Saturday, March 12, 2011

Vayikra 5771: Telling the Story, Recounting Our Lives, Connecting to God

D’var Torah for Parashat Vayikra – Congregation Ramath Orah, New York, NY

March 11, 2011/5 Adar II 5771

This Shabbat, we begin reading Sefer Vayikra with its focus on laws of purity and holiness. Many, such as our the contents of our entire Parsha are concerned with the sacrifices offered in the mishkan and later Beit Hamikdash, This may seem a strange time to talk about the topic of stories, yet it is perhaps more appropriate than ever to discuss storytelling in the context of Vayikra. This week’s haftarah, taken from Isaiah 43 begins עַם-זוּ יָצַרְתִּי לִי, תְּהִלָּתִי יְסַפֵּרוּ. – The people which I formed that they may tell of my praise[1]. The prophet comforts the people by telling them that they have a unique mission in the world. God has chosen them to tell His praises publicly. Just a few verses later, the words of the Haftarah demonstrate how speaking about God can enhance and strengthen our relationship with Him and even better ourselves: הַזְכִּירֵנִי, נִשָּׁפְטָה יָחַד; סַפֵּר אַתָּה, לְמַעַן תִּצְדָּק. Recall Me, we shall act justly together – tell the story so you shall be justified[2]. Even the act of telling God’s praises can be a catalyst towards beginning a relationship with God, and through that, become better individuals.

The fulfillment of Isaiah’s mandate has taken many forms over the years as the Jewish people connected to God through sacrifice, prayer, poetry, study of halakhah and eventually, research into the Jewish past in order to better understand the present and future of the Jewish people. One such manifestation of telling God’s praise through the study of Judaism is the Wissenschaft Des Judentums or Science of Judaism movement. Wissenschaft began in the nineteenth century in Germany, as scholars began to critically study different aspects of Judaism including Tanakh, Talmud, History and Literature, in order to better understand the Jewish past and the mission of the Jewish people for the present and future. As historian Jonathan Sarna said, “We’re all heirs to the legacy of Wissenchaft.”[3] The contributions of Wissenschaft spurred much of the growth in Jewish studies today in both North America and Israel. Yet many of the scholars and their work in telling the stories of the Jewish people in Germany and Eastern Europe were sadly lost or displaced in the tragedy of the Shoah.

Wissenschaft became particularly relevant this week as a New York Times article on Wednesday joyously proclaimed that approximately 1500 volumes of German-Jewish scholarship which went missing from the University of Frankfurt library during the Holocaust were found within the Leo Baeck Institute in Manhattan. This discovery immediately brought to mind the words and message of our haftarah. While these volumes may not be readily accessible to the masses, I hope and pray that their rediscovery will help scholars to better study and articulate the Jewish past and thus God’s people may articulate His praises.

Returning to our parsha, I believe when we dig beneath the details of how the sacrifices were offered, we can come to appreciate how they represented a comprehensive system of acknowledging different moments in life by giving of ourselves to God. Joyous celebrations and occasions for thanksgiving, along with time when people made mistakes and committed sins, whether bein adam lamakom, between humans and God, or bein adam l’haveiro, between one and his or her fellow. Some of these sacrifices, like the olah, a voluntary animal offering, or minhah, a grain offering which begin Parashat Vayikra, were given out of the donor’s free will in order to mark a certain milestone or express certain feelings towards God. The hata’at and asham offerings, also found in our parasha, were given to atone for accidental and premeditated sins by individuals, leaders or the entire community. The giving of these sacrifices came together to mark pivotal moments in the lives of our ancestors and thus helped tell the stories of their lives. If we can go beyond (but not fail to appreciate) the intricate, exact and detailed manner in which sacrifices were given, we can understand the dedication exhibited by those who offered sacrifices, materially expressing their prayers, hopes and regrets, and dreams to God. In essence they were fulfilling the prophet’s dictums of תְּהִלָּתִי יְסַפֵּרוּ and הֵזְכִּירֵנִי, נִשָּׁפְטָה יָחַד; by actively acknowledging God’s role in their lives and joining together, solidifying that relationship and hopefully acting in a manner befitting being both בצלם אלקים, created in God’s image, and עם זו, ‘this’ people which God has chosen. May we especially have this charge in mind as we attempt to do God’s work in helping our fellow humans and responding to the tragic earthquake and Tsunami in Japan and the Pacific.

Although we no longer physically offer sacrifices, we can nevertheless aspire to put the same kavannah, intention and passion into our fulfillment of תְּהִלָּתִי יְסַפֵּרוּ, sharing the story of God’s praises, which can be done in so many ways whether through prayer, study and proud observance, and the dedicated research of Wissenschaft, some newly re-discovered, in probing the depths of our past and tradition to enlighten the future. And by doing our part in contributing adding to the story of God and the Jewish people, may we merit the promise which concludes our Haftarah:

מָחִיתִי כָעָב פְּשָׁעֶיךָ, וְכֶעָנָן חַטֹּאותֶיךָ; שׁוּבָה אֵלַי, כִּי גְאַלְתִּיךָ.

כג רָנּוּ שָׁמַיִם כִּי-עָשָׂה ה', הָרִיעוּ תַּחְתִּיּוֹת אָרֶץ, פִּצְחוּ הָרִים רִנָּה, יַעַר וְכָל-עֵץ בּוֹ: כִּי-גָאַל ה' יַעֲקֹב, וּבְיִשְׂרָאֵל יִתְפָּאָר.

I have erased your sin like a mist dissipates and like a cloud your iniquities, return to Me for I have redeemed you. Let the skies sing out for God has made them, the depths of the earth shall shout, the mountains will cry in joy, along with every tree in the forest – For God has redeemed Jacob, and through Israel He will be glorified.[4]

[1] Isaiah 43:21

[2] Isaiah 43:26


[4] Isaiah 44:22-23

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