Shabbat Vajikra: Gods partner

This Shabbat we’ll start with the reading of the third book of the Torah. The book has very different names in different traditions. Often we say the „third book of Moses“, or „Leviticus“, as most of its laws are connected to the temple service of the Levites and the Priests. Because of that, Rabbis used to call it „Torat Kohanim – The Teaching of the Priests“, as well.

Today in the Jewish world, it is common to refer to this book as „Vajikra – And he called“, according to its very first word in the Hebrew. It is not only a tradition to call the books of the Torah this way; it is our way to distinguish the weekly Torah portions, too.

The title „Vajikra“ for this book is even the better choice for another reason: The other names – Leviticus or Torat Kohanim – could be misleading, they could give the impression that it’s content is only dealing with a group of selected people like the Levites and the Kohanim.

But I would say, the opposite is the case, the book Vajikra is actually not only focusing on the priests and Levites: It refers to all of us.

There are a few major themes in the book, like forming a holy nation out of the Israelites, who had just fled from slavery, and dealing with purity in a ritual context. It is also about the concept of a world in divine harmony and order.

To maintain this order, the book Vajikra explains in detail, what someone should do, when a boundary has been violated.
This can be something affecting ourselves and our bodies, or boundaries in time and space; in other words, boundaries between the sacred and the profane, or between life and death. The book describes that anyone, who has violated God’s order and harmony, can also restore it, or even has an obligation to restore it. Rituals, including sacrifices, are supposed to help to repair these kinds of damages and heal injuries.

The ideal of the book Vajikra is that the body of a person as well as the sanctuary (Tabernacle) and the society itself, are own little sacred worlds themselves. Each world represents the great whole, and each world has an impact on what happens around it.

This means that purity and holiness are not only limited to the temple or the synagogue, it also includes our entire life, our bodies, our homes, our interactions with other humans and with nature. There are several facets in everything, profane and sacred ones alike.

For example: Because our bodies and our lives are holy, we find in the book Vajikra regulations on „food“ (eg. Chapter 7 + 11), „relationships“ (18 + 20) and „ethics“ (19) in order to protect this holiness. The book contains not only instructions for the priests and the temple cult, but also, how we should interact with our neighbors and about sexuality. Even though priests may have a special role, the text makes clear that all Israelites are meant to be holy, because God is holy (19.2) and we are his people.

The first chapters of the book provide an overview and a detailed description of the most common offerings in biblical times. In biblical times, animal sacrifices were part of religious practice. Maimonides argued that this type of service had been commanded to the Israelites in the wilderness, so that they could learn to serve God without having the feeling of being different from all other nations. Very slowly, as Maimonides taught, the Israelites learned that it is not an animal sacrifice, which brings us closer to the Eternal, but prayers.

He, as many others, used the actual meaning of the Hebrew word for sacrifice: „Korban” – to come close – to underline this concept.

In chapter one, sentence two, we can read the following:

“When any of you presents an offering to the Eternal, bring as your offering an animal from either the herd or the flock.”
Vajikra 1.2b

A Hasidic commentator explains this sentence as follows:

„If anyone of you wants to come near – KAROV – to God, he must bring an offering from Mikem – themselves -. And what is this sacrifice? It is the animal in us, which is part of us, capable of wickedness towards ourselves, others and God.“ (Itturei Torah, IV, p10, 1998)

In other words: The ritual of animal sacrifices should be understood as well as a metaphor of our struggle as human beings – becoming more human, more ethical, towards ourselves, others and God.

One of the major themes of the book Vajikra is, as I said before, to form the Israelites, to form us Jews, to a sacred, a holy nation, that is an ethical nation, a kingdom of priests. When we read the text, we can discover – together with the teachings of our traditions – how we can draw meaning out of it for our lives, and how we can contribute to the healing, the repair of the world, Tikkun Olam, even though some of its chapters may appear very dry and sometimes unpleasant.

“Am Kadosh” – A holy nation – has often been misunderstood. It is not an elevation above other people, our fellowmen or nature; it marks a special attribute in our relationship to God. We are partners with God in the ongoing process to keep this world in balance; in its divine order.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat Shekalim: God has his place in our midst

This Shabbat, we are going to read the end of the second Book of the Torah, Parasha P’kudei. Because this year is a leap year in the Jewish calendar, this Shabbat is also Shabbat Sh’kalim.

