By Bill Hess
After repeatedly bouncing off the seemingly impenetrable wall of the arcane, exceedingly accurate and lengthily described laws that open the third book of Torah, Vayikra/Leviticus, it is not difficult to understand why legions of rabbis and learned teachers flee from dissertations thereon. And to develop a Zionist theme from the sacrifices, much less a Reform Zionist theme, only adds to the assignment. This is not to say that there is much in Leviticus on which to develop sermons, drashot, etc., just not so much in these verses. Blood, yes, a variety of sacrifices without blood, yes; but those little side ventures that prompt discussion just are not there in the opening chapters of Vayikra.
Upon further reflection, however, and such matters as devrei tora require much further reflection, there is the glimmer of a theme, even a Zionist one, coupled with the teaching of a late beloved, teacher, Rabbi and friend. The aim is to tie the two together by the end into a synthesis that is rational, Reform and Zionist.
Adonai called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting saying, ‘Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them:
When any of you presents an offering of cattle to Adonai he shall choose his offering from the herd or from among the flock. (Lev. 1:1-1:2)
From there the text goes into the most minute detail about a bunch of sacrifices that are no longer practiced, and cannot be, lacking a Temple in Jerusalem. So, maspic/enough. We go to the Haftarah for help but find none.
But, there was something, a teaching of a friend and mentor, Rabbi Larry, “Jake” Jackofsky z”l, that came to mind. Jake used to teach that the opening of Leviticus, Vayikra, was the only place in Torah where God calls to Moses, “And He called to Moses”… We are used to the rubric of “And Adonai said, or spoke, to Moshe saying, speak to bnai Israel and….” Here we get a simple, “And He called…”
One device the rabbis have been known to employ in difficult circumstances is to look elsewhere in the text. Ah hah!! Of course. If we just go back a few verses to the conclusion of last week’s portion and its detailed description of the construction and decoration of the Mishkan the transition to Vayikra is made easier. In the preceding portion the Mishkan is completed and the pillars of cloud and fire are established as directional signals. Then the Spirit of God enters and is ready to take the relationship to the next level.
In Shemot/Exodus our people is established and forges a covenant with the Almighty. That was the ideal. Now what? The practical has to fill in and with the practical come the rules, regulations and details that circumscribe daily life, beginning with sacrifices. And we are, through Moses, called by God to service. We accept as we are able the responsibilities meted out in Leviticus. With that call, Vayikra, we, the Jewish people, have reached a watershed, it is time to begin doing rather than ideating.
For two thousand years the Jewish people dreamed of a homeland and built up an ideal and yearned for it with all the fervor we could muster. Then, in 1948, the dream was realized. We have spent the last 65, almost 66, years, as a Free People in Our Own Land, to paraphrase the Israeli national anthem, trying to work out exactly how realizing the ideal is going to work. Without delving into dangerous waters, suffice it to say there is a lesson in the current negotiations. The purpose is to form a coalition that will run the country. The coalition part is important.
Coalitions have been critical and intrinsic to Israel’s creation and survival. It took a coalition to form the Zionist movement. It took the Zionist coalition to nudge the world and the Jewish people to support the concept of the creation of the state. It took half a decade of destruction and desecration directed against the Jewish people to lend gravitas and galvanize the enough support in the United Nations to create Israel. But then Jews from 80-100 countries, regions, cultures, customs, recipes, nusach and attitudes had to reconcile their differences in a big hurry, overcome Arab hostility and world ostracism and fabricate a country and society. And our coalition held, and holds today in Israel. Coalition politics even holds in the truly arcane halls of the World Zionist Organization, which brings us to ARZA
ARZA is part of an international Reform Zionist umbrella called ARZENU. ARZENU is among the largest factions in the World Zionist Congress, certainly as disciplined as any party. ARZENU is well-positioned in the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Israel to bring benefit to the Israel Movement for Reform Judaism and keep the Reform perspective at the table with all respect. That is the result of the coalition.
We in the Zionist movement working on behalf of the values and aspirations of Reform Judaism feel called to serve God, Israel and the Jewish people. It sounds hokey, perhaps in modern times, but we take seriously the commitment to work as part of a coalition to forge a state, maintain it against all odds and have it flourish in so many diverse and important ways. But that is modern Israel. We Reform Jews are securing our place there, helping work out the details, not of Temple Service, but of public sacrifice and constructive dialogue to insure Israel reaches the ideals of tolerance and pluralism enunciated in her Declaration of Independence. As we approach the Passover season let us not forget the importance of respect, tolerance that freedom requires in order to achieve our goals, be it as individuals, congregations, communities and Israel and her people, our people.
Bill Hess is ARZA vice chair of allocations, immediate past President of the American Zionist Movement, and a Union for Reform Judaism board member. He dedicates this piece to the memories of his teachers Jacques Torczyner and Rabbi Lawrence “Jake” Jackofsky, zichronam l’vracha.