Rabbi Rene Pfertzel
In 1990, Rabbi John Rayner z’’l delivered a sermon at the LJS on the opening parasha of the Book of Leviticus, Vayikra. Let’s listen to his words.
“This is the time of the year when, paradoxically, just as we get ready to celebrate Pesach, we leave behind the book of Exodus, with its stirring account of the deliverance of our ancestors from Egyptian slavery, and turn to the very different book of Leviticus, which will provide our Torah readings for the next seven weeks.
It is a time, which Jewish preachers don’t particularly relish. For there is little in the book of Leviticus to inspire, to edify or even to interest a modern congregation. Of course, there is the great 19th chapter with its lofty moral exhortations, such as “love your neighbour as yourself”. There is the 23d chapter, about the festivals of the Jewish year, which still regulates our calendar. And there is the 25th chapter with its Utopian provisions for a just social order, including the Jubilee. But that makes only three chapters out of twenty-seven. The rest is almost entirely occupied with the priesthood and the sacrificial cult and the laws of ritual defilement and purification, particularly chapter after dreary chapter prescribing in minute detail the sacrifices to be offered day by day.
There is therefore a great temptation at this time of the year to choose the Torah readings with judicious selectivity… or else to read a short passage from the prescribed portion, but then quickly to forget about it and talk about something entirely different”.
Rabbi Rayner decided not to take the easy way, and to tackle the issue of sacrifices for Progressive Jews. His conclusion still resonates today:
“The sacrificial cult represents a stage in the development of Judaism that was left behind long ago… We look to the past only to see how far we have travelled, and to understand more clearly where we must go, which is not ‘back to square one’ but forward to a better future, to a more mature kind of religious belief and worship”.
Progressive Jews today do not long for the re-establishment of the sacrificial cult in the Temple of Jerusalem, and we are very much aware of the price to pay just to rebuild a Temple in the city of Jerusalem.
However, we must keep these texts alive as part of our tradition, not because we believe they might be relevant one day in the future, but because they belong to our history. They inspired our ancestors, they were part of their worldview, and they were once central to the Jewish religion.
We could remind ourselves that the root for the word “sacrifice”, korban, K. R. B., means, “to get, or to bring closer to”. In the Temple, sacrifices were meant to bridge the gap between the people and the Divine, to open a road between the profane and the sacred. That would be a meaningful way to transform these ancient notions into more acceptable ones.
Rabbis of the past have transformed the Avodah, the Temple service, into Avodat ha-Lev, the service of the heart: prayer, acts of loving-kindness, and betterment of the world. They have proven themselves capable of change in a time when the very survival of our people was at stake. It happened two thousand years ago, and for us, it is History. We can hardly fathom how traumatic these times were, and how many sacrifices they had to make. The history of the many sacrifices we had to make in a time of Covid is yet to be written. And alongside it, how much closer we could get closer to God and to our true selves.
As Rabbi Rayner said in the beginning, preaching on Shabbat Vayikra is not something a Progressive Rabbi would relish. Nevertheless, there is always something new, a different lesson to draw for us today, in this particular generation. We know the sacrifices we had to make in order to go through this pandemic. We know the price of lockdowns on our mental health, on our economy. But we must also recognize the good that came out of this extraordinary experience by meditating on the Hebrew root of Korban, something that brings us closer. It is now up to us to decide, “closer to what”? The future is in our hands, and we have a unique opportunity to make it brighter, more compassionate and more meaningful.
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