Vayikra: Restoring the Fires of Israel

ARZA’s Torah commentary explores connections in the weekly Torah portion to the Land of Israel through the lens of tradition and in our own day. Readers are absolutely encouraged to share this material for weekly Torah classes, conversations, and the Shabbat table, remembering, of course, that “Whoever conveys a teaching in the name of the person who said it brings redemption to the world” (Pirkei Avot 6:6).
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Vayikra: Restoring the Fires of Israel

(Parashat Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1-5:26, is read during the week that ends on Shabbat, March 19, 2016.)

It is a burnt offering, an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to God… (Exodus 29:18)

The early chapters of Leviticus have been the bane of bar/bat mitzvah students for centuries: What are we to do with chapter upon chapter devoted to the sacrifices that the ancient priests offered as Israel’s worship of God?

Vayikra describes several kinds of sacrificial offerings: the olah (burnt offering, whose smoke “went up” to God), the mincha (grain offering), the zevach shelamim (“sacrifice of well-being,” although many prefer the old translation “peace offering”), the hata’at (sin offering) and the asham (guilt offering). In these ways, ancient Israel drew near to God and sought atonement for their sins.

The sacrificial system was designed for the mishkan, the portable wilderness sanctuary described in Exodus, and subsequently for the Temples that stood in Jerusalem for the better part of one thousand years. Therefore, Leviticus is a spiritual link to the Land of Israel and Jerusalem, even if that bond exists only in the memory of the Jewish people.

By the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, the Sages elevated prayer to the status
of sacrifice. The literal offerings of Leviticus were no longer necessary, they explained,
because each person could draw near to God through prayer, which the Talmud called  haavodah shebalev, “the sacrifice that is in the heart” (Talmud, Ta’anit 2a).

As the Jewish prayer service took shape in the first two centuries CE, the Amidah service was designed to correspond to the sacrifices that were offered in the Temple. For that reason, the Talmud ruled that the Amidah should be recited facing Jerusalem (and, if in Jerusalem, toward the Holy of Holies), with one’s heart inclined towards God (Talmud, Berachot 30a).

To this day there remain echoes of the ancient sacrifices in Jewish prayer. However, to be honest, in Reform services one has to listen for these echoes a little more carefully. After all, the editors of early Reform prayerbooks strived to remove the vestiges of the Temple sacrifices from their liturgy.

One interesting illustration of this is found in the “Avodah” prayer—sometimes known as “R’tzeh,” from its first Hebrew word. The “R’tzeh” is the first of three concluding blessings that are recited in every Amidah (and thus in every service, whether it’s a weekday, Shabbat, or a holiday).

The “R’tzeh,” in its traditional form, poignantly longs for the Shekhinah (God’s intimate—and feminine—Presence) to return home to Jerusalem… and, more provocatively, it years for the Jews to resume the levitical sacrifices! In the traditional siddur, this is the R’tzeh (English translation):

Find favor, Adonai our God, in your People Israel and in their prayer; and return the sacrifice to the Holy of Holies. In favor accept the fire-offerings of Israel and their prayers in love. And may the service of Israel your People always be favorable.
May our eyes behold your return to Zion in mercy. Blessed are You, Adonai, who restores the divine Presence to Zion

The early Reform editors of their prayer book were uncomfortable, to say the least, with these passages about “returning the sacrifice” and “the fire-offerings of Israel.” Like most Jews, their vision of a perfected world did not include restoring the rites of sacrifice in a Temple in Jerusalem as described in Leviticus. In fact, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman has written that “Early Reform Jews took exception to the idea of God’s returning to Zion on the grounds that it was too ‘Zionistic’…” So they removed these references.

The contemporary American Reform siddur, Mishkan Tefillah (2007), has restored the centrality of Israel to the spiritual longing of the prayer, but still omits the explicit references to sacrifices. In fact, most Reform siddurim add a line that emphasizes the universal aspect of prayer, that God can draw close to every open heart (English translation):

Find favor, Adonai, our God, with Your people Israel and accept their prayer in love. May the worship of Your people Israel always be acceptable. God is near to all who call, turn lovingly to Your servants. Pour out Your spirit upon us.
Let our eyes behold Your loving return to Zion. Blessed are You, Adonai, whose Presence returns to Zion.

Most provocative is the form of this prayer in the Israeli Reform siddur, HaAvodah SheBalev (1991). The Israeli Reform movement retains the Reform objection to language about sacrifices, but (naturally enough) asserts the centrality of Israel and Jerusalem. And it adds one word—a Zionist word—to the final line. It’s not just the Shekhinah (God’s intimate—and feminine—Presence) that is returning home to Israel; it’s also the Jewish people (English translation):

Blessed are You, Adonai, whose Presence and whose people return to Zion.

What do we make of all this? The “R’tzeh” was once, in is earliest form, a prayer to God to lovingly accept the sacrifices of Israel, and, in the years after the Temple’s destruction, it was a prayer that those sacrifices soon would resume. Does this have any relevance for a contemporary Jew?

I believe it does. The blessing for “returning God’s Presence to Zion” could be a hallmark of a contemporary Reform Zionist: While Israel is foremost in our prayer, we knows its sense of imminent Godliness is still far from complete. For that to happen, we need to build a State of Israel that is shaped by justice and peace. As poet Marcia Falk has written, “Asking that the Shekhinah be restored to the Jewish homeland can be a way of seeking at least two distinct but related aims: that Israel be a place in which we live with reverence for all life, and that the sense of the divine as immanent (and the valuing of women’s experience as part of the divine immanence) be honored in Israel and wherever else we make our homes.”

We can even discover poetic meaning in that old traditional phrase—the one the editors removed, “In favor accept the fire-offerings of Israel.” After all, the fires don’t need to be so literal. Keeping lamps of the spirit trimmed and burning — fighting boredom, complacency, and the status quo — is a perpetual religious quest. What does it take to rekindle the spiritual flames in today’s lovers of Israel? How do we keep that passion burning in our hearts and in our communities? And in what ways does Israel flame the passions of the Jewish soul, even in a soul that is is far away?


Rabbi Neal Gold is the National Director of Content and Programming for ARZA. He was ordained as a Rabbi from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1997. For over 18 years he has served congregations in New Jersey and Massachusetts. In 2016, he became the first in-house scholar-in-residence for Jewish Family Service of Metrowest. 

Rabbi Gold has served on the national board of ARZA and was a delegate for ARZENU, the international Reform Jewish movement, at the 37th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem in October 2016. He is a founding member of the President’s Council of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and currently serves as Vice-President of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. He is married to Heidi Gold and they have two sons, Avi and Jeremy. Rabbi Gold enjoys fishing, writing, yoga, reading, and highly amplified music.

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