A House of Prayer for All Peoples

Vayikra | Pesah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Apr 1, 2006 / 5766

Creative tension is ever present in the poles found within Judaism. We are drawn to the balance between keva and kavannah, that which is fixed and that which is spontaneous; Hassidim fervently debate the Mitnagdim over the line between spirituality and intellectualism; and we are constantly in search of the golden mean between halakhah (law) and aggadah (lore). Another pair of opposites embedded within Judaism is the constant tension between particularity and universality. To what extent should a Jew be zealous in the particular observance of Jewish identity? Or is Torah better understood as a Jewish lens into universal experience? Interestingly enough, the opening of Parashat Vayikra alludes to this mindful balancing act between universality and particularity.

The second verse of the opening chapter of Leviticus states, “Speak to the Children of Israel (benai Yisrael) and say to them, when a human (adam) from you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord …” (Leviticus 1:2). Though the laws relating to the sacrificial observances are clearly addressed to the Israelite community, the transition between the particular Children of Israel and the universal human is notable. Rabbi Elie Munk writes, “We are taught that the Temple remains open to all, whatever their religion. Everyone can bring an offering there (Hullin 13b). The Temple has a cosmopolitan character, and so the first words of instruction concerning the sacrificial services remind us of this with the word adam. This idea is expanded upon in Isaiah 6:7 where Hashem proclaims, ‘I will bring them to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their elevation offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable upon My altar, for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Munk,The Call of the Torah, 4). While the propensity, and often the ideal, in the observant world is to progressively divorce oneself from the “outside world,” Torah, according to Rabbi Elie Munk, comes to teach us otherwise. One’s temple should and must be open to others. Only in such a place may God’s presence truly dwell.

This topic becomes all the more pressing in the weeks leading up to Passover. Pesah is the quintessential festival of particularity. We celebrate the birth of the Israelites as a nation freed from the oppression of Egypt. Given the Torah’s sacred mantra in the aftermath of the Exodus, however, it would appear that the true message of Pesah is more universal and global in scope. For Torah cautions numerous times, “remember that you were a slave in Egypt,” for the Israelites indeed know well the soul of one who is oppressed. Torah mandates that a lesson be learned: the stranger in one’s midst is to be respected, not exploited. Care and respect must not only be given to the particular Israelite, but it must become a universal value.

May our particularity always be a path toward respecting both ourselves and “the other” in our midst.

The publication and distribution of “A Taste of Torah” commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.