Vayikra: Flawed but Idealistic
Vayikra – Leviticus. A flawed attempt to set up an ideal society. Some of its flaws are obvious—a death penalty, low wages for working women, verses that have been used to harm LGBTQ+ people. But I hope Vayikra’s ideals are also obvious.
Vayikra understands that a community’s spiritual health is delicate. So much can disrupt it. Illness. Grief. Crime. Corruption. Hate. Economic Inequality. Exploitation of the land. So most of Vayikra describes rituals and practices that keep the community well. There are rituals of sharing happiness, healing, grieving, reparations, love, wealth, and a good life on the land.
The traditional morning Torah reading for Yom Kippur comes from the Book of Vayikra. Specifically, it’s a description of the ritual Aharon performed to purify the sanctuary after his sons died there during the opening day ceremonies. During the Avodah service, we focus on the meaning of that ritual.
But, for now, I would like to zoom out to a wider view of the Book of Vayikra. I invite you to explore it by participating in five themed aliyot. Each theme will invoke a few key ideas and practices from Vayikra. We’ll see if they resonate inside us. If they do, we’ll reflect on them as our readers read.
Please listen carefully to the call. If the invitation speaks to you, please rise at your seat.
Our first Aliyah recalls the Zevach shlamim, party offering at the mishkan. A person celebrating wonderful news would invite friends to accompany them to the mishkan, bring a food offering, and share it with their guests.
Have you been yearning to share a zevach shlamim with friends? Is there something wonderful that happened for you this year that you feel you haven’t celebrated enough with your friends or family or community? Maybe you didn’t have time, or you didn’t want to brag, or you didn’t want to hurt the feelings of less fortunate people. Let this moment be a chance for you to acknowledge that you wish to celebrate and be celebrated. Na la’amod, please rise at your seats, all who wish to bring a Zevach shlamim.
Our second Aliyah recalls the chataat offering, the purification offering, at the mishkan. Someone thrown terribly off-balance by grief, by illness, by uncanny emotional or psychological experiences, would bring a food offering to the mishkan. Then, with the help of a cohen, they wouldwatch the entire offering burn up, disappear into smoke, and rise up to the heavens. And that letting go meant different things to different people.
Have you been off-balance this year? Are you wishing for a purification from very hard feelings or uneasy thoughts? Let this Aliyah be a moment for you to recognize, reflect, and pray on this. Na la’amod, please rise at your seats, all who wish to bring a khataat.
Our third Aliyah recalls the asham offering, the responsibility offering. Someone who harmed another person, or was convicted of a crime, would make restitution. They would restore, as best they could, what was lost, and then add on an extra gift. After the process was complete, they would bring an asham offering to the mishkan, as a donation for the Cohanim to eat.
Maybe you have completed an important act of teshuva this year. Or maybe you are aware of harm you caused, and teshuva you need to do. But you cannot quite find the right words to approach the person. Or maybe you can no longer approach them but you still want to find a way to make restitution. Let this Aliyah be a moment to acknowledge for yourself that you wish to commit to finding a way forward. Na la’amod, please rise at your seats, all who wish to bring an asham.
Land at Rest
Our fourth Aliyah recalls the practice of shabaton la’aretz, a sabbatical year for the land, and all who live on it. Every seventh year, the book of Vayikra calls people to let the land rest. Those who own land do not cultivate it that year; they let the soil reset, and let the plants grow in their own style. They open their fields for all local creatures, human and non-human, to forage for food.
Maybe you are increasingly aware of local human needs for food security and climate security. Maybe you have increasing compassion for nonhuman creatures whose lives are disrupted or cut short by habitat loss from our cities, our mines, our fields. Let this Aliyah be a moment to reflect on how you can help the land and its creatures find a more stable footing in this challenging time. Na la’amod, please rise at your seats, all who wish to participate in a shabaton la’aretz.
Love Your Neighbor: Core of Vayikra
Our fifth Aliyah celebrates what Rabbi Akiva called “the great principle of Torah.” This is the teaching v’ahavta l’rei’akha kamokha, love your neighbour as yourself. Vayikra offers so many ways to do this: pay workers on time, offer interest-free loans, welcome refugees, remove barriers for disabled people, do not take revenge, and more.
Maybe you want to love others even more deeply in these—and other—very practical ways. Let this Aliyah be a moment to reflect on how you might do this, and on what you might commit to for the coming year. Na la’amod, please rise at your seats, all who wish to live more deeply into v’ahavta l’reiakha kamokha!
Excerpt from the script of a Torah service I wrote specifically for Or Shalom Synagogue, Vancouver.