From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
The Book of Leviticus is not a favorite among biblical readers. If it’s any indication, Hollywood hasn’t recreated any scenes from Leviticus, like it has from Genesis and Exodus. But for all its talk about sacrifices and bodily effects, Leviticus has a lot to tell us if we lift the ancient rituals out of their ancient settings and dust them off for relevant lessons.
To begin, in Near Eastern cultures of the time, sacrifices on altars were brought to feed gods that were represented by statues of deities. People brought them animals, grains, and oils, among other gifts. In contrast, we learn in Torah that animal and grain sacrifices were brought by Israelites to create a link between the One God, God’s people, and the world. The priests facilitated the process, for which they were compensated; but, it was the presentation of the sacrifices by the Israelites themselves to the priests that was the most precious gift because their personal sacrifices drew them closer to God. The Hebrew root of the word, korban, means "to draw near” or "to draw close.” Unlike the English translation, "sacrifice,” which suggests losing something in the act of offering, a korban enabled the Israelites to draw nearer to God’s justice and mercy.
In ancient times, Israelites were commanded to bring the best of their flocks and herds "without blemish” for animal sacrifice (Leviticus 3:1ff). Their offerings, specifically prescribed, represented thanksgiving, forgiveness, atonement from sin, freewill offerings, and so on. Perfect atonement, for example, was granted with a perfect offering; but, the complex expectations unraveled when errant Israelites failed to keep God’s commandments and priests failed to perform their duties.
In the Book of Malachi (fifth century BCE) God admonished the Israelites:
But, it did matter very much. God made clear to the Israelites:
It was an early warning for the priests and the sacrificial cult. Ultimately, the Temple in Jerusalem, the centerpiece of the Israelite sacrificial cult, was destroyed by Roman legions in 70 CE, and the role of prayer in synagogues, which was already unfolding, took hold.
But perhaps more than the sacrificial cult remains lost forever. Consider that in each person’s choice of animals for sacrifice was an intimate concern to bring something perfect and pleasing to God; it was borne in the physicality of carrying their animal to the High Priest for sacrifice. It wasn’t necessarily more meaningful than bringing one’s prayer directly to God, as we do. But it concerns me that the duty to pray is not felt as heavily in our hearts as it once did in their hands. Prayers lack physicality. We’ve traded the burden of our hands for the duty of the heart that now conveys prayer within and beyond us. Supposedly, we’re more advanced; therefore, we’re supposed to make our prayer before God more intellectual (personally chosen with understanding), but also more spiritual (offered with intentionality and purpose). At best, a worshiper offers prayers with similar intimate concerns to come close to God with an "offering” that is perfect and pleasing to God.
To enrich our prayer experiences and ensure their outcomes, our Rabbis built layer upon layer of nuance into the meaning of our prayers. The personal expectations that Moses experienced with God aren’t unlike our own expectations when we approach God with our prayers. In a midrash, we are taught:
In the midrash, Moses showed "special courtesy” to God when he said, "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” Then, God decided to show Moses all God’s glory (see Exodus 33:18-19). Moses showed "frankness” when he said, "Why doesn’t the bush burn up?” (Exodus 3:3) and God answered, "the place on which you stand is holy ground.” Moses showed "lack of directness” when he said: "When I come to the Israelites ... and they ask me, ‘What is His [God’s] name?’ what shall I say to them?’ ” God said to tell them, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh [I am that I Am]” (see Exodus 3:13-14). When Moses sought a "clear statement regarding his affairs,” God said, "I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring My people out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10, see also 4:13, 5:23, 6:1).
God doesn’t reject our prayer offerings, either. It’s just as we’ve been taught to say, "Praised are You, Eternal our God, Who hears prayer, shomei-a t’filah” (T’filat Haderech; Psalm 65:3). One remnant of ancient sacrificial practices, perhaps, is the importance of our intentions when we enter into prayer. Like the Israelite who brought an offering without blemish, we should strive to bring our prayers without blemish, too. Shabbat, in particular, is our day for worship to thank God through rest and prayer. Prayer in our house of worship, Sabbath rituals at home, and bodily and emotional rest are ways to bring our best to God. Today, in song, poetry, or prose, there is nothing more perfect than bringing what we bear in our hearts to share before God, alone.
This post originally appeared on ReformJudaism.org.
Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on "iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM, every Sunday at 6:45 a.m. CT, and is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights 2011) available on Amazon.com.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David
The last portion of Exodus is a double portion, called Vayakheil-Pekudei. It recounts the completion of the construction of the Tabernacle, the dwelling place of God’s presence during the Israelite’s wilderness journey. Under the watchful eyes of contractors, artisans, and Moses, himself, it was completed on time and on budget. In fact, there was so much collected by the community that Moses had to order the people to stop giving. In my opinion, it was the last time in Jewish history that a capital campaign was ever completed with such outstanding results.
