Leviticus, the Heart of Torah (Shabbat V'Yiqra)

Leviticus 1:1-6:7

And now, a word from our sponsor… as we pause with our sheroes and heroes between Exodus begun and exodus enumerated on the sands of Sinai waiting for the Sanctuary to shift, seconding the soaring sentinels of smoke and fire. We have arrived at the heart of Torah with this sepher within the sepher. Though it too has a heart.

‏קרבן (Qorban)

When an adam… When an a person… When a man… When a man-person named Adam… When one seeks to give a gift, ‏קרבן, an offering that costs someting, that involves some level of sacrifice, that is not owed for penance or purification, this is what should happen…

Leviticus begins with a divine summons, ‏ויקרא - God calling Moshe, and a divine directive: ‏דבר אל־בני ישׂראל ואמרת אלהם - speak to the children of Israel and say to them…, and a divine expectation, that there will be gift-giving, ‏אדם כי־יקריב מכם קרבן ליהוה. Those who have nothing but what they had relieved (‏וינצלו) the Egyptians of, plundererd from the Egyptians, will not keep, hoard all of it. They will give some of it away to God. But lest there be a free-for-all of God-giving, trinket-flinging, there had better be some rules. ‏ויקרא is a call to order. ‏ויקרא orders human and human-divine relationships.

In Christian community, many speak of those horizontal and vertical relationships as  being cruciform. But in this context I would like to suggest that they are dreidle-shaped: the spindle of the dreidel represents divine-human relationships, the circular motion of the dreidel gestures to all of humnity everywhere and the wobble of the dreidle suggests to me that the human and divine planes are not separate but for one neat point of intersection, but we dance the hopping, skipping, dervish-twirling dance of the dreidel together, with periods of rest in between.

One of the things we learn about God in  ‏ויקרא - the deity is in the details - is that God is well, carnivorous at least in the olofactory sense. God just might be Texan, or from North Carolina or St. Louis or anywhere else they know how to barbecue. The scents of roasted flesh and burning incense give God great pleasure and bring God serenity when God is most incensed. When God gets all smite-happy in a killing mood in the book of Numbers which follows continuing the Exodus story, Moshe will pacify God with fragrant smoke.

Now for the vegetarians and vegans among us, God does like scents other than roasting meat. Animal flesh, meal offerings and incense are all described as pleasing scents to God in the Torah. And lest someone say that these gifts are not equal because of size or cost, Rav Hsida teaches in Bavli Shevuoth 15a that “it is the same whether one gives much or little, as long as one directs her heart to her Sovereign who is in Heaven!”

Perhaps it is because God does not in truth have a body as tradition teaches that God who is ‏רוח can only consume ‏ריח־ניחוח, insubstantial smoke and vapor. Indeed God will snort in Psalm 50:13, “Do I eat the flesh or drink the blood of bulls and goats?” ‘Hmpf. I think not!’ (OK I added that last part.) In Bavli Eruvin 65a, Rav Hanina teaches that we become like God when we drink wine which has the same effect on us as does the sweet savour on God. So bring on Schnapps Shabbat!

I’d like to focus on ‏ריח־ניחוח, sweet-scented-smoke that pleases the God Beyond Form. I’d especially like to focus on the ניחוח, the pleasing part. The sweetly scented smoke occurs 39 times in the Torah and four times in Ezekiel. In Aramith, Nebuchadrezzar offer woship and sweet-savor to Daniel and Darius calls for the re-establishment of God’s sweet-smoke in the soon-to-be rebuilt temple. In all of the Ezekiel references it has  been perverted by being offered to they-who-are-not-gods. In all of the Torah references this divine pleasure comes only from appropriately offered offerings. There is nothing else in the Tanakh that provides God this sort of pleasure. ניחוח has the connotation of pleasing and appeasing the God of Sinai’s Smoke and Fire. It is a relational concept. It seems to me to be about more than smite-prevention. One might attempt to appease a wrathful, idisyncratic, unpridictable diety. But the idea of giving pleasure to another entity seems to be to be based in the idea of caring for and about that entity. This is for me a relational text.

I’d like to move to the end of the parsha. If we don’t get the gift-giving, God-pleasing-appeasing ‏קרבן right, we need not worry for ‏ונסלח לו על־אחת מכל אשׁר־יעשׂה לאשׁמה בה - that one will be forgiven on account of all that one does to incur guilt within. But there is the first part of the verse, ‏וכפר עליו הכהן לפני יהוה - a priest will make atonement for that one in the presence of the Holy One of Old.

My questions today seek to explore divine human relational paradigms without priestly mediation.

1- How do you respond to those texts which invite, demand, cajole an interpersonal divine-human relationship with the God of Torah?

2- What do you do (or what can an individual do) to please God? What can a community do to please God?

3-  I love incense; it is part of my personal and public worship. There are churches nicknamed Smokey Mary’s and Smokey Tom’s that I can’t wait to visit. In my (other) tradition we intentionally use all of our senses in worship. Where are the places (other than havdalah) that scent figures prominently in your individual or communal practice?

In closing let us return to the image of the divine dreidel. In Leviticus, God’s hand pushes down spinning the dreidel in place as the people rest in place, soon the dreidel will spin through Sinai and wobble through the world, dancing its divine dance. Shabbat shalom!


Shabbat Vayiqra
6 Adar (II) 5771
12 March 2011