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Graceful Offerings / Graceful Masculinity – Vayikra

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

וְאִםמִןהָעוֹף עֹלָה קָרְבָּנוֹ, לַיהוָה:  וְהִקְרִיב מִןהַתֹּרִים, אוֹ מִןבְּנֵי הַיּוֹנָהאֶתקָרְבָּנוֹ.

If one’s offering to Hashem is an olah offering from the fowl, one should bring their offering from the turtledoves or from the young doves.

Vayikra 1:14

When G-d introduces G-d’s self to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:5), G-d says: “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” At Mount Sinai, when G-d reveals G-d’s self to the world, it is also amidst fire, and again we are warned to make borders and not approach the mountain (Exodus 19:12). The main purpose of the Torah is to guide us in coming closer to G-d. This models a healthy relationship where each party defines what the appropriate closeness is for themselves, which then informs the available proximity that the other is invited to approach.

The offerings, korbanos in Hebrew, literally means an act of closeness, and is a representation of self sacrifice. However not all acts of self sacrifice bring us closer to the Divine, or to each other. It is necessary to be able to discern what are the healthy and holy pleasures that we are meant to pursue; those that elevate all involved and transcend physical limitations into spiritual spaces. We also need to take care not to cross dangerous lines of consumption and debasement, while also avoiding asceticism.

The first chapter of Vayikra discusses bird sacrifices. “From the turtledoves” מן התורים (min hatorim) is understood as allusion to two Torahs, the oral and written (Rabbeinu Efrayim). There is often a vast space between what the text says and what it actually means. God tells us that investing and toiling in the process of understanding the Divine Will, through Torah study, brings us closer to G-d. Perhaps for this reason the Talmud teaches (Eruvin 63b) that the study of Torah is greater than the offering of the sacrifices.

Hillel had 80 principal students, the greatest of whom was Yonatan ben Uzziel. The story is told (Sukkah 28a) that when Yonatan ben Uzziel would sit and learn Torah, any bird that would fly over his head would be incinerated.  Tosafot explains that his teachings were comparable to the giving of Torah, which was done with fire. Another Medieval commentary, R’ Chananel, explains that the Divine Presence was there, and therefore the space was designated as sacred.

Yonatan ben Uzziel is also the author of the classic Targum, translation of the holy texts, known by his name. The Minchas Elazar posits that the act of translation, by its nature, is to bring outsiders in, by granting access to otherwise guarded spaces. For this reason it was necessary to add an additional layer of protection to mark the contours of this space, with fire.

The Torah is also referred to as derech / a “path” (Exodus 18:20) because it informs how we are meant to travel and navigate this world. In Sotah 49a we are warned that if two Torah scholars are walking along the way / the derech and there are no words of Torah between them, then they are deserving of being burned in fire. The Ben Yehoyada explains this teaching by quoting the Prophet Jeremiah (23:29) that Torah is also called אש aish – fire. He continues that those who learn Torah generate חן chein – grace, and observes that the combined numerical value, 301+58, equals שטן 359 – Satan, a force that was appointed to distract us from G-d. “Therefore, two scholars who are traveling on a dangerous path, and are not learning Torah to combat the evil opposition, are then worthy of being consumed by the fire of the Satan,” instead of being led by the light of Torah.

It is the way of the evil inclination to falsely present the bad as good, like “stolen waters are sweet”(Proverbs 9:17). Our response, the Rabbis teach (Kiddushin 30b) is to “pull it into the study hall,” quoting again from Jeremiah: “Is not My word like fire, says the Lord?”. Through the study of Torah we are able to both connect to the source of all truth and also achieve the ultimate pleasure, coming closer to G-d through respectfully engaging with each other.

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

Build for Loving Balance: Fire and Water, Justice and Repair

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Part of a yearlong series on Torah’s wisdom about building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

This week’s Torah portion (Vayikra) is rich with sacrificial details. Animal body parts, kidneys and fat, and the altar on which they are burned — this is the stuff Leviticus is known for. This material can be tough for us as moderns. We may find the sacrificial system alienating and weird. But yesterday’s ways hold an important lesson for us as tomorrow’s builders: we must build in ways that balance, and uplift, the love inherent both in justice and in repair.

