Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
Savlanut is the Hebrew word for “patience,” and when it comes to understanding the book of Leviticus that’s exactly what many of us need! In this week’s parasha Shemini we encounter the culmination of the eight-day dedication ceremony of Aaron and his sons as the priests of Israel. For each of the past seven days, sin offerings and sacrifices have been offered, but God has not answered. On the eighth day (where our parasha begins), Moses calls Aaron to offer several additional sacrifices, beginning with a calf as a sin-offering on behalf of himself and all Israel. Aaron does exactly has Moses commands. Then something odd happens:
“And Aaron raised his hands toward the people and blessed them and came down from having done the sin offering, and the burnt offering and community sacrifice. And Moses, and Aaron with him, came into the Tent of Meeting, and they came out and blessed the people, and the glory of God appeared to all the people.” [Lev. 9:22-23]
The question this passage raises has to do with Moses’ involvement. If Aaron is the one responsible for the sacrifices, then why does God only appear after Moses joins in? The great rabbinic commentator Rashi looks to two passages from Sifra (a collection of midrashim or rabbinic legends attached to specific Torah portions). The first passage focuses on Aaron, saying that after a week of unanswered sacrifices he had become agitated. According to the midrash Aaron expressed his fears to Moses that God has not come because God was still angry with Aaron for making the Golden Calf. In response Moses entered the Tent with Aaron to pray on his behalf.
The second passage focuses on the people, who felt humiliated that a whole week had passed and still the Divine presence had not descended upon the Tent. They too worried that they had not been forgiven. So, Moses blessed them, and said, “This is the thing God has commanded you to do so that the glory of God will appear to you.” [Leviticus 9:6] Then the midrash inserts another line from Moses, not found in the Torah: “My brother Aaron is more worthy and important than I, for through his offerings and service the Divine Presence will rest among you.” Immediately thereafter, the Glory of God appeared.
What do these stories teach us?
Let’s take a closer look.
First, it is no coincidence that Moses specifies a calf for the sin offering. There must be a connection with the sin of the Golden Calf. Perhaps this is why Maimonides taught that we must use the agency of our sin to atone for our sins. Second, the sin of the Golden Calf happened because the Israelites were impatient for Moses to return from the top of the mountain. And here is a great irony: the same is true here in Shemini. Aaron and Israel are both agitated because they have been offering sacrifices for seven whole days and nothing has happened. They are impatient!
To be fair, this is not on them alone. We Jews have many strengths, but patience is not among them. In Hebrew, the word savlanut shares the same root as the words sabal (porter), savel (suffering) and sevel (burden). We may not have a monopoly on this, but for us waiting is a suffering – a burden we would rather not bear. Patience is the ability to carry the burden.
In both midrashim Moses offers comfort. For Aaron he offers prayers in the Tent to help allay Aaron’s impatience. However, for Israel, Moses actually teaches patience, in effect saying that they have done everything right and should not doubt that Aaron is the one who will succeed on their behalf. In other words, Moses offers hope that because we took the proper action everything will work out in the end. Perhaps this is the secret to cultivating more savlanut for us as well, whether it is trying to understand the book of Leviticus, waiting in line at the supermarket, or being stuck in traffic. As for those times when we truly don’t know, for example in times of illness or economic worry, we might also benefit from learning how to better bear the burden. Patience does not mean inaction, but rather, that we should not act without proper consideration. For more often than not, a response to even a serious challenge is far better than a knee jerk reaction, and impatience leads to some of the biggest mistakes of all.
 Although the verse here comes almost twenty verses earlier in the actual Torah, this is midrash, which is not always concerned with a linear flow of time.
Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36
Yes, the priests got to wear the coolest couture of the day, with entire chapters of Torah devoted to describing each magnificent garment after another. And yes, the priests were revered as spiritual leaders, and given the holiest of tasks to perform before God on behalf of all Israel. The life of the priest seemed so spectacular that a prospective convert to Judaism once approached the famous Rabbis Shammai and Hillel, asking to be made a Jew on the condition that afterward he would then become the High Priest.
The role of the priest, however, was not about the clothing or about status. In Tzav we learn about the commandment of Terumat HaDeshen, the clearing away of the ashes and residue of the sacrifices:
“And the priest shall wear his linen garb and linen breeches he shall wear on his body, and he shall take away the ashes that the fire consumes from the burnt offering on the altar and put them beside the altar. And he shall take off his clothes and wear other clothes and take out the ashes beyond the camp to a clean place.” [Lev. 6:3-4]
In other words, the priest was directly responsible for cleaning up the mess, a job we might otherwise expect for a menial laborer. Even more, the priest is required to wear his fine linen garments while cleaning the altar, only changing when leaving the mishkan to transport the ashes to another “clean” location outside of the camp.
Sacrifices were holy. They were designed to help bring Israel closer to God. Tzav reminds us that even holy acts create a bit of a mess. Yet it doesn’t stop there, it also teaches that the mess itself and the act of cleaning it were as holy as the actual sacrifice - so only the priest, dressed in sacred garments, could clean the mess.
We no longer offer sacrifices, but there is a great lesson for us here.
First, the creative process is messy. Whenever we create or build anything, we make a mess. This truth applies not only to physical objects, but to our relationships, our achievements, our families and our communities.
Second, we are responsible for what we create, and therefore for cleaning up after ourselves. Even when we create something holy, there is still residue to clean.
Third, cleaning up our messes is in and of itself holy, even if what we created is not intrinsically holy. In a few weeks we will clean our homes for Passover. We dropped the chametz and we made the dirt. We need to clean it up. Doing so is a holy task. By extension, I would argue that every time we clean up a mess we have made, whether in our relationships or our community, we are engaged in holy work, even if we are not preparing for a sacred holiday.
