Parshat Vayikra (5774)

Leviticus 1 – 5

Purim In Light of Vayikra: A Message of Acceptance and Peace

As we come in to the Book of Viykra, as this word suggests, we begin with the book of Leviticus with G-d calling out. “Vayikra el-Moshe / And He called out to Moses.” (v.1) Now the English name of this new book of the Torah – Leviticus – it would suggest that we are going to hear of Moses receiving yet another revelation of laws, this time for the Levities.

Mishloach Manot (from Wikipedia): "The mitzvah of giving mishloach manot derives from the Book of Esther. It is meant to ensure that everyone has enough food for the Purim feast held later in the day, and to increase love and friendship among Jews as a counter to Haman's assertion that the Jewish people are characterised by strife and disunity."

Mishloach Manot (from Wikipedia): “The mitzvah of giving mishloach manot derives from the Book of Esther. It is meant to ensure that everyone has enough food for the Purim feast held later in the day, and to increase love and friendship among Jews as a counter to Haman’s assertion that the Jewish people are characterised by strife and disunity.”

This simplistic understanding might seem appropriate, given how many of the laws herein are about sacrifice and ritual law; matters under the jurisdiction of the Levitic priests. However, this is not the essence of this book for Jews of the rabbinic tradition. It’s time we get beyond this childish oversimplification and look for the living Torah in this, not just whine that we can’t comprehend the sacrificial cult.

Besides, the Torah itself, at the head of this book demands that we look at it as more than just a book of priestly rituals and dead animals. Indeed the book of Vayikra has Hashem directing the voice of Moses to relate something to all the common people, how they could also call upon G-d. How they could draw close to him.

This is why from the start our text we read, “Daber el-bnei Yisrael, ve’amrata aleihem, adam ki-yakariv michem karban l’Hashem… / Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them: When any man among you brings an offering for Hashem…” (v.2) These are instructions for all the everyday people of Israel, for all who want to karav – to draw close to Hashem.

This is why primitive people would offer sacrifices, in order to make a connection with G-d. To draw close to the Divine. Naturally, as animal sacrifice is the most dramatic form of offering, this must be addressed first. The severity of it demands that we touch on this point first, as we are looking into an age where sacrifice is the most common form of worship. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us.

But along with this point there is also reveals another truth, one which we need to grasp in order to understand what the people are trying to accomplish here. This is our key verse for this week:

“If his offering is a burn-sacrifice

from his flock,

a male without blemish

you shall bring to the entrance

of the Tent of Meeting,

bring it near

that he may be accepted before Hashem.”

| Im-olah korbano

| min-habakar

| zachar tamim

| yakrivenu el-petach

| Ohel Mo’ed

| yakriv oto

| lirtzono lifnei Hashem

Leviticus 1:3

Today we aren’t going to talk about sacrifices. We could talk at length about the word “im / if.” The factor of “if” that comes into play for bringing an offering. We could also take a look at the different type of sacrifices, and what the significance of each is. But I’ve actually done a lot of talk on that over the past couple years. I want us to focus on some other points, so I encourage you to look into the meaning of that for yourselves. There are some deep truths which are easily revealed if we just look with intent.

However, there is something that does need to be addressed before we move on. Even though we have also touched on this topic elsewhere as well. It is most important we address it again now, because we encounter it here at the start of Leviticus and will see it continuously repeated from here on.

Here in verse three we begin to see the use of the phrase, “lirotzono.” We need to understand that the people were sacrificing as part of their ritual to gain the acceptance of Hashem, and to signify finding favor in G-d’s eyes. Furthermore this act of public sacrifice also would reinforce for the community of Israelites that a person was now blameless and acceptable to stand in the congregation of Israel; a soul and citizen in good standing.

We also noted at that time that this verse also suggests to us that an offering must be given of free will. That is the other common way that we can understand the phrase, “lirotzono” to mean. That we offer something in keeping with ones own ratzon – ones own free will and desire. That one gives what they wish, as they see fit. That we should all freely give as we so desire. (see Parshat Kedoshim 2011)

So here we can likewise understand this verse to mean, “He shall bring it willingly to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, before Hashem.”

This use of the word ratzon (from which lirozono is conjugated) here is interesting for the Hebrew speaker. So I want us to take another look. Because most often when we hear words such as these used it is in reference to what people desire. If we consider the way people today use the related word rotzeh (or rotzah), more often than not people are talking about what they want as well. More often than not they are describing or ordering what they want. Asking for something they desire. Right?

Instead here in our parsha we have this come up in a discussion about giving, not about receiving something. That is a topic in and of itself, how our will should be for giving and not just focused on what we receive.

It is especially important for us to focus on our desire to give, and not just our will to receive during this Purim season. To think in terms of charity and communal giving, as many of us go out of way to give money to the poor and shalach manot baskets to one another.