“You shall season your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt” (Lev. 2:13). It’s a principle of classical Torah interpretation that nothing in Torah is extraneous. We can find (or make) meaning in every word, especially words or phrases that Torah repeats.  So what’s up with the fixation on salt?

One response is that salt is a fixative – literally. In ancient days, salt was a primary way to make food last. So maybe Torah describes our covenant with God as a covenant of salt because salt represents what lasts. Our covenant is meant to last forever.

Another interpretation: tradition regards salt as a combination of fire and water. (Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, d.1809, attributes this teaching to Ramban, d. 1270.) In a literal sense, salt is what happens when you apply fire to sea water — simmer away the water, and what’s left is the salt. But metaphorically, salt represents fire and water in balance.

A covenant of salt is a covenant of balance between fire and water. And fire and water, in turn, are understood by our mystics to represent justice and lovingkindness. (In the language of kabbalah, these are called gevurah and chesed.) Justice and lovingkindness are the two primordial qualities that our tradition imagines God balancing. Justice and lovingkindness are the tools with which God continually builds the world.

Like fire, justice is a flame that heats and illuminates, but without proper insulation fire can do harm. Like water, love wants to flow where it’s needed, but without proper channels flow can become a flood. Fire and water need to be tempered, balanced, channeled. That’s the first building lesson I find here. In God’s image, we must ensure that as we build we balance judgment and love, fixity and flexibility, container and flow.

This is the first building lesson in the first Torah portion of the book of Leviticus, which is where traditionally observant children begin learning Torah. It’s traditional to start not with the Genesis story of creating heaven and earth, not with the Exodus story of liberation, but with this.

Why does traditional Jewish pedagogy begin here? Maybe to signal from the very start the need to balance justice and repair, strong container and free flow. This balance is the energetic foundation of the spirit-infused society that Jewish tradition asks each generation to build.

This arises in the context of teachings about structuring a just society.  Both before and after the verse about salt, Torah details animal offerings. First come offerings of wellbeing (“Thank You” to God), then offerings for ritual transgression, then offerings for interpersonal ethics missteps.

In this system, a wrongdoer must make restitution. (Torah speaks of monetary damages — for instance, restitution for fraud was value of the fraud, plus an additional fifth.) Only then would a wrongdoer bring an offering to be sacrificed. This offering would atone for the transgressor – wiping the spiritual slate clean (Lev. 5:24-25) – but only after restitution was made.  

Notice how this process balances fire and water, justice and repair. First comes judgment (the process of discernment, paying restitution to make the injured party “whole”) – the zeal for right action that kindles our hearts like flame. Then comes the chance to make teshuvah and atone. That’s the work of repair and healing, the flow of divinity into and through our hearts like water.

balance

Fire and water in balance. Judgment and repair in balance. They’re like left hand and right hand working together, one wielding a hammer and one holding a nail. They are two parts of a whole.

Critically, there is love in both. Both fire and water can convey love. Both justice and repair can reflect love. Olam chesed yibaneh (“I will build this world from love”), sings Rabbi Menachem Creditor from Psalm 89 – but healthy love takes many forms depending on the circumstance.

Building the world and the Jewish future with love means embodying both love in chesed and love in gevurah. It means building with Vayikra’s balance of justice and repair.

That balance is this week’s building lesson. Whether we see ourselves as walking in ancestral footsteps or in the Holy One’s “footsteps,” we’re called to build with balance. Each of us may lean more toward the “fire” of judgment or the “water” of repair, but Torah asks us to bring both qualities to bear always, and to manifest the love inherent in each.

To build an ethical Jewish future that’s worth our labor and our hope, we need this week’s Torah toolbox and its loving balance between justice and repair. It’s as basic to life as salt.

 

RB Silbert

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.