Drash on Parashat Vayikra
Rabbi Jeffrey B Kamins
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW
Drawing Near to God
With Covid precluding my scheduled travel to see family in Los Angeles, like many Australians I had the opportunity to see our country, travelling to outback New South Wales for just over a week. I experienced the sparsely populated expanse of nature, which regularly changes vistas and vegetation. One cannot help but feel the awe of presence in this land. And this is just a small part of Australia, on this amazing planet earth, which is just one planet in one solar system of billions of star systems in this galaxy alone. No wonder, without being an astronomer, the psalmist said, “When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have established, what are humans that you are mindful of them, human beings, that you think of them?” (Psalm 8:4-5). We stand in awe of the immensity of creation - everywhere, always, present.
We of the dominant culture, who no longer live in the wilderness, have created spiritual pathways so as not to lose touch with this infinite presence we call God. For example, in our daily prayers, we recite “holy, holy, holy, Adonai Tzva’ot, the whole world is filled with God’s glory (Isaiah 6:3)”, followed by, “Blessed is the Presence of God in every place” (Ezekiel 3:12). Words remind us: everywhere, always, is the glory of God’s presence.
This week we begin reading the third book of Torah, Vayikra, “and God called”, which details hundreds of mitzvot, spiritual practices, both ritual and ethical, that guide us to a sense of oneness with God, the ultimate One infusing all. In the opening parasha, Moses teaches the people various “korbanot” (drawing near offerings) they are to bring to the priests at the Mishkan and later the Temple for a variety of reasons, including thanksgiving, well-being and forgiveness.
With the destruction of the Temple, we no longer bring these specific offerings, having replaced them with prayer. Further Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai said after the destruction of the Second Temple, “There is another equally meritorious way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain atonement through deeds of lovingkindess, as it is written: ‘lovingkindness I desire, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6)’. (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 4:5)”
Judaism has for thousands of years adapted spiritual practices to changing circumstances. We no longer have the priests, Temple and animal sacrifices commanded in this parasha. Yet we still have myriad ways of connecting with the One in all. Our parasha gives us a hint of how to continue to develop spiritual practice in a world where so many champion materialistic hedonism and consumerism, while others push religious fundamentalism. The aleph at the end of its opening word, “Vayikra”, is written smaller than all the other letters, leading to much rabbinic commentary over the ages.
One track teaches the small aleph reflects Moses’ humility, as it is said later in the Torah, “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” (Numbers 12:3) This trait of humility is a central ethical principle in Judaism, as the prophet Micah teaches: “What is it, human, that God asks of you, but to do justice, act with lovingkindness and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8). The infinite life source inspires our awe and also calls us to be humble, to recognise there is not one way only, either for us as Jews or for all humanity, to engage in the practices of drawing near, of connecting, to God.
We Jews have our various mitzvot, our prayers, our deeds of lovingkindness, our holy spaces and our holy times. We developed all these traditions in the midst of the wilderness, perhaps knowing one day we would be disconnected urban dwellers needing ways to draw near. But out in the pristine wilderness of this great country, our First Nations still understand what it means to live in time immemorial, their practices celebrating ever present spirit. With humility, may we learn from them, with them. There is not one way to be a Jew, to be a human, or to draw near to God – but let us draw near all the same.