God is Calling
VAYIKRA: LEVITICUS 1:1 - 5:26
17 MARCH 2018 / 1 NISSAN 5778
Note: The Haftarah read on 17 March 2018 will be Ezekiel 45:16 - 46:18 because this year Parashat Vayikra coincides with a special Shabbat: Shabbat HaChodesh (Rosh Chodesh). However, the Haftarah typically paired with Vayikra is Isaiah 43:21 - 44:23.
In this Torah portion, God describes the laws of animal sacrifice. God explains the different sacrifices that atone for guilt or sins, and distinguishes between sins committed inadvertently and sins committed on purpose. For many crimes, animal sacrifice is a way to gain forgiveness from God.
The floor creaked as the soft boards gave way to worn paths beneath Isaiah’s feet. He was pacing in his study . . . again. The very nature of heaven and earth gripped his mind. Being part of the unified whole of God, were they distinct enough to be in relationship? If so could they attend to each other? That they were sufficiently distinct from humanity for people to perceive distinction was clear enough, but being distinct, could they be called upon to provide witness?
Thinking of his uncle, King Amaziah of Judah. (Megillah 15a), and his people, Isaiah wondered if even with the heavens and the earth as witnesses humanity could manage the humility necessary for repentance. And such short attention spans they had.
Leaned against the window frame, Isaiah drummed the fingers of his right hand on the glass.
Perhaps the full 613 commandments were too many. People tended to get lost in the details. Perhaps even so the central ten. His left hand prickled as his fingers teased through his wiry beard. Perhaps six: honesty in dealing; sincerity in speech; refusal of illicit gain; absence of corruption; aversion for bloody deeds; contempt for evil (Mak. 24a). Through the window, Isaiah could see people passing by on the street. He shook his head.
Better still, two: justice and charity (ib.). Even at their sunken state, this people should be able to manage the morality of just that: justice and charity. With consolation and encouragement, please God, maybe they could regain their potential from there. (Ber. 57b).
His stomach grumbled. It had been hours since he had eaten, and his hunger brought to mind his wife. His wife, ever compassionate, was always saying after being chastised, consolation and encouragement is the only way to bring someone close. Push away with one hand, pull closer with the other, she said. Isaiah chuckled and turned away from the window. His wife, now she was the very embodiment of the relationship between earth and heaven.
Having returned to the original puzzle, his feet worrying the floor, Isaiah’s thoughts twisted their way through his mind. Just as he reached to grasp at something seemingly concrete the words proved elusive and he was left with only complex layers of despair and . . . well, if not not quite hope . . . anticipation.
It was some time before he realized the musings were not only his own.
“Whom shall I send?” God called.
Every thread of Isaiah's being responded, “Here I am. Send me!”
Ach. Why are you so eager. These people, you’ve met them, yes?
Then you know! Their hearts are obstinate, their ears are heavy, and their eyes are shut.
They are troublesome, and sensitive. They are more inclined to insult and even beat you than thank you for your trouble.
Well. You are passionate, I’ll give you that. Perhaps you are an ardent fool. Shouldn’t you rethink taking on this mission?
You know them, but you will defend them. You know me, but you will argue with me.
I am intrigued. Why?
Because . . . You called.
(adapted from Lev. R. x.)
Vayikra - and he called.
This week’s parsha is paired with a selection of verses from Isaiah. (Isaiah 43:21-44:23.) Isaiah, an intense prophet who answered. Haftarah means "completion" or “taking leave” and the haftarot are the selections from the books of the Nevi’im, the prophets, of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. The Haftarah reading follows the Torah reading on Shabbat, festivals, and fast days because . . . Well, we don’t know for sure.
Maybe because of the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes before the Maccabean revolt since Torah reading was prohibited. The Talmud mentions that a haftarah was read in the presence of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who lived c.70 CE, and that by the time of Rabbah (the 3rd century) there was a "Scroll of Haftarot". Rabbi Yosef Karo (16th century) reported that for many years there were no set haftarot and the reader chose a passage. Over time, certain choices became established, but communities continue to have varying customs.
In the texts of the Prophets, there is a link between heaven and earth. These prophets lived in recorded history. It was about 740 BCE when Isaiah responded to that call and began his prophecy throughout which the kings of Judah reigned. They are also characters of this faith tradition, according to the rabbinic literature, Isaiah was a descendant of the royal house of Judah and Tamar (Sotah 10b). And, of course, with their calling came a mission.
Isaiah’s mission was to admonish the people and keep them on the right path, to instill faith in God, and to bring them courage and fortitude at a time when they were suffering from mortal fear of the new Assyrian Empire. His descriptions of the future glory of Zion and his poetic consolation inspired people then, and inspire people now.
In this week’s haftarah portion, paired with Vayikra in which we are called to holiness particularly through offering sacrifices, Isaiah calls on heaven and earth as witnesses, insists that sacrifices alone aren’t what God wants, chastises us for wearying God with our transgressions, and in 43:26 instructs us to bring our case before God, to argue with God and tell our side of the story. Eventually in 44:21-23 we are assured that all of our transgressions will be wiped away and we will be redeemed.
It’s remarkable to me that a person who knows the people among whom he lives and who has ascertained that hundreds of mitzvot - commandments - are too many for these people to fulfill, that six are even beyond them, and who - because of their utter inability to live as they should - has reduced their obligation to two central concepts of morality: justice and charity, is also arguably only parallelled in his passionate advocacy of our people by Moses. Some of the sages say in this Isaiah surpases Moses.
In our time, we also live among a generation that so often seems unable to sustain even the most basic ideas of human decency. With Vayikra we begin the book of Leviticus, which contains verse after verse of instruction about what it means to be holy, and what it means to live as a holy people. Whether or not we agree with every detail, even the premise of humanity’s ability to attain holiness seems . . . lofty. Aspirational. Unattainable?
But God is still calling. And we no longer live in an era of prophets.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “Man is more than what he is to himself. In his reason he may be limited, in his will he may be wicked, yet he stands in a relation to God which he may betray but not sever, and which constitutes the essential meaning of his life. He is the knot in which heaven and earth are interlaced.”
God is calling.
How will we answer?