Vayikra 5761

by Joshua Rabin

The third book of the Torah, Vayikra, opens with a simple yet powerful line; “And God called to Moshe…” (Vayikra 1:1). When one looks at a copy of the Hebrew they can see that the “aleph” in the word “vayikra” is smaller than the other letters. Rashi in his commentary on the Torah tells us that the aleph is so small because it is intended to reflect the humility of Moshe. While a reference to the humility of Moshe would seem appropriate, the question is why does this occur at the beginning of a book that is focused on sacrifices and specifically acts of “avodah”, of worship.

Consider the following: You are at synagogue on Shabbat morning and you are beginning to approach the Amidah. While you have gone through all the preparations to say the prayer appropriately, through the introductory prayers leading up to it, your mind is on other things. The paper you have due Monday, the girl that you want to ask to the school dance, or the countless other things that are on your mind seem to take precedence over the Amidah. Are you ready to give your thanks to God? Probably not. Jewish law requires us to have an appropriate amount of kavvanah (intent) prior to embarking on certain acts of avodah at designated times. From this we see that it is clear that Moshe’s has the small aleph present in the Torah to show that whenever you a ready to embark on acts of avodah, no matter what they, you must keep your humility and remain focused.

In the Gemara in Berachot 7(a) we are told that Hashem does pray for us. While this seems like an almost monumental ideal, the commentator Rashbah explains that this is for the purpose of Hashem bringing spiritual healing and prosperity to people. Thus, when we pray, we are supposed to “t’nu oz la’Elokim,” give power to Hashem. The only way that this can be done is through coming in with an appropriate mental state.

For someone that davens every day, I can tell you that sometimes it is hard to really get a good humble and submissive feel before every time that I daven. I would say it would be nearly impossible for anyone to do so every single time. However, we learn that our prayer serves as method of activating the powers of Hashem, as taught by our sages. Tefillah (prayer) is the sparks that results in the rewards, yet these rewards must be earned. We earn these things through Torah study, worship and acts of loving-kindess. It makes us worthy of the success for which we all hope to achieve. Moshe, in turn, has the same situation. He is but a man and must take the mythic responsibility of learning and teaching the countless new that are presented in Vayikra. Therefore, he must be go in with a humble mind and in thus given his small aleph to remind not only himself, but us as well. Shabbat Shalom

Vayikra 5762

by Jacob Levine-Berkowitz

Parashat Vayekra is the first parasha in the book of Leviticus (the third book of the bible). This parasha along with a majority of the book of Vayekra deals with laws for the Jewish people specifically sacrifices. In the time of the temple sacrifices were the way for Jewish people to get closer to G-D and also to atone for one’s wrong doings. In parashat Vayekra there are five different types of sacrifices mentioned. The first sacrifice is the “burnt offering” – “olah” which is translated to “that which goes up”. This offering needed to be a male animal in which the entire animal (except for the hide) was burnt upon the alter. The second sacrifice discussed is the “meal offering – “minchah”. This offering consisted of flour put into shapes of cakes, where half was burnt on the alter and the other given to the Priest Aaron and his sons. The third sacrifice is the “sacrifice of well being” – “zevach shelamim”. This sacrifice could either be a male or a female cow, sheep or goat in which half of the animal would be burned on the alter, some given to Aaron and his sons and the rest used as a feast for the person who brought the sacrifice. All three of the previous sacrifices were done by the individual voluntarily. The next two types of sacrifices deal with an individual or community who knowingly have sinned, and who are obligated to sacrifice to atone for that sin. The first sacrifice is the “sin offering” – “chatat”. This sacrifice deals with an individual or community who knowingly sinned against one of the commandments. The offering which the person had to bring to the alter depended on the status he/she held in the community. The second offering dealt with, is the “guilt offering” – “asham”. This sacrifice deals with an individual who committed either robbery or fraud, this individual along with having to give back the stolen items plus one-fifth of their value, also had to bring an offering to the altar (again in which the offering depended on the person’s status in society). After the Second Temple was destroyed the sacrifices ended and prayer and the doing of good deeds took their place and are still in effect till the present.