Shabbat Sh’kalim is the first of four special Shabbatot in spring, guiding us towards Pessach. Therefore, a special Maftir – a final reading – from a second Torah scroll supplements the traditional reading of the Torah and a special Haftarah is read. For Shabbat Sh’kalim the Maftir is taken from Parashat KiTisa (2M30.11-16), the Torah portion we just read two weeks ago, and the Haftarah from the 2nd books of Kings (12,1-17).

The connecting theme is the “Dwelling place of God”, the Tabernacle/the Temple, and how the Israelites contributed to its construction.

Our sages took this as a model, when they instituted Shabbat Sh’kalim as a reminder for all of us to contribute to our Jewish communities, till today.

But why, one can ask, is the theme of contribution so strongly connected to the dwelling place of God?

Let me share with you the following idea:

The very beginning of God’s instructions for the new Tabernacle starts with a word from the Eternal to Moshe:

“Tell the Israelite people to bring Me offerings; you shall accept offerings for Me from every person whose heart is so moved” (Ex. 25.1-2)

The Hebrew word for offerings, which is used in this quote, as well as in our Maftir, is TERUMAH, offerings for God.

But these offerings are not the animal sacrifices, not the “KORBANOT” we often encounter in the Torah. And they aren’t the offerings we give for charity, ZEDAKA.
 Meant are special levies for the building of the Tabernacle.
 In later times – as we can understand it from our Haftarah – these donations were used for the maintenance of the temple.
 Today, we should understand it as a contribution to the infrastructure of the community; for example the building and maintenance of our Synagogue.

But let me direct your attention again to the second half of our quote: “from every person whose heart is so moved”.

We shouldn’t make the mistake to understand Terumah only as a monetary donation. This may be one way of support, but silver and gold are only symbols for other things, we can give.
 It can be a cake for a Bracha (Kiddush),
 the offer of help, when something needs to be prepared or done in the Synagogue,
 or the visit of people who are sick or lonely.
 Sometimes, “just coming to the prayer services” can be a big contribution.

Today, I think, the offering of TIME is one of the most valuable “things” we can give to our community.
Jewish services aren’t solely meant to praise and worship God. There is also the concept of meeting other people. The Torah calls the tabernacle also the “tent of meeting”, because – to borrow an idea from Martin Buber – we can only meet God in dialog. Coming together and spending time together, that’s worship as well. Wherever we meet, we are creating a place for God to be.

Once, Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk asked his students, where God is at home on this world. His students laughed and answered quickly: What a question, isn’t the whole world filled by the Shechina (the presence) of God? But the rabbi stayed earnest and answered his own question: God is there, where WE let him in.

All the readings of the last weeks about the building of the tabernacle sound like a huge task, hardly manageable, but when we realize that it starts with an offering, coming from the heart, and mainly means to get together with others, to create a real community by spending time together, than God has his place in our midst and dwells among us.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Adrian Michael Schell​
Schabbat Shekalim 5774 @ Bet David, Johannesburg ZA

Shabbat Pekudei – Facing one another

This Shabbat’s Torah reading is the last one of a whole series about the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The portion ends with the stunning moment when God’s presence fills the Mishkan.

The building of the Mishkan is an important part of our annual Torah reading, which Jews all over the world have studied during the last weeks. We have dealt with the meaning of the Mishkan, the portable place where God could be found, and of course with the Temple, which replaced the Tabernacle in later times, and gave God a more permanent dwelling place.

And as Progressive Jews, we may have added our very own views to these discussions on the Temple. As Reform Jews we do not longer believe in a need for a Temple, a centralized “holy place” for worship and sacrifices.

In fact, most references to the temple and its cult have been removed even from our liturgy. We don’t pray for the rebuilding of the temple any longer, we deleted the parts referring to the burnt offerings, following the prophetic words that God is with us, wherever we are, and that prayers are the offerings, God favors most.

There are good arguments for this position. The Torah portion two weeks ago, Ki Tissa, with the story about the Golden Calf, is a good example, and reflects beautifully on the concept that Judaism is a “religion in progress”, and that it is important to understand the needs of people and to develop concepts of worshipping God, which may differ in time and depend on a certain environment and place.

