Va-yikra’s Lessons for Conservative Jews

Vayikra By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Mar 16, 2002 / 5762 | Torah Commentary | Conservative Judaism

This week marks the beginning of the third book of the Torah, Vayikra, alternately referred to in Hebrew as Torat Kohanim, the ‘teaching of the priests’, and in Latin as Leviticus. Modern scholars and traditional commentators alike highlight the positioning of Vayikra , literally at the heart of the Five Book of Moses. Such placement of Vayikra speaks to the centrality of its teachings in the Israelite experience, especially as they pertained to the sacrificial cult practiced by the Israelites in the First and Second Temple periods. Yet, just as its context in the biblical period spoke to the heart of the Israelite, so too does this parashah speak to us in a profound way today, specifically to the heart of what it means to be a knowledgeable and observant Conservative Jew. Our parashah opens: “And he called to Moses and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them…” (Leviticus 1:1). These opening words shed light on six aspects of our relationship to Conservative Judaism.

Rashi (1040-1105) remarks that vayikra (“and he called”) is “a way of expressing affection; for it is the mode used by the ministering angels when addressing each other, as it is said, “And one called unto another and said, holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts.” For Rashi, to call out to another individual represents the desire to create a relationship just as the angels call out to one another as they praise God. Here, at the beginning of Leviticus, a voice calls out to Moses, deepening the covenantal bond that already exists with this prophet of prophets. Within our Conservative communities we, like the angels, must call to one another and call to God, developing a common vocabulary of respect and a shared pursuit of holiness.

Rabbi Meir ben Barukh of Rothenburg (1215-1293) focuses on the unusual way in which the Hebrew word vayikra is written, namely with a small aleph at the end of the word. In a teaching that he learned from his rabbi, the Maharam explains: “Moses, who was renowned for his humility, wanted to write the word vayakir, which denotes happenstance, if God did not speak with Moses directly but rather appeared to Moses in a vision or dream. God told Moses to write vayikra with an aleph meaning that God purposefully called to Moses. Moses suggested a compromise: I will write vayikra with a small aleph.” Hence, the very first word of Leviticus contains within it a lesson of humility. Though the midrash speaks specifically to the person of Moses, it speaks universally to each of us as we approach our own religious lives.

Professor Ze’ev Falk z”l (1923-1998) continues with a third commentary, remarking that the beginning of our parashah is wholly ambiguous (“And he called to Moses”). Who is addressing Moses? Falk writes, “It is not at all clear to Moses who is calling out to him. Only when God speaks to Moses from the Tent of Meeting does Moses understand that the call is directly from God.” The ambiguity of this commanding voice at the beginning of the parashah speaks to us intimately as Conservative Jews. Do we, at least initially, recognize that voice calling to us as the voice of God? Or is it the voice of a different source? Is it the voice of community as Mordecai Kaplan would have us believe? Or is it the voice of conscience? Is it the voice of generations of Israelites and Jews throughout history? As Conservative Jews, these are questions that we continually wrestle with. Yet, no matter how we may initially identify that voice, ultimately we come to recognize the voice of God as each of us journeys to our own ‘tent of meeting.’

Falk returns us to last week’s parashah, Vayakhel-Pekudei, to make another important point. Vayakhel-Pekudai, which ends the Book of Exodus, deals with “the communal aspect of the Tent of Meeting. Here, Leviticus continues with the Tent of Meeting but deals with the sacrifices of the individual. It is not enough to have the communal service of God but also the work of the individual is required.” This juxtaposition reminds us of the important role of each individual’s plans in forging the identity of the community. A community is not some anonymous mass of individuals, but a precious amalgam of talented and visionary individuals working toward a common goal. Our collective goal as Conservative Jews is to create knowledgeable, observant and learning communities. This will only happen when individuals, one by one make decisions based on Jewish values: choosing to live within walking distance of a synagogue so observant communities are built around our synagogues; sending one’s children to day school, observing Shabbat and kashrut, and learning Torah.

The juxtaposition of Parashat Vayikra to Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei yields further insight. Vayakhel- Pekudei closes with the completion of the Tabernacle, the culmination of an intensive effort on the part of the people. Parashat Vayikra opens with a call. The message is clear: it is the actions or deeds of the Israelites which ultimately lead God to call out to Moses. Engaging in the performance of mitzvot leads one to hear the voice of God.

Finally, the Sfat Emeth, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905), adds our sixth quality: “We should never see ourselves as having dismissed our duty, but should ever do more in order to hear more so that we will do more constantly.” As Conservative Jews, we must be ever-striving Jews, never content with doing the minimum and always looking to learn more and observe more.

Attention to these six qualities calling out to each other in the language of relationship, dealing with each other with a generous degree of humility, understanding the commanding voice that is addressing us through the Torah, recognizing the importance of the individual in the creation of serious community, being proactive in engaging in mitzvot to hear the voice of God, and ever striving toward greater observance have the potential to create a serious community of knowledgeable and observant Conservative Jews. My hope and blessing is that each of us will have the spiritual gumption and insight to heed that call that Moses heard, as we work to establish a Tent of Meeting in which we encounter God’s glory in all its fullness.

Shabbat Shalom

The publication and distribution of Rabbi Berkowitz’s commentary on Parashat Va-yikra are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.