It seems as though one of the large questions amongst Jewish teenagers is, “how can I become closer with God”. It seems as though it would have been much easier to be teenager in the time of the temple since there was such an easy and direct way of becoming closer to God, by doing sacrifices. One reason that the idea of sacrifices seems so much more of a connection between one and God is because of the physical aspect of actually performing a sacrifice because it was so physical and real that it seemed as though you were connecting to God right there. In the present, one has the option to pray and perform “mitzvoth”, but one is never quite sure if God heard you or saw that good deed you did, and then one thinks to themselves was it really worth it I believe that we don’t know if those good deeds one performs or all the praying one does are answered because we don’t always receive a direct answer from God, which in return adds to the idea that Judaism is a religion that isn’t based on the idea of instant gratification and that is why if one continues to do good deeds and pray to God it will become noticed and even if it continues to go unnoticed you will feel spiritually and emotionally uplifted.

Another thing that sacrifices dealt with was the atonement for one’s sins. All one had to do for one’s sins was to either perform the “chatat” sacrifice or the “asham” sacrifice, which both absolve one of one’s sins. This is very different from the present Judaic views of how one should or should not repent. In today’s culture a person after committing a sin needs to give a direct apology to the person and going through all the steps of repentance (compiled by Maimonides). The one time of the year in which one is granted atonement from all one’s sins between them and God is Yom Kippur, this is different though from a sin which one person did to another and that person is never granted atonement until they atone to the person which one hurt.

Finally, when comparing the days of the Temple to the present it seems as though it would have been much easier to feel emotionally and spiritually cleansed because you were in and out and could perform a sacrifice as often as one wished. This idea of quickness to one’s repentances and one’s closeness to God seems as though an absurd idea, since we were brought up with the notion of the long length it took to repent and how whenever you pray to God you would hardly ever receive an answer from God. Although it seems much easier to live in the days of sacrifices I believe one gains much more knowledge and spiritual growth and awareness in the present, due to the fact of the difficulty involved in living a true and meaningful life.

Vayikra 5763

by Aron Cohen, 2003 USY Rel/Ed VP, 5763

Perhaps the most conspicuous absence of God in the entire Bible is the lack of God’s name in the Megillah. Such an absence must not be an accident, but rather an important lesson for all of its readers.

The story of Purim, from a historical perspective, is almost completely secular. All of the action in the Purim story is between men and men-there is no direct interaction with God.

Not only does the story itself not explicitly include God; the mitzvot associated with Purim also focus on our relationships with those around us.

We are commanded to send Mishloach Manot-literally, “The sending of delicacies”-to those around us to create unity among the Jewish people, and as a simple act to reach out to those around us.

We are commanded on Purim to give gifts to the poor-while we send gifts to our friends and neighbors to build strength in the community, we also help to build the communities of those around us.

We are commanded to participate in the reading of the Megillah-an act that also brings together our community for an evening of festivities.

All of these actions stress our relations with those around us, stress building a strong community. Perhaps we can learn from this that while God’s presence in our lives is important-just as important are the people that surround us daily.

Abraham Joshua Heschel lends some insight on the matter in his book “God in Search of Man.” Heschel wrote:

“Religious thinking is in perpetual danger of giving primacy to concepts and dogmas and to forfeit the immediacy of insights, to forget that the known is but a reminder of God, that the dogma is a token of His will, the expression of the inexpressible at its minimum. Concepts, words must not become screens; they must be regarded as windows.”

Heschel teaches that although it is God’s presence in Jewish life that has sustained the Jewish people for so long, that has kept us going, the Torah cannot carry our actions. Rather, we must realize that the Torah is here to guide our actions, not to explicitly determine them. Heschel recognized that as many Jewish laws as there are, there are more possible situations that can arise in life.

