Vayikra

1. Shabbat Shalom

2. In the Midrash, Bereshit Rabbah, it teaches that “Every blade of grass has its angel that strikes it and whispers, “Grow, grow.” The Midrash is telling us that part of the very essence of nature is that everything, and by extension everyone, must grow. I have always found this idea fascinating in that every living thing does not grow naturally, but the angel must strike it and insist that everything has to grow.

3. I thought of this quote this week as I contemplated the beginning of our third book of the Torah, the book of Vayikra, the book of Leviticus. As I have often mentioned, these weeks of the year are not easy weeks for us Rabbis to create sermons around them. The last two parshiyot of Exodus are basically a repeat of the three parshiyot that came before them. Now we will have two parshiyot dedicated to the why and how of sacrifices and then, after a short side story, we will go into the definition and care of skin diseases. I suspect that many of my colleagues will be turning this week to Libya, Wisconsin or Charlie Sheen rather than spend any time on which animals were to be brought to the altar, how they were to be slaughtered and how they were to be burned.

4. But I had occasion to speak this week with a member of our congregation about the siddurim that we are using. He was unhappy with the book because there were prayers inside that he felt did not belong in a siddur. I asked him what prayer does not belong in our Siddur and he noted that the translations were different and that he was not in favor of the inclusion of Imahot, the matriarchs in our Amida.

5. Now let me be clear that prayer is, by its very nature, a very personal activity. We may sing together some of our prayers, we may read responsively in English and listen attentively when the Amida is repeated aloud. But, the essence of prayer is not found in the words of our siddur but in the way these words enter our hearts. That is a very personal journey and praying is thus a very private and personal activity. We gather together to pray but we are solitary in our praying. As a poet once said, “each of us has prayers no one else can utter, each of us has thanks that no one else can offer.” We can strengthen each other when we pray together but we can not really pray unless we feel our prayers in our heart.

6. I understand that prayer is a very complicated activity and I did not fault my friend for his discomfort over a new prayer book. But it did get me thinking about how far prayer has come in Judaism and what will become of prayer in the future. It is an important topic and I want to address it this Shabbat and next Shabbat as well.

7. The Torah is very clear in our Parsha; if we wish to bring our hearts near to God, we need to bring to the altar, something of some value to us. A cow, a ram, a goat or even a couple of birds that the poor might bring, are not inexpensive offerings. One had to give something meaningful if one expected God to take note of the offering. In the very beginning of the Torah, in Genesis and the story of Cain and Abel, Cain brings an offering of fruits and vegetables from his garden, but Abel brings the choicest firstling from his flock. God notes the special value of Abel’s sacrifice and does not accept the mediocre offering of Cain and thus jealousy comes into the world, followed by death.

8. As we can imagine, if we know that God wants a valuable offering, then, people being human, after all, soon become competitive as to who can bring the most valuable offering. My ram beats your goat. My ox trumps your ram. Before you know it, children are being sacrificed in order to be that much closer to God. Were it not for the explicit refusal of God to allow Isaac to be sacrificed by his father, I wonder if the people of Israel might have also crossed this line.

9. Many Sages note that the reason there is so much detail in Leviticus over sacrifices is to limit the one upmanship that subverts all that the sacrifice is about. It is not the offering that makes the difference in our approach to God. What makes the sacrifice meaningful is the meaning we give it in our hearts. There were those who brought sacrifices to the Temple in order to atone for their sins. They had no intention of stopping their sinning but the expensive sacrifice would absolve them of guilt over the past so they could go on sinning. A man who cheated his customers in business all the time could bring an ox to sacrifice and be cleared of all guilt. He could then go on cheating his customers. The sacrifice was just “the cost of doing business.” Is it any wonder the Prophets of the Bible insist that the person who sins, repents and sins again, will not find forgiveness, even on Yom Kippur. To draw close to God, you have to feel the need for God in your heart.

10. Every morning and every afternoon the priests in the Temple offered a daily sacrifice. The people of Israel believed that as long as these sacrifices continued, God would be happy with the people of Israel and would not let any catastrophe overtake them. Should these daily sacrifices stop, then surely doom would come to Jerusalem and to the Jewish People. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and then again in 70 CE, was as traumatic an event as one could ever imagine. That it would no longer be possible to sacrifice to God would mean that we would not just be exiled from our land, but we would be banished from the presence of God. How could we possibly pray without bringing an offering? As the Romans burned the Temple, the Sages were gathering in Yavne to try and save as much of our faith as they could. They could have allowed other altars as our people had done before Moses was commanded to build the Mishkan in the desert. But they did not. The Sages of Yavne decided that service of the heart is more important than service at the altar.