The Israelites, who had just left slavery in Egypt, couldn’t understand the concept of an untouchable, invisible and abstract God.
And even though the Golden Calf may not be what God had in mind as a proper answer to the needs of the people, with the two cherubim, the cloud and the ‘pillar of fire‘, the Israelites got something they could relate to.

Centuries later, the Temple with its cult was another and important step in this process of transition and progress. That time, the temple played a major role in forming the Jewish Kingdom, and had an important function in centralizing the cult.

With the destruction of the first Temple an important change took place in Jewish practice. More fixed payers replaced the daily offerings, and paved the ground for the Rabbinic shift after the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, when prayers replaced the animal sacrifices totally.

Rabbi Shmuel ben Rabbi Isaac, who lived in the third-century, explained that a synagogue, where people come together for payers, should be considered “a minor Temple” (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 29a). Together with the transformation of Temple practices towards the synagogue setting (such as the use of the shofar, lulav, and etrog), and the ritualized memories of the former Temple ceremonies into synagogue liturgy, such as the recital of the order of the sacrifices, the Rabbis were comforting the people.

With the development of Reform Judaism in Germany by Geiger, Jacobson and others, the Temple finally lost its ritual function, even in the figurative sense. The concept of a Temple was perceived as old fashioned, preventing Jews from an intellectual, enlightened Judaism, based on reason and science.

Jews had proven over centuries that the covenant with God doesn’t need a Temple. Jews could and can practice Judaism in a meaningful and rich way everywhere in the world.

I can relate to this concept. I fact, that’s why I think any return to a former stage would be a step backwards – instead of coming closer to God, we would depart ourselves from the Eternal again.

I can’t see any sense in the concept of rebuilding the Temple, and more so, I am opposed to the idea. I personally, have decided for myself even, not to go up to the Temple mount in Jerusalem. Today, it’s a holy site for Muslims, and as long as it is a place with so many tensions, we should minimize any conflict – especially because the site has no ritual purpose for us nowadays.

„But tell me one thing Rabbi,“ a congregant asked me during one of the last Torah studies, when I had explained my position, “If you are so against the Temple, why do you support the Women of the Wall and the campaign for an egalitarian Kotel / Western Wall? Why should Progressive Jews or Jews at all pray there?“

This was a very good point. I liked the question, because I had to define my arguments more clearly. My perspective may look a bit ambivalent or even schizophrenic at first glance, but I think it reflects a very specific situation within Judaism.

From a religious point of view, I stick to the position I just explained. And I would strongly argue that Jews don’t need the Western Wall to encounter the Eternal. As I said, I believe that we can meet God at any place in this world.

But Judaism is not a Religion alone; it is so much more than that. It is a covenant between individuals as well – we are one people – “Am Israel“. We all share a common history and common values. We are all connected in an invisible chain from the past to the future – “Le Dor va Dor“.

Our Sages, who transformed Judaism after the destruction of the Temple into a religion without sacrifices and without the temple cult, did an amazing job. They detached “religion“ from the place, but kept the people connected through and to this place. Even though they turned Judaism up side down, they kept Jerusalem as the center of Judaism. Not as a place where God should be worshiped alone, but as the center of our hope and of our people, to get through all difficulties in Jewish history.

The Western Wall is a symbol for this, it is the central point of the Jewish People, and belongs therefore to all Jews, no matter where we are, and what we are.

Our Torah portion ends with the powerful image when God took possession of the new Mishkan.

For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Eternal rested by day, and the fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.

The Tabernacle was the center of the camp in the desert, visible for all Israelites. It was the stronghold of the people, giving them hope and much more, security, a sense of belonging-together, not being alone.

Today, we don’t have the Mishkan; we don’t have a cloud hovering above the Temple mount. But we have us.

As long as we all are facing Jerusalem in prayers, songs and thoughts, we are also facing one another. Jews from all corners of the world are still connected through this center, they do belong together, in one covenant – throughout their journeys.

Shabbat Shalom

​Rabbi Adrian Michael Schell​​​ – Shabbat Shekalim 5774

@ Bet David, Johannesburg ZA