OU Torah Insights Project
March 18, 2000
Rabbi Aron B. Tendler
Sefer Vayikra has been given a bad rap. As a subject, Vayikra is often seen as detailed, dry, and mostly irrelevant. First of all, the korbanot and other Temple services require a Beit Hamikdash. Secondly, most of the laws are the responsibility of the kohanim. Thirdly, as a study, procedural ceremonies are tedious. Occasionally we are treated to a story or two, but most of Vayikra appears limited to the Temple functions and the priestly services.
The truth is that Vayikra describes life as it should be and could be. When the Beit Hamikdash stood, it was a place where the individual came to recalibrate his outlook on life. It was a place of intensity and serenity. The atmosphere was charged with focus and purpose. G-d was real and self-sacrifice was an expression of humility, not martyrdom.
Wouldn't it be great to just stop for a moment and take a breather? Time and events move around us so quickly that we forget why we do all the things we do. From playing to school to work to sleep, we go through the motions of life and living without ever asking ourselves, "Why?" This week's parshah and all of Sefer Vayikra are intended to answer the question of "why?"
Family, friends, community and work battle for dominion over our time, energy, and emotions. We walk the tightrope of responsibility, attempting to juggle them all, while hoping to keep the balance between "them" and "me." Why?
The childhood years were the easiest. Our natural egocentricity created around us a protective shell that kept the rest of the world at bay. "Feed me, bathe me, dress me, love me, and I'm a happy camper." So long as our basic needs were being met, life couldn't have been better.
With the advent of school, schedules, homework, grades, friendships and social engagements, life got complicated. All of a sudden, it became important to prioritize, make choices, and find the balance between what we wanted and what we could afford. In other words, accepting that we can't do everything and that everything comes with a cost. There are no free lunches.
All of a sudden, life has value; life has purpose. Dimensions of social responsibility, personal development, and spiritual awareness add value, purpose and direction far beyond the intrinsic value of the specific effort, service or product. Sefer Vayikra challenges us to recognize and accept service to G-d as the truest purpose of our efforts.
Witnessing "the kohanim in their service and the Leviim in their song" forced each person to evaluate his own life by the scale of sanctity and purpose. "Am I serving G-d to the extent that I can? Do I live my life with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart? Am I satisfied with the little of my lot just as the kohen is satisfied with his one bite of showbread? Do I revel in the gift of giving, just as the priests rejoice in their gift of service?"
While standing in the Temple courtyard, a person could witness the panorama of human struggle and opportunity. The sick, the needy, the pure, the innocent, the sinner, the repentant, the healthy and the content all entered through the Temple portals. All were in search of meaning and perspective. All were in search of guidance and forgiveness. All were in search of closeness to G-d.
Vayikra is challenge. It confronts each of us, in whatever capacity and position, with a choice. Will we continue to eke out a mundane existence living by the sweat of our brow and the strength of our hands? Or will we embrace life as an opportunity to sanctify the mundane in the service of G-d and humanity?
Accepting the Vayikra challenge means being willing to confront oneself and one's society. Society, friends, and family profoundly influence us all. We each need the time and space to step back and evaluate who we are and what we are doing. The Beit Hamikdash provided the individual with that time and space. Nowadays, the synagogue and Shabbat should do the same.
Rabbi Aron B. Tendler
Rabbi Tendler is rav of Shaarey Zedek Congregation in North Hollywood, California.