This week starts the beginning of the middle book of our Torah, Leviticus. The editors of the Torah were the Levites, the priestly caste that enforced all of the laws and rituals that pertained to the Israelites. It is not surprising that they placed the book about themselves smack dab in the middle of the Torah, where it would be the most prominent.
It may be prominent, but it does not come across as that exciting. Unlike Genesis and most of Exodus, Leviticus is not filled with narrative stories. There is no bravery of Abraham, courage of Moses, or journey of Jacob. Instead, it mostly consists of a litany of laws relating to one specific ritual that we don't even do anymore - sacrifice. A professor I had at Hebrew Union College once said that if the Reform movement had intellectual fortitude, it would excise Leviticus from the religious canon.
This first portion serves as an introduction to the sacrificial system. There are different sacrifices for different actions. There is a thanksgiving sacrifice, there is a penitential sacrifice, there is the Georgia Bulldawg sacrifice ....
Just as there were different sacrifices for different occasions, we now have various prayers that serve specific functions. There are prayers of gratitude, forgiveness, love, wonder, grief ... Prayers were meant to replace sacrifice. Since the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70AD, there was no longer a central place to participate in the sacrifice of animals. Instead of drama relating to the slaughtering of an animal, we now have a certain drama to our service, with various prayers rising and falling in crescendo and diminuendo.
The rabbis were so precise about this switch, in fact, that the Amidah prayer is meant to literally replicate the moment at which the high priest would slaughter an animal.
The verb meaning to sacrifice is l'hakriv. It can also mean, to draw close or to come near. When we pray, this is what we hope to do - to draw close to ourselves, our community, our God.
And the Lord called to Moses Vayikra el Moshe. This is how this third book of Torah starts. In Biblical times, Israelites heard God's call through the performance of sacrifice. Now, we hear it through prayer.
Last week I talked about the differences between the Shabbat concept of "rest," and the idiomatic meaning of "rest."
Sacrifice deserves a similar treatment. The sacrifice that we offer today of prayer is not a sacrifice as we mean in the colloquial sense. Typically, a sacrifice is something that you are willing to let go of, or give up. But prayer is an addition that we make to and for ourselves. Full prayer requires a full presence, of being able to say I am here - Hineni, so that each of us can l'hakriv, draw closer.
If we continue to study Torah, if we continue to pray and sing, perhaps we too will hear God call out to us. And our prayer will bring us closer to ourselves and to our God.