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Friday, March 11, 2011

Parshat Vayikra: Creating a Structure for Holiness

This week we begin reading the third book of the Torah, Vayikra/Leviticus. There is a long-standing custom within traditional Judaism that children begin their studies with Vayikra.  It has always seemed strange that children were to  begin with the book of Vayikra and its detailed descriptions of animal sacrifices and its intricate laws and regulations.  It always seemed more logical to start with the creation story or the intricate family dynamics of our ancestors found in Bereshit/Genesis or the drama of slavery and redemption found in Shemot/Exodus.

Over time, I have come to realize that there is great wisdom to our Sages' decision to begin Torah study with Vayikra. For one can discover through delving into this "middle" book of the Torah, the centerpiece of what it means to be a Jew, and a human being.

Vayikra means "and he (God) called." It may seem easier
for us to hear the call of the Divine when reading about the mythic journeys of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the ordeals of the slaves and their exodus from Egypt or the revelation on Mt Sinai. However, to hear God's call in the description of sacrifices is not so simple. However, Vayikra is about more than just rules and regulations. At the core of this, the middle  book of the Torah, is an attempt to create a structure for a new society. This structure is based on the commandment that is
physically at the center of the book of Vayikra, and therefore near the exact physical center point of the Torah scroll: "you shall love your fellow human being as yourself. I am the Eternal your God."  This deceptively simple command is the essence of our quest for holiness and divinity in our world.

When we reach Chapter 19 in Parashat Kedoshim (holiness), we will read
  this commandment as one of a group of commandments that instruct us to be holy for God is holy. This quest for holiness and holy living is at the core of the Torah, for it is at our core as individuals and at the core of creating community. However, in order to create a society that focuses on holiness there must be a structure as well as a path set out for people to follow. The structure may be adjusted from generation to generation, and the direction and width of the path may change as well, but they are both always present in our journey towards holiness. The heart and soul of this structure is the commandment quoted above, which reminds us that each and every person we encounter in life – from our "worst enemy" to our "best friend," is created in the image of the Divine.

Jewish tradition is based on what we call halakhah. Most commonly
  translated as "Jewish law," a more accurate translation might be "the way to walk." Halakhah is the path that is meant to lead us through life. It is the path of holiness. At one moment, the path may seem broad and winding, while at another it seems narrow and treacherous. It is halakhah, in its broadest, most flexible and porous sense that provides the
boundaries for the path. As a liberal Jew, I often prefer to focus on its flexibility and adaptability. Yet, without an inner structure, without a path to follow it is ultimately more difficult for us to adapt and change.

However, the path and the structure, as important as they are, are not
  simply there to give us a sense of safety, security and grounding. For as much as we would like to feel safe, secure and grounded while walking the path, ultimately we never know when the earth will shift beneath our feet, nor where the structure might be weakening. Rather, the path and the structure give us a sense of where others have gone before us in their journey of holiness. Each step we take along the path invariably changes its very shape. Sometimes this occurs without us realizing, while at other times we change the path or reshape the structure quite intentionally, and even radically. How and why the path changes is not as important as  noticing the fact that is indeed changing with each step and in every moment and noticing where we are as this occurs.

In addition to changes we affect as individuals, the community also
has an effect on the path as well. It is the community's search for holiness, and our part in it, that reminds us that we are created in the image of God, and that allows us the freedom to discover who we are as individuals and as part of a community. The individual path and the communal path are not totally distinct, nor are they the same. Rather, they are intertwined and interdependent. Change in one invariably calls for change in the other. For me, that is the essence of my halakhah; my way of walking the path of holiness. For to be holy does not mean that we are meant to understand exactly what holiness is and to behave in that exact way. Instead, to be holy means to seek out the holiness and divinity in our world as we walk the path step-by-step and moment-by-moment.

In the end, the essence of what it means to seek holiness, and hear
  the call of the Divine, at least for me, is not found in observing the traditional forms of ritual and behavior that we have come to call halakhah. For traditional halakhah is only one of the paths to holiness.

Every moment is an opportunity for each of us to make a choice, and each step is both the destination of our journey up until that point as well as the next step on the journey which we are about to undertake. As we take each step on our paths, let us remember "Vayikra" – that God has called, is
calling and will always call – to each of us in every moment and at every step along the way.  It is this that helps us decide where we will go with our next step as we walk the path of holiness.

Shabbat Shalom

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