Shabbat Vayikra, March 7, 2014/5774 Introduction of the Awards Recipients
A year ago tomorrow, Tracy and I and some friends were in Nepal for International Women’s Day. We were one day into a trek, and our friends/guides took us up a small but steep slope where our heads/eyes “arrived” first peeking over the top to see a plateau covered with women dressed in red. These were Nepali women who live in the mountains all around, some of them had walked a couple of days to reach their “sisters” for their annual gathering to report on the work and the learning they’d been doing through ETC (Educate the Children), an organization that promotes literacy in women as well as children, and has developed “pods” of women who work together to support each other in everything from learning to write, to making micro loans to one another, to developing “kitchen gardens” that allow families access to vegetables for eating (not just crops for selling). The women “called themselves” together to make their lives better. We were privileged to witness what such organization can yield.
This week in Torah Jews all over the world begin our annual study of the Book of Leviticus, the book that comes right in the middle of the Torah, and contains some of Judaism’s most treasured teachings about how to treat one another and ourselves: Love your neighbor as yourself, being one of the most famous, for example, reminding us that in order to love others we must first learn to love ourselves.
But that verse comes later in the book of Leviticus. What comes right at the beginning of the Book is the word that becomes the Hebrew title of the book — VayikRA — [God] called. VayikRA el Moshe va-y’da-ber Adonai eilav mei-oh-hel mo-eid lei-mor: God called to Moses, and spoke to him from the tent of meeting [Vayikra 1:1]
VayikRA — “he [God] called.” RASHI, everybody’s favorite medieval Jewish Torah scholar, comments that the term vayikra “implies affection,” that when God calls to Moses, God does so affectionately — kind of a “Moshe, bubeleh.” How sweet. I love imagining this moment in our history — at the end of the Book of Exodus, which we finished reading last week — after a time of anxiety and fear and alienation from one another — the Israelites and Moses and God have reconciled, and the Israelites with Moses have just completed, piece by precious piece, the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness, that contains this inner chamber called the “Tent of Meeting” where God now comes to speak “affectionately” to Moses.
And the “affectionate” conversation God has with Moses contains all kinds of detailed instructions about how the priests are to bring offerings to God, offerings that are gifts from all the people who want to communicate with God — to offer thanks, or to apologize for mistakes, or to ask for help. The Hebrew word for “offering” is KORBAN, and it uses the same root (ק–ר–ב) as the Hebrew word that means “to draw close.” After this time of anxiety, now we want to draw close.
There is another Biblical book in which the words vayikra and k’rav are used. These words occur in a critical moment of the Book of Esther which we’ll be reading right here a week from tomorrow night in celebration of PURIM — the most cheerful day on the Hebrew calendar. These words, vayikra and k’rav appear in a key passage in that exciting story, as Queen Esther, sets about to save her people, the JEWS, from the evil machinations of HAMAN [BOOooooo], the King’s adviser. Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, sends a message telling Esther to go to her husband the KING to try to rescue the Jews from HAMAN’s evil plan to kill them all. But Esther is afraid, because if you come before the KING as one who has not been summoned (asher lo-yikrei a-khat– do you hear the word YIKRA?), the law says that person can be put to death, unless the KING reaches out with his gold scepter. [Esther 4:11]
And Mordecai sends a message back to Esther, encouraging her to act even if she is afraid, “Who knows,” he says, “perhaps it was for just such a time as this that you became the Queen.” [4:14]
Summoning up all her courage, Esther goes to King, and phew, he reaches out to her with his royal scepter, va-tik-rav Estair — hear KARAV in va-tik-rav? — and Esther draws near — and all goes well from then on. Next Saturday night, by the way, we’ll be telling this whole amazing story in a fabulous new way — all interwoven with a sequel to another of the great stories of Jewish history — Fiddler on the Roof. With songs and smiles and some dancing too we’ll be celebrating that most joyous of Jewish holidays.
BUT tonight I wanted to tell you about Vayikra and about Karav for another reason — Tonight I wanted to invite us to think about what it means to be called in an affectionate way to come close — whether it’s by your partner or child or parent or friend or neighbor; or to serve God — as Moses and the priests and the angels in heaven were called to do; — or called to the King (or government or non-profit organization) “invited” to reveal an evil plan and in so doing change something, some place, some people for the good (change history). I wanted to invite us to think about being called to come closer — for the sake of love or for the sake of repairing the world — because tonight we have in our midst all 3 of the 4 people that our congregation, Beth Chayim Chadashim, the House of New Life, has chosen to honor this year (on April 27) in our annual moment of honoring extraordinary people in our midst. It’s a fun event — the BCC Awards Event — almost as fun as Purim will be next Saturday night, but it’s also a moving event, because of what the people we honor have done in the world, for our world.
One of the most precious parts for me of helping create this event every year is to consider all the people deserving of our special awards, and then deciding on the ones we want to honor this year, and then asking them if we might honor them. We call them — Vayikra — “affectionately,” and ask them if we could invite people to draw a little closer to them — karav. We don’t offer them as sacrifices, mind you, we are “offering” to invite people to focus a little more closely on their accomplishments, on what they have done to bring change for the better to our world. Sometimes — often really — the people we choose are undersung. They are heroes, even if they often work behind the scenes. And often they are people more like Esther and like Moses, for that matter, who didn’t set out to be heroes, they just became heroes by the circumstances they found themselves in, and maybe by the people who, Mordecai-like, pushed them gently to do what they in particular could do because of who they are, and they became heroes because they understand deep within themselves what it means to draw close — with love, with purpose, with commitment whether to God or to other human beings — to the society in which we all live.
Our friend Adam Kulbersh is here tonight to tell us more about the extraordinary people we are honoring this year. I’m just here to remind us that they follow in a long proud tradition of people who, when they hear “the call,” step forward, courageously, to help change the world in all kinds of ways — and each of them in their own ways — but always for the better.
We honor them not only to take note of them, not only to thank them, but also that we might follow in their footsteps, ready to answer the call we might hear, ready to find within ourselves the courage to draw closer to our higher purpose in life, whatever that purpose might be.