In the story of Purim, Ester acts in a way that carries out God’s will. In today’s world, we are constantly being put into situations that require us to use our own judgment. While our Jewish values and morals guide us, our discretion is usually the overriding factor in our decision-making process. Although God can guide us, God can’t make all of our decisions for us.

Despite God’s name being absent from the Megillah, and God having no explicit actions in the Purim story, God still has a presence in the Megillah. In this way, the words of the Megillah do not hide God, rather, they enlighten us to the wonders of God’s less explicit actions.

However, the Torah reading this morning tells a slightly different story. This Shabbat, we began the book of Vayikra-a book in the Torah that contains nearly half the laws in the entire Torah, many of which are focused on a sacrificial system that has since been replaced by prayer.

This morning’s reading contains painstaking detail outlining every last nook and cranny of the sacrificial system. Unlike the Purim story, we are given every detail imaginable directly from God, and with so much detail, it is hard to imagine that there is any room for interpretation.

So we have two sides of the same coin. The Megillah teaches us that we can function without God’s direct presence, and that we don’t need God to dictate each step we take. But parshat Vayikra outlines an incredibly intricate system that explicitly dictates our actions in every way. The two are, outwardly, opposites.

However, the two seemingly contradictory messages together reveal a deeper understanding of these two alternating ideas.

Heschel taught, “A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times.” We must understand that our relationship with God is intimately connected to our relationship with other people, and that our relationships with other people are intimately connected to our relationship with God.

,Heschel taught, “A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times.” We must understand that our relationship with God is intimately connected to our relationship with other people, and that our relationships with other people are intimately connected to our relationship with God.

While it seems sometimes that ritual mitzvot are far removed from our relationships with people, they are really a lot closer than we think. So many ritual mitzvot are in place with the purpose of creating a foundation of holiness our lives, which can then transfer over to our interactions with people.

In two weeks, we read from Parshat Shemini, which outlines many specific requirements of Kashrut-which can be seen as the quintessential ritual mitzvah. Aside from teaching us to have reverence for the lives of the animals that we kill, kashrut takes something completely mundane, completely ordinary and makes it holy. Through a simple act, we are elevating an earthly act to a holy one.

It is this basis of holiness off of which we can base all of our actions, so that when we interact with other people, we have a basis to make all of our actions holy. This foundation of holiness is, in fact, what allows to act with our own discretion. By building our lives around actions specifically sanctioned by God, we are better equipped to handle daily situations as they arise in our lives, and our personal discretion is more likely to be in line with that of God’s will.

As Heschel wrote, “Concepts, words must not become screens; they must be regarded as windows.” Through ritual observances, God can help guide us in the decisions for which there are no laws. God can lead us in he right direction, but it’s up to us to make sure that all of our actions are actions that we can be proud of.

Shabbat Shalom!

Vayikra 5764

by Rachel Weislow, SWUSY, 5764

We are being watched. Everything that we do daily is seen by G-d. It is only human to be imperfect, and that is why were are taught how to correct our mistakes made in front of G-d and perhaps other people.

This weeks parsha, Vayikra, teaches us how to right the wrongs and be aware of the fact that our actions can cause effects. In most cases, when we are finally able to realize the consequences of what we do, we try to make less errors and better our wrong-doings. For example, say you are at a friends house and you are meeting their parents, you are on your best behavior. However, if you were at that same friends house and their parents weren’t home you would act differently, because you know you are not being watched, and you know that you don’t have to make a good impression on anyone. It is the same with G-d, except he is always watching us, and the torah portion teaches us that this is a good incentive to try to be on our best behavior no matter who we are with or what example we are setting.

So how do we better ourselves? Just remember, saying sorry doesn’t mean anything unless it comes from the heart. True repenting for our sins does not necessarily mean “pray to G-d for forgiveness,” but maybe it means “spread the charity and good-doings of the world.” A real way to say your sorry, is to mean it, and make-up for it by doing some mitzvot. Visit an edlerly home, read to young children, take a few minutes to put a smile on someone else’s face, and truly show some selflessness. When we make an error we can’t just erase it. We must prove ourselves worthy of forgiveness, and display our desires to do good in life.

