You are here

Vayikra

Good Shabbos – today my talk is extremely unstructured, for which I apologize.  There are many varied and interesting comments on the Sidra, and I will only cover a few of these (hearty sighs of relief from the back!) 

Firstly, let us look at the very first word …

Said Rav Assi: “Why do young children begin [the study of Torah] with the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), and not with B’reishit (Genesis)? Surely it is because young children are pure, and the korbanot are pure; so let the pure come and engage in the study of the pure.”1 Midrash Rabah

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (who later became the third Rebbe of Chabad) entered cheder on the day after Yom Kippur of the year 1792, eleven days after his third birthday. The child's grandfather, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, instructed Reb Avraham the melamed to begin the first lesson with the opening verses of Vayikra.

Following the lesson, the child asked: "Why is the word vayikra written with a little aleph?"

For a long while Rabbi Schneur Zalman sat in a deep meditative trance. Then he explained:

"The first man, Adam, was 'the handiwork of G-d,' and G-d attested that his wisdom was greater than that of the angels. Adam was aware of his own greatness, and this awareness caused him to overestimate himself and led to his downfall in the sin of the Tree of Knowledge.”

"Moses, who possessed a soul deriving from chachmah of atzilut (the highest manifestation of the divine wisdom), was also aware of his own greatness   But this did not lead him toward self-aggrandizement. On the contrary, it evoked in him a broken and anguished heart, and made him extremely humble in his eyes, thinking to himself that if someone else had been blessed with the gifts with which he, Moses, had been blessed, that other person would surely have achieved far more than himself. Thus G-d testifies in the Torah that 'Moses was the most humble man upon the face of the earth.'

"In the letters of the Torah, which G-d gave at Sinai, there are three sizes: intermediate letters, oversized letters, and miniature letters. As a rule, the Torah is written with intermediate letters, signifying that a person should strive for the level of "the intermediate man". Adam's name is spelled with an oversize aleph (in Chronicles 1:1), because his self-awareness led to his downfall. On the other hand, Moses, through his sense of insufficiency, attained the highest level of humility, expressed by the miniature aleph of Vayikra.2 From the talks of the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson

Rashi informs us that the word ויקרא has several meanings.  It can mean to call someone by their name, so when our verse says המ אל ויקרא it really means not “He called to Moshe” but “He called out ‘Moshe’”.   Rashi further informs us that calling someone by their name is a sign of love.  Rabbi Hirsch (unfortunately no relative) says that this is to emphasise that the word of ה did not come from within Moshe.  It came to Moshe from without, calling him away, as it were, from his own thought processes so that he might listen attentively to what ה wished to say to him.  This, according to R Hirsch refutes the notion that these words were preceded by some process taking place within Moshe himself.  It reinforces the concept of “Torah min HaShamayim”.3 From the translation of the commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (the Pentateuch – Judaica Press)

Much of the text (the detail of which is not for the squeamish) may seem to have no relevance to today’s world, where Shachrit and Mincha replace the Temple services.  The concept of “Korban” has come to mean “sacrifice” and to imply that the person making the sacrifice is giving up something and destroying it to his own detriment.  This is totally contrary to the connotation of the Hebrew term.  It is not even an “offering”, but is used exclusively with reference to man’s relationship with G-d and it can be understood in the connotation implicit in its root קרו which means “to approach”. R Hirsch takes this to mean that this is the desire of the מקריב [Makriv] (the one who makes the ן קר) to attain a closer relationship with ה.  Rashi says that ה uses the word “Adam” for man rather than “ish”, to teach us that a person cannot offer to ה what has not been honestly obtained by him – “When you bring an offering to Me, be like Adam, the first man, who could not have stolen from anyone, since he was alone in the world” 4 Rashi – Midrash Tachuma  This, of course, refers to Adam in the first moments of his life, before he partook of the Tree of Knowledge – of man still unsullied by sin.

But, says Rabbi Dr Baruch Leff, “sin” is a bad translation.   The “Chatat”, translated as a “sin offering” is for a “Chet”.  For a “pasha” or “avon” – intentional transgressions, you would do “T’shuva” and fix the damage. The word “Chet” means “to miss the mark”, as in archery, if you were aiming at the target and miss.  The “Chet” is an unintentional sin.  Despite the fact that the sin is unintentional, don’t just say “I’m sorry” or look for someone else to blame.  The message of the “Chatat” is that we are responsible for all of our deeds, intentional or accidental.  We must take responsibility, and strive not to repeat our errors in future. 5www.jacksonsnyder.com/arc/Midrash/76.  But how, in today’s world, with no temple, do we atone?  Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, youngest disciple of Rabbi Hillel, who founded the school at Yavneh, which became the centre of Judaism after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem) was once walking in Yerushalayim and saw the Bais Ha'mikdosh laying in ruins, his student Rebbi Yehosuah remarked, "Woe to us that the place where we were able to obtain our forgiveness lies in ruins". "My son" answered Rebbi Yochanan. "We must always remember that we are still left with one method of forgiveness that is her equal, and that is gemilas chasodim-doing good deeds." 6 Website of Camp S’dei Chemed

The Talmud sages have many sayings which show that it is not the size of the offering that is important.   “It is said of a large ox, “A fire-offering, a sweet savour”; of a small bird “A fire-offering, a sweet savour”; and of a meal-offering, “A fire-offering, a sweet savour”.   This is to teach that it is the same whether a person gives much or little, so long as he directs his heart to heaven. 7 Talmud, Melachot 110a. There is also a Midrash which says “An ox was once being led to sacrifice, but would not budge.  A poor man came along with a bunch of endive in his hand.  He held it out towards the ox, which ate it and then allowed itself to be led to sacrifice.  In a dream it was revealed to the owner of the ox: ‘The poor man’s sacrifice superseded yours’” 8 Midrash Rabbah

Finally (and I can see the relief on your faces), there is a political message in the Sidra, as relevant today as ever it was.   “But if a prince commits a sin …”  Rashi has a word play on the words “Asher Nashi Yechetah” – he links this to the word “Ashrei (which is translated as “happy is” or “fortunate is” the generation whose leader applies himself to atone for his errors.   Would that our political masters (including Prime Minister Brown) take heed.

Shabbat Shalom!

Benson Hersch

More documents on this Parshah: