by Cantor David Reinwald
Please read me!, says this Torah portion.
And we do. It is the beginning of the third book of the Torah (Leviticus), and we may walk away saying, how do we apply the things described before us to present-day Judaism?
This is because Vayikra deals mainly with the various types of sacrifices that occurred in the ancient temple (by the Levites, and thus this book is Leviticus— the code of law for the Levites). And, it is hard for us to make sense of an era long gone-by, which seemingly does not relate to the lives we experience today, inside and outside of our Jewish community. But, history has indeed translated the understanding of one era into another. And, what exists today has likely existed longer than the ritual of the ancient temples.
Looking for this understanding in an era where they felt lost without the grounding of the temple ritual that had marked early Judaism for so long, the ancient Rabbis turned the three main daily sacrifices into the prayer we know today. Today, three times a day, we find the Amidah– “the standing prayer,” also known as “HaTefillah”– The [Ultimate] Prayer. This prayer has long been the central-most prayer of each daily service– morning, noon, and night. Prayer, itself, is described as an avodah she’ba’lev, a sacrifice of the heart, as we send an expression of ourselves forward, wanting for hope, peace, and wholeness. In their limited vision, I do believe this is what the ancient Israelites sought in their actions within the temple. When we try to understand the events of Biblical time, we have to understand them through the prism which our current advanced society places in front of us. With a lack for today’s advanced perspective, our ancestors saw to perfect their world and their lives through what they were able to understand or tried to rationalize. And, I can only expect that generations from now, they will be saying the same about us.
The first of the 19 prayers that make up the weekday Amidah (also the first of the Shabbat Amidah, shortened to 7 prayers, as we eliminate all prayers that are petitionary, feeling that we cannot ask for God to labor on our behalf while we do not) is the Avot v’Imahot. The Avot v’Imahot connects us to all of the generations that have gone before us, who too have prayed this prayer, all the way back to those it pays homage to– our ancestral fathers and mothers.
Abraham. Sarah. Isaac. Rebecca. Jacob. Leah. Rachel.
But, it does not just mention them. It first says “Our God,” placing us in the present, and then paying homage to the God of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. Thus, we connect ourselves all the way back to the beginning of our people, and we recognize that for each of these incredibly individualized people highlighted in the Torah– that they each had a different concept and perception of who God is and the role God held in each of their lives. Each was full of very different experiences, struggles and triumphs. In the Zohar, the Kabbalistic tradition goes on to connect our three forefathers to each of the three terms used to describe God’s presence in this prayer. “HaEl HaGadol, HaGibbor, v’HaNora,” it says– A God that is all at once, great, mighty, and awesome. But, Kabbalah connects each of these terms to the stories in which Abraham finds himself devoted without question to a God great and commanding, Isaac who finds God as the one implanting strength and warrior-qualities within him, and then Jacob, who experiences God upon multiple occasions as an awesome presence, mysterious and uncontainable.
So, may we be blessed to learn from that which has come before us and where we find ourselves today. The sacrifices for the greater good that we make today find themselves in much different form, but can have just as much meaning.