Vayikra 5769

by Bekah Hakimian

March 28, 2009/3 Nisan 5769

This week’s parsha, Vaykira, is the first reading in the book of Leviticus. Vayikra means “and he called,” and this refers to God’s call to Moshe. This is the most appropriate name, for in this book are laws, precepts, values, and consequences communicated through Moshe to all the Israelites. These initiate the chain of Jewish tradition- passing the law from one generation to the next.

Vayikra begins with God instructing Moshe to describe the various sacrifices are: a burnt offering (olah); the meal offering (minchah); the sacrifice of well-being (zevach shelamim); the sin offering (chatat): and the guilt offering (asham). Olah, literally meaning “that which goes up,” is characterized by burning the entire animal upon the altar except for the hide. The minchah offering consists of unleavened choice of flour. A portion of it was to be burned on the altar and the remainder given to Aaron and his sons. All minchah offerings must contain salt. An unblemished cow, sheep, or goat could serve as the offering for the sacrifice of zevach shelamim. An ordinance states that all the fat on the sacrificial animal belonged to God. Additionally, a prohibition against eating any fat or blood is included in here. These three types of sacrifices are voluntary and not brought for atonement. The chatat and the asham are both obligatory upon guilty individuals.

The chatat is to be brought by an individual or community which, through error, commits a sin regarding any of the commandments. The specific offering to be brought was determined by economic condition. An anointed priest and the community are both directed to sacrifice unblemished bulls for the chatat. Four additional transgressions are described as requiring a chatat offering:

  1. failure to come forward to testify;
  2. touching an unclean animal or carcass;
  3. coming in contact with human uncleanness; and
  4. failure to fulfill an oath. For these transgressions can be a female sheep, a goat, two birds or choice flour

The asham offering is to be brought by an individual who has sinned by committing robbery or fraud. The penalty for such a crime is to restore to the owner the item stolen, plus an additional one-fifth of its value and then to bring a ram or its equivalent in money as a sacrifice. This offering also applies to the individual who has unwittingly sinned regarding God’s sacred things.

As mentioned before, Vayikra means “And He called.” God called Moshe about the offerings and sacrifices. Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez points out the unusual wording in the text: “The Lord called to Moshe …” (Rather than spoke to Moshe). From this, the commentator derives a lesson. If you wish to speak to a friend who is busy, you should first call hi/her name. It is not enough for a person to be a scholar, one must also have good manners. If a scholar does not have good manners, people may come to hate him. The scholar represents Torah and, therefore, may cause people to hate Torah.

The Hebrew term for good manners is derech eretz – literally “the way of the world.” What are some examples of good manners which you use daily? What would the world be like if no one has “derech eretz”? In what way might good manners be necessary in school? USY? Work? Driving? Are these behaviors which could be called good Jewish manners?

How should we understand the sacrifices? From a casual reading of this portion, you might think that the sacrifices were a form of bribery – a way to influence God. But a belief basic to Judaism is that God is not a physical being who needs food. So what benefit could God derive from a sacrifice? The lesson is that God does not need a sacrifice, the people do. So USY, think about the sacrifices that we make everyday. We don’t literally have to go out, find a perfect, unblemished cow to sacrifice to God to show our devotion and love. By respecting our parents, engaging in Tikun Olam and other mitzvot we are expressing our gratitude to God and that is all that matters. Another great way is it pledge to observe Shabbat and conserve energy for Shabbat Unplugged, Friday April 3 to Saturday April 4. Shabbat Shalom!

Vayikra 5770

by Alex Hamilton

This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, is about sacrifices and asking forgiveness by making sacrifices. Today we see that you pay up to $125 for a sheep. Back then it cost more to buy a sheep, like $15,000. So theses sacrifices in modern terms is like taking a brand new Nissan Sentra and crushing it for HaShem. God drives a hard bargain. But he always has.

