Drash on Parashat Vayikra 2019
Cantor Michel Laloum
Temple Beth Israel
Parashah Vayikra is the first parasha in the book of Leviticus, which is known as the priestly book or the handbook for the Cohanim during biblical times. In this week’s portion, it provides detailed information on the proper way to bring offerings or sacrifices to God. In modernity, we struggle with the words of Leviticus and finding ways for the words to be relevant to our modern Jewish practice. Clearly, modern Jews are not the only ones to struggle with the laws proscribed in Leviticus – as far back as the 8thcentury BCE, the prophet Micah clearly grappled with parasha Vayrikra, as demonstrated in the questions posed below and the conclusion that an emphasis on love and mercy were preferable to God.
With what shall I come before God
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will God be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does God require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:6-8)
This year, parashah Vayikra coincides with Shabbat Zachor, when we read from Deuteronomy (25:17-19), as we are commanded to remember the evil Amalek. Amalek is most notorious for attacking the Jews in the desert in an ultimate act of cowardice in which he chose to attack the rear of the camp, where the weak and least able to defend themselves were vulnerable.
As the reading from Micah states, Jews are called upon to act justly and to be merciful and in such a forward-looking and interconnected world, there is ever-increasing pressure to ‘forgive and forget’. That forgiveness seems to be inextricably linked to forgetting, is what Shabbat Zachor warns against. King Saul had a chance to wipe out Amalek, but taking pity, he spared the King, Agag, and it is his descendent, Haman, who set about to commit yet another genocide of the Jews. In remembering, we have the opportunity learn from the past and are hopefully not condemned to repeat it. If history is not remembered, then it has a habit of being rewritten, edited and as Rabbi Irving Greenberg points out, “amnesia always favors the aggressors.”
For this reason, so many are sounding the alarm bells about the rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic tropes in recent years. On Shabbat Zachor, we’re warned that hatred blinds people to reason – who but Amalek, blinded by hate for the Jews, would target their women, children and elderly after God had sent ten plagues upon the Egyptians and drowned those who pursued the Jews, in the Red Sea? As the rise in anti-Semitism has been documented in the past few years, many have made the point that Nazi Germany didn’t start with death camps, they started with jibes, scapegoating, caricatures and fanning the flames of hate they had held a match to.
Many in the past week would have seen the articles expressing outrage at a float in the UNESCO-listed Carnival parade in Aalst, Belgium – thirty-one kilometers from the seat of the European Union. The float, featured puppets dressed as ultra-Orthodox men with payot, wearing pink coats and streimels. One was depicted smoking a cigar, a rat perched on his shoulder, both were standing in front of a synagogue façade with bags of money at their feet. Behind the float was a platform carrying people dressed like the puppets, dancing to a song about “bulging coffers” and “Jews getting extra fat.”
The imagery was grotesque and mirrored closely a black and white image from Germany in 1939 with a Jew depicted in a similar fashion on a float promoting Arianism. The picture was republished this week by the group Stand With Us and is a timely reminder that this type of ‘humour’, as the float’s creators insist it was intended to be, is in fact just history repeating, with Jews again depicted in this sickening manner by groups who insist “there was never any intention to insult anyone...” Those who don’t understand history or who are blinded by hatred are destined to repeat the horrors of the past. While we approach Purim as a lighthearted festival, there is nothing funny about the story of Purim – another genocidal maniac out to kill our people in a story that has been repeated enough.