Now to bring it back to the actual phrase itself, “lizrtzono.” We are talking about one’s ratzon, one’s own will and desire. But more broadly, to do something according to one’s ratzon means for a person to merely do what pleases them. Or more formally, to do what is appropriate in one’s own eyes.

The latter of these descriptions we understand well. As in our prayers, we recite the words, “Yehi ratzon milfanech Hashem Eloheinu / May it be Your will, Hashem our G-d…” Or we can even stylistically translate this as, “May it be acceptable before you, Hashem our G-d.” We recite this near the end of the Amidah prayers, asking that our prayers be found to be appropriate and pleasing before the eyes of our G-d, and the G-d of our forefathers. That what we asking for and desire also be in line with His ratzon.

And this is the most common use of this phrase, one that most religious people understand. And this is even more true in light of the Torah. Most often the word ratzon is attached to the will of G-d, and less often used when speaking of the will of men. We see it used several times when talking about the early rulers of Israel. But aside from that its is rarely used for men

Interestingly, two of these rare occurrences appear in Megillat Esther. We also have one similar reference in the story of Esther as well. So we are going to take a look at those instances in order to see what we can learn from them.

There are certain things we need to keep in mind when considering the ratzon of men. Whereas most people can accept the will of G-d being good and pleasing, we can’t just assume such a claim when it comes to will of humans. We are not always so honorable and lofty. Us mortals have a ratzon which can be directed for good or ill, and quite often if encouraged it will migrate towards the ill.

We see this presented in the first of the examples at the start of Megillat Esther. We read:

“And they gave them drink in vessels of gold – the vessels being diverse one from another – and royal wine in abundance, according to the bounty of the king.

“And the drinking was according to the law, and yet there was no duress; for so the king had appointed to all the officers of his house, that they should do according to every man’s pleasure.”

וְהַשְׁקוֹת בִּכְלֵי זָהָב, וְכֵלִים מִכֵּלִים שׁוֹנִים; וְיֵין מַלְכוּת רָב, כְּיַד הַמֶּלֶךְ:

וְהַשְּׁתִיָּה כַדָּת, אֵין אֹנֵס: כִּיכֵן יִסַּד הַמֶּלֶךְ, עַל כָּלרַב בֵּיתוֹלַעֲשׂוֹת, כִּרְצוֹן אִישׁוָאִישׁ:

Esther 1:7-8

The first of our examples is in the middle of the initial description of the feast ordered by King Achashverosh. We are not yet talking about the actual feast of Purim yet, we are talking about the initial feast which the King of Persia orders, (v.3) and of the matching feast arranged by Queen Vashti for the women (v.9). This is the feast of debauchery which starts off this whole story of Megillat Esther, it is not the nonintoxicating celebration of salvation yet. No, here this is the initial binge and orgy. The party which ended with a belligerent, and then headless Vashti. Thus staring the narrative of Purim, and the rise of Queen Esther and Mordechai.

In this first example we are presented with how King Achashverosh orders a feast and commands the people to celebrate. Now aside from ordering the celebration, the King made sure that every person was able to celebrate. He provided the party and the wine, and ordered his servants that they should do according to the will of each person (kiratzon ish-v’ish). That everyone’s personal pleasures were met. Thus no one was celebrating by force, each person freely reveled in their ratzon – in their own desires and pleasures.

This is a negative display of ratzon. (Intersting isn’t it, giving in light of how many of us today treat Purim, right? But I digress.)

And then later on in Megillat Esther we have another, display of ratzon. One that is also troubling, especially if we don’t put it into context. Our second reference is found in this verse near the end of the story:

“And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword and with slaying and destruction, and they did to their enemies as they wished.”

וַיַּכּוּ הַיְּהוּדִים בְּכָלאֹיְבֵיהֶם, מַכַּתחֶרֶב וְהֶרֶג וְאַבְדָן; וַיַּעֲשׂוּ בְשֹׂנְאֵיהֶם, כִּרְצוֹנָם:

Esther 9:5

This is supposed to be the good example. The example of righteous indignation, the fury of self-defense. The king and his princes cannot stop the orders of slaughter already issues against the Jews, so they aid the Jews to defend themselves. And in the clashes to come they destroy and slay their enemies. They are empowered with arms and allowed to fight back. Doing unto their enemies “ki-ratzon,” affording to their own desires. Carrying out what ever retribution they saw fit, they were allowed to do as they willed. As we see, these enemies armed by the evil decree Haman lobbied for were themselves destroyed. We are told the Jews slaughtered 500 men in Shushan, as well as the remaining 10 sons of evil Haman. This victory was repeated over and over in the other provinces as well.