However, the sacrifices are today, rather irrelevant due to the fact that the Mikdash HaKodesh, or the Holy Temple is no longer standing. However the forgiveness laws are just as important. The most moving law for me is the commandment to not go back on a promise, or Neder.

When one makes a promise, not to God, but to a fellow human being, it is binding and will endure until you fulfill it or break it. There is a long list of procedures that you have to go through to be free of this sin.

When I read this, I asked myself, “Why would something this trivial be in the Torah?” There are a lot of smaller laws, like specifics about the laws of Sabbath and when we say certain passages of prayer and not others in the Talmud, or other Jewish Liturgy.

Breaking this law could be compared to lying. You promise to have that plow mended for him in a week and you forget about the plow, the plow owner is relying on getting the plow back and has arranged his life around this plow.

However there is one exception to Neder, any guesses? (if it can harm someone including you). All laws in the Torah have the “to save a life” exception except for three sins: murder, idolatry, and forbidden sexual acts.

Breaking this law causes mistrust. That is the origin of the Haftarah today. When Cyprus the Great let the Israelites reenter the Holy Land and rebuild the Holy Temple. We as a people didn’t trust, because the Romans went back on their oaths to us. Why should this dictator be any different?

The Haftarah is a prophecy that Isaiah made when because of this. The Israelites in fact were being hypocrites if they paid attention to this law, because they had made a promise to God to follow his laws to this best of their abilities. They can’t do this and still follow 179 out of 613 of the Mitzvot commanded in the Torah. Since a third or so of the laws can’t be fulfilled with out the Temple they are just saying sianora to it because they don’t trust.

We as a people have trouble trusting because of crimes that have been done to us and are still happening to us today, so I urge you today to be proud of the fact that you are Jewish and to trust that the world in general doesn’t want to harm us. There are those misguided few, who do not understand and they are afraid of that. It isn’t our job to educate them, but it is our job to not hide who we are. Shabbat Shalom!

Vayikra 5771

by Josh Seed

This Shabbat we begin reading the book of Vayikra, the third book of the Chumash. Interestingly, Vayikra also carries a second name of Torat Kohanim – the Laws of the Priests. This is undoubtedly because of the book’s focus on sacrifices as can be seen in the very beginning of Parashat Vayikra. The portion begins, “The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock.” (Vayikra 1:1-2)

In these two verses, Moses speaks to the children of Israel instructing them on the details for making offerings in the Mishkan. The Mishkan or tabernacle was seen as the portable dwelling place for God from the time of the Exodus from Egypt through the conquering of the land of Canaan. It would eventually be replaced by a more permanent structure, the First Temple in Jerusalem. This begs an important question. How are we to fulfill the commandment to perform sacrifices today without the Mishkan or Holy Temple in existence? The simplest answer the rabbis give is to praise God through prayer but I believe that this is only one of many possible explanations.

The Talmud teaches, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – All Israel is responsible for one another.” Through Gemilut Chassadim, acts of charity and loving-kindness, we too can find a way to worship God. As Jews, we have a responsibility to ensure that the members of our community are looked after. Whether this is the poor or sick, we must work to meet the needs of one another. One particular member of our community who now needs our assistance is Jonathan Pollard.

Jonathan Pollard was working as an American Naval intelligence analyst in the 1980s when he discovered that information vital to Israel’s security was being deliberately withheld by the U.S. Jonathan was painfully aware that Israeli lives were being put in jeopardy as a result of this intelligence embargo. He did everything he possibly could to have the legal flow of information to Israel restored. When his efforts met no success, he began to give the information to Israel directly. In 1985, his actions were discovered by the U.S. government. He received a life sentence and a recommendation that he never be paroled. To date, Jonathan has been in captivity for 26 long years.

Recent developments to secure Jonathan’s freedom show a small glimmer of hope. In early January, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a letter to American President Barak Obama officially requesting that he grant Jonathan clemency. His letter has since been joined by countless American politicians. As we approach the holiday of Pesach when we celebrate our freedom from Egypt, we pray that this be the last Pesach in captivity for Jonathan Pollard.

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