Yael Ridberg

The Sacred Calling of Leadership after the Israeli Elections

Wednesday morning, I immediately grabbed my iPad to read the final counts from the Israeli elections held the day before. An almost improbably close election had resulted in the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu and a clear emergence of more politically right of center alliances. The days before the election had brought out some particularly vicious sentiments about the future of a two state solution and hatred for the Arab citizens of Israel, and I admit to feeling quite a bit of a paralysis and despair about what the future might hold for this land and people that I love so dearly.

It wasn’t just a feeling of being let down after a big emotional experience, it was about the very clear realization of how much work there was now to be done in the face of the results. But despair was (is?) not an option, many of my Israeli friends reminded me, because as the dust settles, and the victory laps come to an end, Netanyahu faces the difficult task of creating a government.

I am not a political talking head, so I will not posit here what I think he should or must do. But the association I had with my feelings can be related to the place where we find ourselves now in the Torah cycle.

I have always felt an emotional let down upon completing the book of Exodus. There is so much drama, movement, sensory overload, and dynamic anticipation of the future for the Jewish people. The book of Vayikra — Leviticus -– that we begin this week brings it all down to a certain level of reality. There is orderliness, arrangement, laws, and in many ways the formulation of the people’s identity through those laws. Amidst the backdrop of the sacrificial system emerge laws about behavior among human beings, laws that bring an understanding of peoplehood – what to eat, when to celebrate and how, and the enduring presence of God that permeates all aspects of the people’s existence by day and night.

The text begins with the words, “Vayikra el Moshe, vayedaber Adonai elav m’ohel mo’ed lemor” – God called to Moses, and spoke to him from within the Tent of Meeting” (1:1). The use of the verb vayikra (he called) instead of the more common forms of the verb to speak, vayedaber and vayomer, is notable. Some commentators point to the use of this verb as underscoring the intimate relationship between Moses and God. All the verbs for speech are used in the verse, but the order with vayikra first seems to connote a personal salutation, and because of this, it makes sense that what was yet to come were the different kinds of korbanot or sacrifices that would enable the people to get closer to, and deepen their relationship with God.

In addition, the word vayikra is written with a small letter aleph at the end of the word. The commentators point to Moses’ humility in the face of his intimate relationship with God. It is a curious calligraphic flourish, but may in fact point to a bigger teaching, relevant to these post election days in Israel. For after all the noise of electioneering and exit polls, Israel must still set out a course for the future.

The book of Leviticus will unfold for us a text filled with a variety of motives and occasions for sacrifice in biblical Israel, including thanksgiving, purification, and reparation. The sacrificial system was built as a way to maintain or, when necessary, repair the relationship between God and Israel. The people’s adherence to these very specific laws was essential for the society to remain intact, and the covenant with God strengthened.

I don’t know what the upcoming days will bring in Israel. I can only pray that the newly elected leaders understand the imperatives the sacrificial system still hold for us today: to seek solidarity, to make the community accessible to all its inhabitants, to apologize for both unintentional sins and conscious abuses, and to offer gratitude for the ongoing miracle that is the Jewish people.

May they feel the calling to seek peace and pursue it, and in doing so make a covenant for the future.

About the Author
Rabbi Yael B. Ridberg serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Dor Hadash in San Diego, California. In addition to her congregational responsibilities, Rabbi Ridberg serves as the President of the San Diego Rabbinic Association. She lives in La Jolla with her husband and four children.
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