D’var Torah: VaYikra

By Russell Goldsmith | Blogs

Apr 02

This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

At the beginning of the Torah Reading this past Shabbat, I asked the congregation to think of one word and one word only to summarize the third book of the Torah, Leviticus, which we began reading. Here are some of the responses I received: Holiness, Ritual, Sacrifice, Cruelty (in killing animals), Guilt, etc. I said that they were all right but that I would give my one word later.

I divide the Sedra into two major themes. The first I call “Korban” because it is the word for sacrifice and that is one of the major themes of Leviticus. It is a word which means “bringing close” and the five different types of sacrifice mentioned in the portion and throughout the book are all meant to bring people closer to God. They offer something earth-bound to lift them up spiritually, something they have raised or grown and might otherwise have eaten (not that God needs to eat). Maimonides says this form of worship was education leading our people from the familiar form of worship of their early days ultimately to prayer in our day.

The other theme is embodied in three words later in the portion- “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is otherwise known at the “Golden Rule” and appears in a Talmudic story in another form. When a prospective convert comes to Shammai and asks to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Shammai angrily sends the questioner packing. When he comes to Hillel, he is welcomed in and told “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor, the rest is commentary, come and learn.” The questioner who was actually not asking for the Torah literally on one foot but based on one principle is told that the principle which brings us closer to God is also quite earth-bound in how we relate to our fellow human beings.

In the context of these two core themes in Leviticus, what is the one word which I believe summarizes the entire Sedra? The word is “mysticism.” No, I am not talking about Kabbala as practiced by Madonna in California, or the complex and obscure mysticism taught by the traditional Kabbalists of the Talmud and the Middle Ages. I am also not describing the monk on the mountain top who retreats from the community to live a contemplative life, meditating or reciting mantras to climb a spiritual ladder to God.

I am, instead, talking about Judaism’s mainstream mysticism assigned the name “Normal Mysticism” by one of my professors at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Max Kadushin, z”l. His philosophy of all of Judaism and certainly the Book of Leviticus is summed by my Masorti colleague and previous SAMS Rabbi Jeremy Gordon who said, “We find meaning and salvation, not through hocus pocus, but everyday action, not through miracle but through elevation of the humdrum, not on a mountain top away from the world but by blessing bread, loving thy neighbor, giving Tzedaka.” These are the acts or mitzvot performed with our feet firmly planted on the earth while our souls soar upward. It was the all-natural rush I felt this past week when I made a donation to World Jewish Relief to help those suffering in East Africa. It was as powerful and heady a feeling as the feeling I get when I practice mindfulness meditation.

There are many ways to uplift ourselves but Judaism offers us a normal mysticism which we can practice everyday. True, it all began on the heights of a mountain called Sinai from which Moses brought those commandments down to us so that we could reach the heights, become closer to God, without ever leaving home.

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