Most years, when Shemot (Exodus) gives way to the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), we suffer from a collective sense of discomfort. Detailed rituals take the place of gripping narrative, and we are left without an anchor. Sacrifices, purity and impurity, concerns with holiness and the like find little traction in our world. The imaginative leap necessary to bridge between 21st century life and the intricate world of Vayikra seems far too ambitious.
Not this year. We have never been more receptive to Vayikra, never more familiar with the deeply embedded structures in Vayikra, never more in need of its wisdom. Vayikra presents rules for all aspects of life, from the most intimate chambers of our homes to the holy of holies. Efforts to safegaurd the sacred center of the Israelite camp — the mishkan or tabernacle — radiates into all mundane aspects of life. The private and the public are governed by the same principles, the same concerns.
These days and weeks, in our suddenly overturned routines, we are living private lives governed by public rules. Many of us spend our hours/days/weeks in interior spaces, sequestered from others, linked by infinite screens, but our every move is subject to collective, communal norms. Where we can go, with whom we can talk, how much distance must be between us, how to wash our hands, what food we can eat. Even our most intimate behaviors are critically shaped by social concerns; self-preservation intertwined with the deepest concern for the well-being of our greater society.
Our doctors, scientists and statisticians have become our priests. We listen carefully to their instructions and prescriptions, and are upended by news of them falling sick. We offer donations, terumah, to them when we can: extra masks and gloves, food, care packages. We rely on them to safeguard our camp, to keep the integrity of our communities intact. We vacillate between total submission to their authority, gaining comfort from their wisdom, and learning to do things for ourselves, working to create a small center of safety and security within our own homes and families.
Boundaries and borders infiltrate and shape all our behaviors, and we are hyper-aware of any violations, even slight ones. We measure distances, count days from exposure, put on protective gear, set up barriers between ourselves and the invisible, pernicious virus. Our own homes have become fortresses: keeping the virus out, or increasingly, keeping outsiders away, or those who have fallen sick.
Even the notion of sacrifice, of giving up something of our own, describes our current reality. Each of us, in strikingly common, yet distinct ways, are trading in the currency of “giving up” our precious commodities: freedom of movement, time, intimacy — for the purpose of maintaining the sacred center of our society: our health. We have become single-minded in our focus on preserving life, the source of holiness.
Vayikra begins with God speaking to Moses, “The LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying.” At first glance, God’s speech is an uneventful beginning to the book, one of many such occurrences in the life of Moses. And yet, the verb “He called” is highly unusual as far as divine utterances go. Here, God does not just speak (more common); He calls. He does not communicate to all, but to Moses alone. And He does not project the divine voice outwards, but keeps it inside the tent, an intimate whisper into Moses’ ear.
The rabbis of the Midrash on Vayikra read this verse with a full stop before the particular legislation that follows. Never mind for now the laws of the olah offering; the primary wisdom is hidden in that opening moment when God reaches out to Moses. One midrash emphasizes the significance of that singular moment by offering the following story. In the lead-up to the miskhan’s opening day, each member of the Jewish people donated generously. The masses donated gold, silver and copper; the tribal leaders donated precious stones. Moses was distraught; he did not have what to give!
Moses said: Everyone brought their donations to the tabernacle and I did not bring anything! Said God to him: I swear that your speech (dibburcha) is more dear to Me than all of these.
God comforts Moses by insisting that his non-material gift is the most beloved. Never mind the gold, the silver, the stones. Your gift, Moses, is the most valuable to me. But what is Moses’ gift? What is meant by “your speech”? The concluding verse of the midrash is our opening verse, when God calls out to Moses. Moses does not do any of the talking. Instead, his gift of “speech” is that he hears God’s words. His gift to God is the gift of listening, the gift of presence.
In these days of terror, some of us are on the front lines, fighting this war against death. You are our priests, doing God’s work, upholding our greatest values: the sanctity of every human life. The rest of us, who are holed up in our houses, do our part by staying outside of public life. But we can contribute to safeguarding our society by acting like Moses: we can show up for each other. We can be present for each other. Through life-giving technologies, we can continue to show our faces, lend our ears, learn to connect and share. We may wish we could do more, but we should never forget that we are fighting for the very thing we still have: human life, human connection, holiness.
Thank you to Shira Hecht-Koller and Ruby Namdar for the 929 video Day 3 – Vayiqra/Leviticus – Purity and Impurity in the Age of Covid-19 which inspired many of the ideas in this piece.