Fourth, and finally, we cannot delegate this work. You should not clean up my messes and I don’t want yours either. Part of the holiness here is the personal responsibility, the spiritual accountability, which we take. On Yom Kippur we try to clean our souls from our mistakes. This makes Yom Kippur the holiest day of the year. However, we don’t have to wait. When we recognize that the very act of cleaning after ourselves is holy even when we make something beautiful, then we can begin to find joy in every moment. God is not found just in the high points along the way, but in the least expected of places.
We are truly supposed to be a kingdom of priests. So let’s open our eyes, and get our hands dirty, clean up after ourselves, and bring more holiness into our world.
Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26
[Originally published in 2016]
Open the book VaYikra, and enter the world of sacrificial Judaism. This is the priestly book, the book of the korbonot – the offerings through which Israel drew closer to God. According to tradition, young Jewish students begin their studies here, in the middle of the Torah, rather than with “In the Beginning…”
Yet we live in a world where the sacrificial cult has not existed for almost 2000 years. Many Jews today are uncomfortable with the idea of offering sacrifices, considering the practice barbaric. The Reform movement completely excised the Musaf service, which contains prayers for the restoration of the Temple and the sacrificial cult, from the Reform Siddur (prayer book), and removed sacrificial language from the R’tzei prayer (which in the original form asks God to accept both our worship and our fire offerings).
Of all of the books of Torah, this one seems the farthest removed from our lives today – at least on the surface. As one of my teachers once quipped, “Hey, when it comes to Leviticus we need all the help we can get!”
This is where we start our studies?
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the great Orthodox thinkers of the 20th Century wrote: “The precept of sacrifice is a central motif in Judaism. To live in accord with God’s word is identical with living a sacrificial life. To act morally is synonymous with sacrificial action.” (Chumash Mesoras HaRav – Lev. 1:2). While Judaism condemns human sacrifice as murder, Rabbi Soloveitchik taught that on a spiritual level we need to offer everything we are to God. Therefore, prayer is properly understood as a form of sacrifice. This makes Jewish spirituality a paradox: only by negating our egos, our senses of self, can we reach our fullest potential and fulfillment.
Equating prayer with sacrifice is an idea I find both challenging and compelling. Prayer as sacrifice means asking not for what we want, but rather, for what God needs. It means taking our own desires and sublimating them to God’s will.
“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You, Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer.” (Psalm 19:15)
Exodus 38:21 – 40:38
We’ve heard it before.
In excruciating detail.
With Terumah and Teztaveh we received the design plans with full specs for both the mishkan (Tent of Meeting/Tabernacle) and the priestly vestments. Then in Veyak’heil we read about the actual construction, in detail. Now, finally, in Pekudei the finished products are again described – again in incredible detail.
I used to just skim through these portions – the details would make me sleepy, and anyway they didn’t seem relevant, let alone important to my life. Then I thought of my father, the architect, who would write volumes of specs for every building he designed. I never needed that level of detail for the models I built as a kid, but then again, nobody’s life would be endangered if I made an assembly miscalculation. So, I figured that the more important something is, the more details we need to make it happen the way we needed. But I still struggled with these details. Yes, the mishkan had been incredibly important, but we don’t have one anymore and all of these details, repeated so that we could read them three times in all of their glory seemed, quite frankly, boring.
As it turns out – that’s partly the point. There is an interesting parallel between the final verses of Pekudei and the story of creation:
“… vayachal Moshe et ham’lacha (… and Moses finished the work).” [Ex. 40:33b]
God completes (vayachulu) Creation, Moses completes (vayachal) the mishkan. Both ‘projects’ are described as “work” with the same Hebrew noun (here written as ham’lacha). There are other parallels as well. God surveys Creation, Moses the finished mishkan. God blesses Creation when it was complete, Moses blesses the people when the mishkan is finished. God sanctifies Creation with the shabbat, God’s Presence descends in a cloud upon the mishkan, making it holy as well.
Rabbi Mark Greenspan observes that it takes the entire book of Exodus for us to reach this moment, when God’s presence finally descends over the Tent, palpable to the entire camp. He writes:
“… an encounter with God doesn’t just happen. It results from hard work. It demands attention to details. It takes discipline and sacred intention. And sometimes the process of getting there is even a little boring.”
One of my recurring tropes with b’nei mitzvah students is the importance of regular practice; one cannot cram the night before and expect success. I explain that prayer, chanting Torah, and by extension leading services, are more like sports or music than academics. Success requires both the mind and the discipline of regular practice. However, this is not just true for b’nei mitzvah students and service leaders, but for all of us. The true power of Judaism requires work, discipline and commitment. Indeed, the Hebrew word for worship is avodah – literally another Hebrew word for “work.”
This is not to say that service leaders should not do their best to plan beautiful and inspiring worship experiences – they absolutely should – but if we really want to bring God into our lives then we have to not only show up but develop our Judaism into a personal and communal practice.
“… and Moses finished the work. And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. And Moses could not come into the Tent of Meeting, for the cloud abode upon it and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. And when the cloud went up from the over the Tabernacle, the Israelites would journey onward in all their journeyings. And if the cloud did not go up, they would not journey onward until the day it went up. For the Lord’s cloud was over the Tabernacle by day, and fire by night was in it, before the eyes of all the house of Israel in all their journeyings.” [Ex. 40:33-38]
To reach the glorious end of Exodus, we needed the inspiring highs along the way through the great miracles of God and orations of Moses; but we also needed to weave the cloth, fashion every clip and joint, shape the great menorah and the altar and more. The message of Pekudei is clear: the details are just as important as the moments of inspiration, and it is not enough to know what they are – without our active participation and practice, we will never build anything.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras