For Congregation Ner Shalom
So, big news this week. Very big news. No, not the Russians mobilizing on the borders of Crimea. Not jobs. No, the big news, at least in certain circles, is John Travolta and his public mangling of the name of Idina Menzel at the Oscars. Idina Menzel, a Jewish daughter-made-good, who originated famous roles in Rent and in Wicked, playing respectively, the arguably Jewish roles of pushy creative type and green-skinned outcast. She is part of Broadway history and yet is someone still unknown to the masses who are not Broadway buffs, including Travolta. (In fact, the hip, Jewish online Tablet Magazine today speculated that the fact that Travolta didn't know who Idina Menzel was should now dispel all rumors that he's gay.)
But Idina walked out and sang her song, gorgeously of course, despite having just been introduced as Adele Nazeem, which made her sound something like a mix of British pop star and Turkish poet. And a lot of people learned in the process that you have to look a bit beyond name, to just let it go, and you'll be ready to discover something truly beautiful.
Which brings us around to the new book of Torah we begin reading this week, in Hebrew called Vayikra, a beautiful name meaning, "And God called." Because it opens with God calling out to Moshe, and arguably to all of us. A call, a question, awaiting our answer.
But before we get to that, we've got to deal with the other name of this book: Leviticus, a label that has come to symbolize so many things both related and unrelated to the book's actual contents, a handle that sets many a tooth on edge, a word that is used with equal facility as punishment and punchline. A book that challenges, for sure, but is typically dismissed too soon.
You see, even though we've come to associate Leviticus with sexual taboos and suspiciously fixated Bible-thumpers, it is meant to be something different. A holiness code, a ritual system, a guide for moving cleanly through the human world and for bumping shoulders respectfully with the Divine. In this tome are sensible and easily supportable laws of human-human conduct: caring for the poor, loving your fellow, resisting the allure of hatred. And it contains business ethics as relevant today as 3000 years ago: paying your workers on time, using honest weights and measures, judging fairly. And yes, there's sex stuff too - a sexual ethic that addresses, in the thinking and language of the time, proper and improper relations - many of which we would still consider improper. It's this sexy bit that gets the most press, and has arguably unleashed more harm than anything else in our tradition, through the disproportionate literalism with which it continues to be read in some corners.
But mostly the book is about ritual. Leviticus is the Levitical code. An instruction manual for the Levites, laying out all the ritual they will practice or oversee. The Levites, as you might recall, are a tribe of Israel, the descendants of Levi, one of Jacob's 12 sons. But unlike the other tribes, they do not possess a parcel in the Promised Land. Instead they have a function. They serve in the mishkan, in the Tabernacle in the desert, and later in the Temple. Which means that they are both the ritual guardians and the bureaucratic class of ancient Israel - part cleric, part clerical.
And one family, one clan from among the Levites, the Kohanim, were charged with being the priests. They would receive the offerings brought by the people, offerings whose requirements start getting laid out this very week, right at the top of the book. All sorts of offerings. Beasts, birds, first fruits, meal offerings. Guilt offerings. Shlamim - peace offerings, or offerings for the purpose of making something whole. The priests would offer the sacrifices. They'd slaughter the animals. They'd sprinkle the blood. They'd add incense to make the reyach nichoach - the scent that is pleasing to God: a smell of smoke and herbs and burning meat that is as irresistible to God as the nearly identical smell of sizzling bacon is to a Jew on a Sunday morning.
The priests, dressed in special garments that marked them as the human-divine gatekeepers, would enact all this ritual, grisly ritual to be sure, and they would become the vehicles for atonement and expiation. For fulfillment of a vow, for completion of an endeavor. The priestly ritual would bring a spiritual stamp of completion to an earthly problem posed. The Kohanim represented the people to God and God to the people. In doing so, they were a human reminder that what we do on earth is also l'shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven. We are accountable to the Divine, our actions and inactions affect the Divine. They were a reminder that there is something overarching, unifying, sanctifying our homes and our fields and our bodies and our relationships.
I've often wondered why we read all the priestly instructions every year. Yes, we read it because we read all of Torah; the cycle of it is ancient. But the cycle could also have been changed by the rabbis after the destruction of the Second Temple. They could have chosen to make the priestly code something that we read on the side, voluntarily, as we do later books of the Bible. But no, we read them year in, year out. Fixed.
It seems to me that although the Temple rituals described are no longer viable in the absence of an actual Temple, the need for such ritual, or the needs that those rituals addressed, are still alive in each of us. There are times I need forgiveness, or to express my gratitude, or give voice to my sorrow, to honor a new beginning or an ending. Modern rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism we know, gives us mechanisms for doing those things. Yom Kippur, Hallel, Kaddish, Shehecheyanu. But I'd like to suggest that the synagogue and its liturgy are not the only successors to the Temple in Jerusalem. Each of us is its successor too.
There is a lovely tradition that in every Jew there exists a pintele Yid. A tiny spark of Jewishness. The pintele Yid is the Jewish part of each of us that endures, no matter how Jewish or not we choose to live. But maybe that pintele Yid is in fact a kohen. Maybe in each of us is a spark of kehunah, of priesthood. In each of us is a human-divine gatekeeper, robed in holy garments. A part of us that serves us, that serves our inner Temple. A part that has the final say on matters of spirit. This is the part that can, at last, when needed, say, "Forgiven." And can say, "It's done." And can say, "It is l'shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven." When we feel heard by God, or forgiven, or blessed, or loved, perhaps that sensation is coming from, or through, our pintele Kohen, our tiny internal priest.
It might be that our internal priests dictate a different kind of ritual than we saw in the Temple in olden days or that we see in the synagogue today. Private ritual. Maybe our pintele Kohen decides the right dinner to help relieve a terrible day. Or the right walk to take after having been laid up in bed with an illness. The right person to call to share your good news. When to stop working and go do yoga. Where to hang the wonderful old photo of grandma.
How does your inner priest know what the right ritual is? Experience. Instinct. Svara - the Talmudic idea of an inner moral impulse that is at least as important in guiding us as the specifically enumerated mitzvot of Torah.
The pintele Kohen, the little priest, is, or should be, a Big Kahuna among our often-conflicting inner voices. A reminder that we are holy, and the fires of that holiness need to be tended, like the fires of the altar in the Temple.
And this - the vision of ourselves as holy, holy enough to require priesthood and holy enough to embody it - is perhaps the most enduring and beautiful aspect of the Book of Leviticus. The book that is better called by its Hebrew name, Vayikra, the book that reminds us that we are called, and that our lives - both our spiritual lives and our lives on this earth plane - are the answer to that call.
This book, Vayikra, is like a certain under-appreciated Broadway star. A daughter of Israel, with a great set of pipes; it sings a song that can raise our spirits and our sights. And ultimately, it doesn't matter at all if we get the name right.