Torah reading: Vayikra

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Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple.

Though the siddur looks forward to the reinstitution of the sacrifices which are set out in such detail in Parashat Vayikra, Franz Rosenzweig and some other modern thinkers advise us to wait until the moment of redemption comes and work out an attitude to sacrifices at that point.

Rav Kook had a different approach. As a kohen he was anxious to be ready for the rebuilding of the Temple and the recommencement of the sacrificial and other tasks of the kohanim.

Which point of view is to be preferred?

From the theological point of view the Rav Kook approach has more to commend it, even though we understand Franz Rosenzweig’s ambivalence and hesitation. In thinking about Rav Kook and sacrifices we need to spare a thought for the story of Abraham, Isaac and the Akedah.

In the Akedah narrative, God tells Abraham to offer up his son. The text does not say that God told Isaac of His plan, but we learn between the lines that once Isaac knew what was going on, he acquiesced. Does this mean that he was prepared to sacrifice himself on the altar of Divine service? There is no other conclusion we can come to. In the end it was not Isaac who was offered up, but a substitute in the form of a ram. The outcome is that instead of giving himself to God, an animal was offered.

Similarly with the sacrificial code of Vayikra, instead of giving one’s life to God one worships Him by giving Him a choice possession.

In terms of today, the believing human being says, “God, Your bounty to me and all Your creatures is so overwhelming that I really want to give all of myself to You, but instead of giving You myself I offer my time and talents and a token of part of my possessions.”

STARTING WITH VAYIKRA

In Talmudic times, the first Book that was taught to children was Vayikra. The language and thoughts were difficult, but it focussed on purity, and the sages said, “Let the pure ones come and engage in thoughts of purity”.

In later centuries the words were written on a slate in letters of honey and the children would lick it off to get a sweet taste of Jewish learning. Not only did honey attract children to the Torah but in the Song of Songs (4:11) the groom said to his bride, “Your lips drop sweetness like the honeycomb”.

Where did they get the honey? In early Biblical times it was date honey; indeed according to Rashi, “honey” could have been the sweet juice of any fruit. In modern Israel the honey industry uses citrus, apple, pear and even avocado orchards. By the period of the Book of Judges it was bees’ honey that was used, and beekeeping was a well-known activity in those times.

The custom of giving children honey letters to lick off their slates may be the origin of the current habit of giving children Shabbat treats to enjoy on Friday nights during the service. It makes a mess of the synagogue, but it encourages the children to have sweet thoughts about Shabbat and the Torah.

GIVING IT AWAY

Vayikra introduces us to the system of sacrifices with its underlying concept that religion requires us to give – to God, to the house of worship, to good causes, to the poor.

Some faiths think that poverty is good for a person and therefore one should give everything away. Judaism, however, sets a limit on how much one should give, and the person who gives away everything is not regarded as admirable or wise.

The sages seem to take this notion to absurd lengths when they report that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, compiler of the Mishnah, “m’chabbed ashirim” – “gave honour to rich people” (Eruvin 86a). What sort of message does this convey? That just because a person is rich, that is a reason to give him honour?

There must be an answer; let us suggest two in fact:

1. Riches are a deposit which God places with a person; if God deems the person worthy of that privilege, you should respect him… provided he uses his means for the benefit of the community, just as one’s talents (in art, music, literature, etc.) benefit others; and provided his business ethics are in order (it is better to have less dollars and a good conscience).

2. Ben Zoma says, “Who is rich? He that is content with his lot” (Pirkei Avot 4:1). In this sense even a poor person can be wealthy. But here too there is a condition. If God has given you happiness and personal stability, use His blessing to benefit others, to bring a smile to their faces too.

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Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple. Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia's highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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