One of my favorite Torah passages occurs in the first portion of Exodus. Moses had just killed an Egyptian taskmaster, and Moses ran away to escape Pharoah's wrath. These short verses are a watershed moment for the Israelites.
... the people of Israel sighed because of the slavery, and they cried, and their cry came up to God ... And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.
This early passage from Exodus suggests that God does indeed hear prayer. And God does not only listen. God reacts. God mentors a young shepherd named Moses. God performs 10 acts of miracle and might in the land of Egypt, culminating in the splitting of the mighty waters of the Red Sea. God frees the Israelites.
But, God only frees the Israelites after God has heard their prayer.
This week's parsha is the first portion of Leviticus, the third and central book in the Torah. In this portion, God describes the different sacrifices the Israelites are to offer. The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban. The three letter root of the word is kuf-resh-vet and it also signifies nearness, or proximity. By performing korbanot, sacrifices, the Israelites become closer with God. Now, tonight, we will sacrifice no bulls, or goats ... but we do pray. Our prayers are meant to be an offering of our mouths and hearts. Our prayers and songs are indeed korbanot.
This third book of the Torah is titled Vayikra, stemming from the first word of the portion:
Vayikra el-Moseh va-y'daber Adonai elav mey-ohel moed ley-mor. And the Lord called to Moses, and spoke to him out of the tent of meeting, saying.
We know that God talks to Moses a lot in the Torah. Typically, it will say Va-y'daber Adonai el-Moshe ley-mor. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying.
But in this verse, in this one instance that begins the third book of the Torah, God does not just talk with Moses. God calls out to Moses. God's conversation with him is one of kavanah.
The understanding of this word, kavannah, is crucial. Kavannah changes the recitation of Hebrew words into prayer. It can change a declaration of love into an awareness of love. And it transforms moments of life experience into holiness.
The word kavannah comes from kivun, meaning direction. Having kavannah implies a direction of intellectual and emotional thought.
Judaism's system of mitzvot, rituals and customs heighten kavannah in our lives.
We have looked at two divine encounters. In the book of Exodus, the Israelites cry out to God. After 420 years of slavery, they shout to God their pain, their agony. God hears their prayer, and initiates a course of action that eventually leads not only to freedom, but to a land flowing with milk and honey. This example from Exodus reminds us that We. need. God.
This is the first step of our religious development. Just as children need their parents for shelter and support, our ancestors needed God's support, care and love. We acknowledge our need of God. God hears our needs so that we can continue on our journey.
That journey leads us to Vayikra. Here, it is God who needs us. God calls out to Moses. This is emblematic of the brit that God first made with Abraham. And so, whereas Exodus teaches us that we pray to God. Vaykira teaches that we communicate with God.
That communication can only happen with kavannah. Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov commented that he felt God's presence whenever he allowed himself to feel God's presence. Similarly, we can communicate with God whenever there is kavannah.
We're looking at just this one word ... Vaykira. This one specific word teaches us so much. But remember this: Moses was in the desert and saw an area of burning shrubbery. Many would have walked by, thinking that the desert heat caused a bush to ignite with flames. But Moses paid attention. He saw the burning bush for the miracle that it was. Similarly, we should display kavannah to our Torah, so that we continue to learn insights and messages from this Tree of Life, so that we continue to offer korbanot so that we may get closer to God, and finally, so we learn that just as we cry out to God, God cries out to us. May each of us have the kavannah to be able to hear God's voice.