11. As I explained to those who study with me every morning before minyan, these early prayers were not fixed prayers. In much the same way as the Rabbis did not tell a person what kind of animal to bring to sacrifice, they did not tell a person what words to pray. The sages did teach the proper formula for a blessing but the words of prayer were not set in the time of the Talmud. The great Rabbi Eliezer said, “If a man makes his prayer a fixed task, his prayer is no prayer.” Another Sage taught, “Prayer should not be recited as if a man were reading a document.” And Rabbi Acha said, “a new (i.e. different) prayer should be said every day.” If we are to pray with our hearts, we must use words that rise from our hearts. In the time of the Talmud, they did not have a prayerbook. The service was led by a man trained to make his prayers fresh every day.

12. But that is not the end of this story. The Midrash then explains this free style of prayer in more detail. We read in the Midrash, “It happened once that a disciple was reading the Amida in the presence of Rabbi Eliezer and shortened his prayers. The other students said, “Master, do you see how he as shortened the prayers?” But Rabbi Eliezer said, “He has not been shorter than Moses who said in the Torah “Heal her, O Lord, I pray” (Numbers 12:13). At another time, another student in a similar situation prolonged his prayers. The other students said to Rabbi Eliezer, “Master, did you notice how he prolonged his prayers?” but Rabbi Eliezer said, “He did not prolong his prayer more than Moses, when he says in the Torah, “I fell down in prayer before the Lord for forty days and forty nights” for Moses said to himself, there is a time to shorten prayers and a time to prolong them.”

13. As the centuries went by, there were poets that seemed to compete as to who could make the longest, most beautiful poetry for prayer. The services, using these complicated piyutim, grew longer and longer. Later Rabbis, abbreviated these piyutim to save time in the service. El Adon that we recite in our Shacharit service on Shabbat is just a small remnant of a much longer, complex piyut. On Yom Kippur, Unetane Tokef is also just the last part of a long complicated piyut that has fallen mostly into disuse. The Birkat Hamazon has a different beginning if two people are reciting it, if three people are reciting it or if ten people are reciting the Birkat. There were also additional beginning formulas for when there were a hundred or a thousand reciting the prayer together. The beginning for these large groups fell into disuse. There just was no need to gather that many together to thank God for a meal.

14. By the time printing was first used to create a prayerbook, the Jewish world already had two different kinds of prayer. The Sefardim of the Middle East and North Africa had one tradition of prayer and the Ashkenazim of Europe had a different tradition for the words and order of the prayers. And yet, both traditions allowed for new prayers to be added to the service and, when the service got too long, they took out the prayers that no longer were needed. Groups felt free to add and subtract from the siddur as they pleased. The ability to put together the service any way one wanted explains how the Hasidim of Eastern Europe, following the lead of the Rabbi Isaac Luria in Sfat, began to use the Sephardic siddur instead of the Ashkenazic siddur in use by Jews in the rest of Europe.

15. Modern Jewish philosophers note that every time someone wants to create a new denomination in Judaism, the first changes they make are in the siddur. The Reform movement in Europe created a new prayer book and they have the tradition of rewriting that book every couple of decades or so. Our Conservative movement began with each congregation printing their own siddur. Eventually, Rabbi Morris Silverman adapted the book he used in his synagogue and eventually his book became accepted in the entire movement. The Sim Shalom prayerbook we use is the second attempt to create a new siddur in our movement. The first attempt was a one volume siddur for daily, Shabbat and holiday use. Now there are two volumes of Sim Shalom, one for daily minyan and one for Shabbat and Festivals. When Mordechai Kaplan decided to break with Conservative Judaism and begin a Reconstructionist movement, the first book he wrote was the Siddur. In the Orthodox world today there is a transition going on from the old Art Scroll siddur to the more compact and easy to read Koren Siddur.

16. The history of prayer is not the history of one book, but it is the poetic history of how Jews have released the feelings for God that they have in their hearts. It all began with a sacrifice, but it evolved away from killing animals to offering our words as true expressions of what we feel inside. Some people still pine for the Temple that is gone but most Jews today, of all denominations, would not like to see a return to animal sacrifices. Rambam says that sacrifices were just a concession by God to those who needed a tangible way to worship. Jews who lived in the time of Maimonides, were far too sophisticated to need to offer an animal to feel close to God.

17. Next Shabbat we will look to how Jews today look at prayer and the prayerbook. For now let us be content that we neither have to dash the blood of our sacrifices toward the curtain of our ark nor do we have to fall on our faces in prayer forty days and forty nights. It is enough just to direct our hearts to God and let the yearning of our heart, draw us closer, in holiness to God.

May God help us find the best words to express the longing in our heats and may our prayers be as acceptable before our Creator as once our ancestor’s sacrifices were accepted. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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