At the end of the project and near the end of the Torah portion, we read, "These are the accounts (records) of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of the Pact, which were drawn up at Moses’ request…” (Exodus 38:21). Rabbinic commentators pointed out that, though Moses was a man of extraordinary faith and whose business was above reproach, he requested an accounting to demonstrate that even he, a man of such faith, was a man of duty before the people.
Our Sages taught that in communal finances one should never give the responsibility to fewer than two or even three persons; yet Moses was given sole charge of all contributions. But as soon as the Tabernacle was finished, Moses, out of his own choice, had an audit made; hence "These are the account (records) of the Tabernacle…” (Exodus Rabbah 51:1).
When I was a boy, I often volunteered on Sunday mornings in the Temple’s religious school. Every Sunday morning, each class collected tzedakah, and it was the job of the religious school office volunteers to go around to each class and pick it up, count it out, and record the totals. I’ll never forget that my rabbi assigned another young student and me to go together and collect the tzedakah from each classroom. I never felt that he didn’t trust my friend or me, but it didn’t occur to me then that he was honoring an old but important Talmudic lesson.
My friend wasn’t Moses and neither was I, so it stood to reason that "no fewer than two” should go to each classroom and make the collections. Indeed, when we returned to the religious school office, we sat together, opened the small bags (pushkes) and envelopes and counted the coins (there were never dollar bills). Then we tallied the results and put the coins in a cash box with our paperwork. Only later did I come to learn that the rabbi followed the Jewish lesson, which made for a "kosher” accounting of the day’s collection and relieved us, the two errand boys, of any questions about our work.
The Talmud lesson also made it clear that a collection, properly done and accounted for, made for a "kosher” project, over all. How could it be, the Sages reasoned, that God’s blessing could be manifest in a Tabernacle if it were built from bad business dealings or shady accounting? What kind of a house is that for God? What kind of house is that for anybody?
When we build a home for our family, we affix a mezuzah on the doorpost. As we do, we recite a verse from Psalm 127:1, "If God doesn’t build the house; its builders toil in vain.” If we build a house from bad business dealings and shady accounting then it’s rotten at its core. It won’t stand, and it won’t support the family that dwells there. But, if God builds the house, that is, if good business, proper accounting and honest work provide for its completion, then it’s a house worthy of God’s blessing and its occupants will be blessed, too.
In all that we do, let reverence for God’s teachings (Jewish values) guide our decisions and actions. The results should go well with us and those who are touched by the work of our hands.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
We have MUSIC! During Cantor Star Trompeter’s installation services last Friday night, I had the overwhelming sensation that the music we’ve come to know and love at Congregation Beth Israel is here again to stay. For a moment, I closed my eyes when she sang and during the duets she shared with Cantor Roslyn Barak, her mentor, who came to participate in her installation, and Rabbi Adrienne Scott, whose voice is equally beautiful. The rich sounds I heard elevated the words and enabled me to feel the prayers rise higher than ever. When I opened my eyes, I saw others who closed theirs, too. Music elevates the words we read in the prayer book and also the words we hold in our hearts, and now music has become a large part of how we feel about Jewish life across the campus.
Music at Beth Israel can be heard in the sanctuary or Gordon Chapel every Shabbat. With an ensemble every Friday night, we enjoy engaging and participatory music. Familiar words or just "la-la-la” connect us to our faith, our friends and ourselves. Sacred music, it turns out, isn’t high and distant; it’s very close to us and we feel it every week.
Music at Beth Israel can be heard on Sunday morning in the Gordon Chapel. Cantor Trompeter leads musicians, including Rabbi Chase Foster, who plays guitar, and welcomes children to join her on the bimah. They’re learning fun songs; the children run to be with Cantor Trompeter.
Music at the Shlenker School can be heard every weekday. Cantor Trompeter is beginning to focus on music curricula and goals for music appreciation at the day school. Like MBJLC, we share aspirations for their knowledge of Jewish music and the way it can endear them to their faith and heritage.
Congregation Beth Israel is known for being relevant, modern and joyful; but, it can’t be all these things and more without music. Jewish music is relevant when its chords and melodies resonate not only the golden ages of cantorial music, but also contemporary rhythms and sounds of today. Jewish music is modern when it freely adapts to musical trends and even fuses modern music with ancient liturgy. Jewish music is joyful, and we know that it is when we feel it move our hearts and souls, and also our hands and feet.
As we look forward to Cantor Star Trompeter’s "Beautiful Shabbat,” a fusion of Carole King’s hits and Shabbat prayers, on March 23, 2018, we also look forward to more of her kind and friendly manner. Please come to know Star, for yourself. As you do, you’ll also come to know the power of music and the ways it can lift, inspire and empower you.
To listen to last week’s Shabbat Service when Cantor Trompeter was installed, go to YouTube, and search for "BethIsraelHouston” to find the service from February 23, 2018. You’ll enjoy it as much as we did in the sanctuary. I might just listen in again, too.
As Shabbat comes again and we anticipate a new week, let’s make room for music in our life. Let’s make room for Jewish music we can sing and feel, together. Congregation Beth Israel, we have MUSIC!
You may reach Rabbi David Lyon here.
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