Vayikra

By Chaplain Leslie Klipstein

Parshat Vayikra is, of course, the first parsha in the Book of Leviticus – so named in English because it outlines the many Temple duties of the priests (aka the Levites). Leviticus is the central book of Torah, the beating heart of it all. Or maybe the proper metaphor is the spine, that which holds it up and gives it form – or the navel, the central mark of our human becoming, our birth and our connection to our mother’s womb.

What is the literal center of your physical being? And whatever you choose, what are the metaphoric implications?

In any case, Parshat Vayikra is the beginning of the center of Torah, and it opens with a familiar word – vayikra – which means “and G-d called out.” This time, however, the word is written differently, with the final alef significantly smaller than the rest of the letters. Without the alef, the meaning of vayikra changes; it becomes more akin to G-d “happening upon” Moses, as if it were an accidental twist of chance or fate. With the alef, no matter how small, vayikra is an active, intentional call for attention. So here at the start of Leviticus we are doubly called to pay heed to Parshat Vayikra; once by the meaning of the word itself and again by the unusual detail of the curiously small letter. “Pay attention!” is both called out loudly and whispered by the breathy alef, “Psst, hey you. Pay attention.”

Leviticus is indeed a book that calls attention to every large and small detail! Vayikra outlines how and when and why to sacrifice various animals on the Temple alter, primarily as offerings of atonement for things we’ve done wrong, both intentionally and unintentionally. All the sprinkling of blood, burnt kidneys, the sinews and the suet, lobes of liver and visceral fat described in this parsha can feel far removed from today’s small-t-temple services, the avodat ha-lev, the “service of the heart,” the prayers in our siddurim. And while I am in no way advocating a return to animal sacrifice, I will admit that our modern “meditations of the heart,” these familiar prayers and melodies, can often feel, well, somewhat bloodless. Compared to the sacrifices described in Vayikra, chanting in my cozy shul is perhaps too easy, requires too little of me.

Leviticus, that central part of Torah, is not theoretical or emotional – it is a practical outline of embodied actions. Vayikra offers us the technology of atonement. When you notice a wrongdoing, whether yours, the communities’, or our leaders’: stop. That is the first step. Then, make it right. If something has been stolen, for example, return it. Finally, get closer to G-d by offering something significant, something public, something that will mark a shift. Back in the day, that offering was an animal, burnt in a public ceremony, “the aroma pleasing to G-d,” after which atonement was achieved and we got another chance to be our best selves within our beloved community. The beating heart and the structural bones of this technology is the same for today’s teshuvah. First, we stop. Then we make it right with our fellows. Then we make it right with G-d. Then we try again, act differently, do better, connected to our community.

As a hospital chaplain, the physicality of this parsha speaks to me in my kishkes. I see so many bodies laid low because the blood, the kidneys, the liver and entrails and suet and sinews and skin were not tended to or stopped working properly. And as I bear witness to the stories these embodied folks tell, I hear that silent little aleph insisting that there are no accidents, that we are continuously called to attention. And Parshat Vayikra calls us further – from attention to action. The words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts are just the beginning. Our bodies, too, must act, must reach for the divine. Our bodies, as much as our souls, are holy and need tending. Our bodies, as much as our souls, are instruments of teshuvah.

I urge us all to take on the mantle of that small aleph, to act in the world with intention and attention – with purpose, on purpose. Taking concrete action in this world to make it whole and holy, as best we can with what we’ve got right now.