Like I said, this latter example is supposed to be the better of the two. At least one of these displays of will is morally correct, that of the Jews to defend themselves in face of a decree calling for their inhalation. However, righteous or justified it might be, it is not necessarily the ideal. Not to most of us modern readers, we would first hope for a more peaceful resolution.

We would hope that their ratzon – that the will of the people would be more prone to show mercy, unlike Haman and the enemies of the Jews. Certainly in self-defense there is a time for fighting, a place for taking a life, and a need to do damage to the enemies who threaten the welfare our people.

Still we would hope that “ki-ratzonam / as they saw fit,” would have been something more merciful than a response of total annihilation in return. And I believe we do in-fact see an undeniable display of that here, which itself is clearly evident. Evident by how relatively low the number of casualties are for some supposedly huge battles and clashes of a grand scale.

I’m not at all just being overly progressive, and acting like a hippie by asserting this, I assure you. For those of you that also feel this way, your justification comes in looking at the moral example of the hero of this story. The example of Mordechi the Jew.

Yes it is true that in Esther chapter 9 we see that the princes of the land helped aid the Jews out of their fear for Mordechai, who was now well esteemed in the eyes of King Achashverosh. The sheer influence of Mordechai made the princes, governors and officials help the Jews. They aided the Jews in their armed response out of sheer respect (and fear) of Mordechai. And in the days to come Mordechai increased in greatness as his fame for the salvation of the Jews increased throughout the land.

In the final lines of Megillat Esther we will learn something about Mordechi and his awesome legacy. We are going to see what became of this Mordechi and what he choose to do with the greatness he acquired. And about what values he thought were important to hand down to his descendants.

Remember how we talked at the beginning that ratzon can also be understood as acceptance? We see a  form of this word appear similarly so in this final verse of Esther:

“For Mordecai the Jew was next unto king Achashverosh, and great among the Jews, and accepted (Heb. ratzuy) by the multitude of his brethren; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all his seed.”

כִּי מָרְדֳּכַי הַיְּהוּדִי, מִשְׁנֶה לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, וְגָדוֹל לַיְּהוּדִים, וְרָצוּי לְרֹב אֶחָיודֹּרֵשׁ טוֹב לְעַמּוֹ, וְדֹבֵר שָׁלוֹם לְכָלזַרְעוֹ:

Esther 10:3

As Mordechai’s popularity increased, not just with the Persians but also with his own Jewish brothers, he used his influence for something other than might. At the end of the story we do not have a depiction of a man of influence with an iron first. He is respected as such. But his legacy, in what he chose to focus his life’s work and message upon, was summed up in these last words. Mordechai didn’t seek recognition or power. What he sought was, “tov l’amo / good for his people.” When he selected his words of wisdom to follow he choose to, “daber shalom l’chol zaro / speak peace to all his seed.”

As we go on to celebrate our Purim celebrations of the miracle and salvations done for us at this time, and at this season, I want us to remember to focus on something other than just victory and might. I want us to remember the real message of this story is that we should do everything we can to use our influence to seek the good of the Jewish people. And instead of merely revelling in our victory, we need to continue to use our influence to instill the peace seeking mentality.

This Purim I want us to get beyond using this holidays as our annual chance to act out our ratzon – our pleasures and desires. Purim is much more than a time to just let it all hang out. We should intend that our ratzon be more in line with what is described here in this week’s Torah portion, that our ratzon – our will, our desire – should be to give. We should strive to be people who struggle with all our will to advance the good of the Jewish people. People who use their influence for the welfare of others. People who use their influence for the acceptance of others, unlike Haman. People who are like blessed Moredechia, with the will and desire to advance peace throughout the generations.

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2 responses to “Parshat Vayikra (5774)

  • Rachel Barenblat

    I’m new to your blog — I was looking for good stuff on Modeh Ani; your post about that prayer is fantastic — and I have now subscribed; I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts, not only the new posts but also some of your back catalogue. Kol hakavod to you for this work. Shabbat shalom!

    • "Shmu the Jew"

      Thank you for the kind words, and welcome to the blog. I hope you enjoy the journey.

      You know Modeh Ani is such a powerful prayer for so many people. This is definitely one of the most beloved of prayers. And it speaks to people on so many levels. The connection of this prayer into the Jewish psyche cannot be understated.

      I have a friend who is a loud and vocal atheist, rabid atheist to some. Hes Jewish though, and burnt out of religion if you ask me. Now people are surprised that when we go swimming together the first thing you notice is that in HUGE tattoo letters he has Modeh Ani written across his back. I have to tell you, knowing that he’s not “frum” i understand he had no flinching for taking on a tattoo. But he’s a proud Jewish Atheist. But when you ask him about it he gets all animated about this gratefulness that he has just waking up each and every day, there is something spiritual going on with him even if he struggles with our G-d on the other end of the prayer. Its a prayer with sinks deep into the soul.

      Be well and Shabbat Shalom!

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