, "Move down."It is better that people say to you, "Go up, go up,"and not say to you, "Do down, go down". . . . When the Holy One blessed be God was revealed to Moses from the midst of (the Burning) Bush, it is said, "Moses hid his face . . ."(Exodus 3:6). Because of this, the Holy One blessed be God said to him, "Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt"(Exodus 3:10).

The passage suggests that leadership should come from the recognition by others of one's qualities, not from the lust for power and position—and that demands a genuine inner sense of humility.

Moses's Clarity of Vision
The homily concludes in Vayikra Rabbah 1:14 with a remarkable comparison of the difference between Moses's clarity of vision and that of other prophets. Recognizing that in the TanachMoses is not the only recipient of God's word, it asks this question:

What is the difference between Moses and all the prophets? Rabbi Y'hudah in the name of Rabbi Il'ai and the Rabbis (differed). Rabbi Y'hudah said: All the prophets saw through nine lenses . . . but Moses saw through one lens. . . . The Rabbis said: All the other prophets saw through a dirty lens, . . . but Moses saw through a polished lens. . . .

The midrash uses a metaphor drawn from optometry, playing on the fact that during the Rabbinic period, and even earlier, the Land of Israel was known for the production of glass and early forms of lenses. The midrash sets up an argument designed to give us an image of how the visions of Moses were clearer than other prophets' visions.

These three capacities or traits ascribed to Moses force us to ask ourselves again and again: What are the capacities and traits we would like to see in our leaders and particularly in the person who will become the president of the United States? Most of us might share a doubt that God speaks to presidents, but all of us are aware of the powerful, even terrible pressures brought upon the holder of that office. Who has the capacity to experience such pressure and live through it? Who has the qualities of humility and self-reflection to hold their ego under control and not succumb to the grandiosity and megalomania that are the daily seduction of such positions? And finally, who has the clarity of vision that will inform the decisions so desperately needed to help shape a better future for us and, in so many ways, for all humanity? From the perspective of the first homily in Vayikra Rabbah, these and similar questions are what the Book of Leviticus and our parashah challenge us to think about.

Rabbi Lewis M. Barth is professor emeritus of midrash and related literature, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles, California.

Come On In
Davar Acher By: 
Josée Wolff

Rabbi Barth's commentary discusses the opening line of the Book of Leviticus, Vayikra el Moshe vay'dabeir Adonai eilav mei-ohel mo-eid leimor, "The Eternal One called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying . . ."(Leviticus 1:1).

As many commentators point out, this is an unusual choice of words that occurs one other time in relation to Moses, when God "calls"to him to enter into the cloud on Mount Sinai. The more common formulation would be Vay'dabeir Adonai el Moshe leimor . . ., "And the Eternal spoke to Moses, saying. . . ."Why does God have to call Moses? Hasn't he been right there all along? At the end of the Book of Exodus when Moses has finished the work on the Mishkan, the Torah states: "Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle"(Exodus 40:35). However, is that the only reason that Moses is outside? One might argue that Moses is almost too modest here: didn't he learn from his experience at Sinai that he of all people could enter into God's presence?

The Hebrew word kara comes from the same root as the word, vayika. In his Concordance,Avraham Even Shoshan gives the following translation for the phrase kara el : "'he invited' or 'he said to such-and-such to come to him'"(Jerusalem: Kiryat Sefer, 1988, p. 1,026). In other words, God specifically invites Moses once again to come closer. According to Rashi, the phrase reflects a sense of intimacy between Moses and God. He quotes Isaiah 6:3, which discusses angels, saying how "one would call to the other," v'kara zeh el zeh . Just as the angels address each other as peers, so does God address Moses.

As Midrash HaGadol reminds us, there is a danger in becoming too familiar, as familiarity breeds contempt. Moses knew this, and thus he would not take his relationship with the Eternal for granted at any time. He waited to be called in and thus demonstrated his true humility.

Cantor Josée Wolff is the spiritual leader of Temple Sholom, Floral Park, Queens, NY. 

Reference Materials: 

Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1–5:26 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 757–778; Revised Edition, pp. 658–681; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 569–592