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Bet Israel Masorti Synagogue

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19 Yehuda Hanasi St., POB 437, Netanya 4210300, Israel
Phone: 972-(0)9-862-4345

Parshat Vayikra 2020

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Mark Twain, who in his early days was a correspondent for the Sacramento Union in the Sandwich Islands 鈥 now Hawaii 鈥 describes some of the historical religious aspects of that locale. As he tells it: “When a simple child of nature yielded momentarily to sin, he could acknowledge his error and with noble frankness offer up his grandmother as an atoning sacrifice. In those old days the luckless sinner could keep on cleansing his conscience and achieving periodical happiness as long as his relatives held out.”

Sacrifices come in all sizes and shapes and the parshot this week and next present a whole litany of animal and meal sacrifices to be brought to the Tabernacle/Temple for the expiation of sins committed by Israelites of any ilk 鈥 priest, commoner, leader. From these readings it is clear that the grandiose Temples served first and foremost as abattoirs, slaughterhouses, where hundreds of animals were sacrificed on a daily basis.

Many of us will find this repugnant, whether because we believe in animal rights, question the guilt of the animals to deserve such flagrant disregard for their lives, or just squirm at the thought of all that bloodshed.

Some of the explanations given are satisfactory. Maimonides, the Rambam, wrote that since animal sacrifice was how gods were served in those days, the Israelites were to be weaned away from idol worship by performing the same practices, but directed to the one God.

Performer Gil Kopatch illustrates this reasoning . It was, he said, like trying to wean cannibals from eating people (and remember that Canaan had the cult of Molech, which sacrificed children in the Valley of Hinom, later called Gehenom, or Gehenna). If you just went up to them and said, “Eating people is wrong!” you would find yourself in a stew. But if you suggested that people might be replaced with animals, and then slowly remove some of the customs that seem bizarre to us, you had a better chance.

But as reasonable as the Rambam’s idea was, it did not take long for the Israelites to adopt the same sort of attitude evidenced in Mark Twain’s report about Hawaii: Sin on Monday, sacrifice on Tuesday and by Friday return to your old ways with clear conscience.

That was the stuff against which the prophets, from Samuel through Malachi preached. What is more important, they asked 鈥 bringing sacrifices or carrying out the word of the Lord and fulfilling mitzvoth between one another? The answer invariably was the latter. God does not want, does not need more animals and more animal fat. What He wants is genuine concern for one another in matters social and economic.

So what can the sacrifices teach us today? Basically, the same things they were intended to teach then: that if you sin you are not lost forever; that if you are truly sorry for your lapse you will find forgiveness. That you must really mean to atone. If you owe God, you pay with a sacrifice. If you owe man, you pay back with interest and then your slate is wiped clean.

The catch is, of course, that you have to be truly repentant or else, like Mark Twain’s erstwhile Sandwich Islanders, you can keep sinning as long as you have sacrifices to offer up in atonement.

As could be expected, today’s coronavirus is perceived by some as punishment from God for a whole string of sins. There’s a Rabbi Meir Mazuz, who calls the virus a punishment on Israel for the gay parades it allows. An Islamic cleric called the virus punishment against China (when that country was the epicenter of the pandemic) 鈥 he himself later contracted coronavirus. We have those who call it God’s punishment for our mistreatment of nature, and to this one could say with certainty that no matter what we try to do, Nature has the last word!

Obviously, such talk is pure hubris. One must be endowed with supreme chutzpa to think he can give an asset and liability explanation of God’s decision to wipe one city and not another off the map with an earthquake, to devastate one house by tornado while the house next door remains intact, to afflict a young child with cancer. Such chutzpa borders on blasphemy.

Our efforts should of course be directed toward protecting ourselves and our loved ones as best we can, and following the instructions laid down by the authorities. Historians of the future, writing with 20-20 hindsight, can assign causes and effects, rights and wrongs, rewards and punishments.

In summary, we no longer bring the sacrifices enumerated in Vayikra, but the need for us to express our guilt and our desire for atonement remains. Some people express their feelings through prayers or Tehilim, others change their lifestyle and pay back and pay forward as atonement. It’s all very individual.

We all hope and pray that we come through this eleventh plague (imagine a plague threatening our Pesach!) in good health, and look forward to the day when we return to our regular way of life.

Shabbat Shalom and good health to all

And now, some extra reading material from an external source:


Excerpt of the dvar Torah written by Rabbi Dr. Samuel Lebens

You can find the entire article at:

I recommend it.

The book of Exodus ends with a powerful scene. The Israelites, in the wilderness, had just completed the construction of the Tabernacle. God’s presence descended into it, in a cloud. So filled up was the Tabernacle with God’s presence that nobody could enter. Not even Moses. Then there’s a gap in the text, and the book of Leviticus begins. It starts with God calling Moses, in order to instruct him, regarding various laws concerning the sacrificial service in the Tabernacle. Where was Moses, when God called him?

What happens when you close the gap between these books? Read in that light, it becomes natural to read the sequence of events as follows: (1) upon completion of the Tabernacle, God’s presence filled the Tabernacle, such that nobody could enter, not even Moses, and then (2) God called Moses by name. Where was Moses at that time? He was still standing by the Tabernacle, unable to enter. Read in that light, God’s call to Moses can be read more like an invitation; an invitation to enter.

In other words, if you read the start of Leviticus in the light of the end of Exodus, the following narrative emerges: there was no room in the Tabernacle for Moses at the end of the book of Exodus; then, at the beginning of the book of Leviticus, God made space for Moses, and invited him in.

The Midrash that presents this reading, contains a parable that I take to be of tremendous theological significance.

First, the Midrash points out that, in last week’s reading, as the Tabernacle was being built, we heard an almost constant refrain, after the completion of any given element of the construction, that it was done “as the Lord had commanded Moses.” The Midrash continues to compare this to:

A King who commanded his servant, and said to him, “Build me a palace!” [As his servant built this palace], he wrote on each and every thing that he built, the name of the king. When he built the walls, he wrote the name of the king upon them. When he stood up the pillars [of the palace], he wrote upon then the name of the king. When he was fixing the roof beams, he wrote upon them the name of the king. After some time, the King came into the palace. On each and every thing upon which he glanced, he found his name written. He said, “All of this honour my servant did for me, and I am inside [the palace] whilst he is outside? Call to him, that he should enter the inner sanctum.”

Note what’s going on here. The King told the servant to make a palace. He didn’t tell his servant to write the King’s name all over it. The servant did that all of his own initiative. When the King enters the palace, he has no intention of calling his servant in. But then, he sees the initiative that his servant took; only then does the King decide to invite his servant in; for how could the King stand in there alone? The Midrash continues:

So too, when the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, “Build me a Tabernacle”, about everything that [Moses] made, he wrote, “as God had commanded Moses.” The Holy One, blessed be He said, “All of this honour has Moses done for me, and I am inside, whilst he is outside! Call him so that he should enter the inner sanctum.” Therefore it is said, “And the Lord called to Moses…” (Leviticus 1:1).


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