In this happiest month of the Jewish calendar, the month of Adar (well, second Adar, to be specific), we begin the third book of the Torah - Vayikra, or Leviticus. The Sages tell us that “when we enter Adar, we increase in happiness.” Purim is the centerpiece of this month, and there’s certainly something to be said for this wacky festival of unexpected outcomes, costumes, and drinking being among the happiest moments of the Jewish year.
When reading through the weekly Parshiyot in Adar, I can’t help but feel that these Vayikra portions place a bit of a damper on the levity that we’re supposed to cultivate during the month of Adar. With all respect to the Torah, these sections of the Law drone on and on about various sacrifices and the particularities of the offerings, giving detail after detail about how to offer sacrifices that have not been a part of Jewish practice for nearly two thousand years. In addition to the sacrificial legislation of Parshat Vayikra is an abundance of laws specifically for Kohanim in the desert (Parshat Tzav), a description of the ceremony of consecration of the Mishkan (Parshat Shemini), and a description of mostly no longer applicable laws of purity, which especially center around Tzaraat, a skin disease which we no longer get for speaking Lashon Hara (Parshat Tazria).
Many people complain about how the Torah is a book designed for another time, full of details which are irrelevant to our modern age and which have become out of sync with the Spiritus Mundi. I always have an answer for such complaints, because I truly do believe that every piece of the Torah is eternal and that there’s a practical explanation for how every detail of these Holy Texts translate into invaluable life lessons for the modern human. However, when it comes to Parshat Vayikra, I begin to struggle with this.
Of course, I could come up with heady symbolic interpretations for every one of the sacrificial gestures, explaining how the blood being placed here translates to this lesson about life, and the innards being consumed entirely in fire relates to our need to elevate the deepest aspects of ourselves to God, etc. But for some reason it just doesn’t feel like the move when it comes to these passages in the Book of Vayikra. It’s like I’m literally blocked off from the life giving waters of Torah meaning by a wall of text that is hardly applicable to my modern life, impenetrable even with the help of the commentators who elucidate when my own interpretations fail me.
But this year, in light of Chodesh Adar, I came to a new understanding of Sefer Vayikra. Chodesh Adar is so happy because it represents the ushering in of new energy of refreshment and redemption - we’re leaving winter and entering spring, and when Nissan rolls around and every day is another Rosh Chodesh, that will truly be the happiest part of the year. Sefer Vayikra comes right before this time, right during the time where we are tasked with “increasing in happiness” rather than just naturally absorbing the happiness around us, because it reflects a constant spiritual reality of our daily lives:
We cannot just expect happiness to come and find us. We have to build our own happiness, and continue to captain the vessel of our personal satisfaction with life by conducting a mental routine of positive thinking and navigate through the precarious waters of life’s daily trials and tribulations, those waters which King David begged Hashem to “not let the waterflood overwhelm me, neither let the deep swallow me up” (Tehillim 69:16). Chodesh Adar is all about building happiness and contentment even when things around us are still chaotic and not necessarily conducive to inner peace. Its about finding meaning when the flash of Divine inspiration disappears and we are left staring at the apparent emptiness of material existence, the spiritual desert which drove us to seek Hashem in the first place.
They say “it’s always darkest before the dawn,” and many Rabbis over the ages have said this concept in their own words. Rabbi Nachman says that many times in life we need a Yeridah L’Tzorech Aliyah - we need to go down a little bit, in order to be lifted up to a higher level before. This is what Sefer Vayikra represents. It represents the moment when it stops being so fun to have adopted a spiritual way of life - when the initial burst of energy and inspiration has seemingly disappeared and you’re left wondering where God went, where that overpowering emotion and sense of infinite meaning went just as you had gotten used to its enlightening presence. Gone are the stories of the heroic quests of our forefathers and foremothers, rich with metaphorical meaning - right now we are faced with sacrifice after sacrifice, with technicalities on how to live life that don’t always clearly translate into a sense of fulfillment and purpose. But the light is right there waiting at the end of the tunnel - by the time we’re reading the Torah portions that are closer to Passover, we’ll already be back to stories, already have the sense of rejuvenation and direct inspiration that we’ve craved. We just have to push through the part that doesn’t feel as fun - we have to make a sacrifice for God.
Life before we embraced the Torah was about pleasure seeking, was about trying to constantly stimulate our bodies and minds to escape what we perceived as the tediousness of ordinary reality. Once we found the Light of the Torah, we were entirely sure that the joyful essence of closeness to God would remain in full force. When we reached Sefer Vayikra, we realized that we would now have to put in the work to make that happen. We have to find the meaning when it isn’t as glaringly apparent as it was before. We have to push through with faith when we don’t feel the excitement as much as we once did. Faith that we will feel that spiritual rush again, at the right time - but that in the meanwhile, our job is to recognize that serving God is not always about our feeling of personal spiritual satisfaction. Sometimes, its just about giving God our sacrifice on his terms, without thinking about ourselves - and having faith that it will produce a pleasing odor to Him.
Ya’akov Adam Schwartz
Ya’akov (Jacob) Adam Schwartz regularly writes blog postings for Jewish Values Online.
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What is the concept of "ohr lagoyim/le'ohr goyim" [a light to the nations], and how much should it be emphasized as an ultimate purpose of the Jewish nation/people, and/or the Jewish state of Israel? Did the concept exist before the time of the prophets, as an underlying, obvious, goal, or was it something new from those times? Is it something we are supposed to bring about on our own, and work for, or something that will naturally happen through miracles of G-d's will? What are the sources and the different ways of understanding it since the times of the prophets? -thank you! chag pesach sameach/moadeem le'simcha!
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