Parshat Vayikra: When Jews seek spirituality

Each person will create their own relationship with God, the scholar with the intellectual depth that comes from sustained study, the simple Jew with his poignant cry to the heavens.

Painting by Yoram Raanan (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
If one’s sacrifice is a peace offering, and it is from cattle he may offer either an unblemished male or female before the Lord. If he brings a sheep as his sacrifice, he shall present it before the Lord. And he shall lean his hand upon the head of his sacrifice, and have it slaughtered in front of the Communion Tent. (Leviticus 3:1, 7-8)
Painting by  Yoram Raanan:
 “He called to Moses and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” (Leviticus 1:1).
Do you seek spirituality? More and more Jewish people are dissatisfied with a life regulated by commandments; they are searching for more meaningful religious experiences. Hassidism, mysticism, music and meditation are becoming more popular among spiritual seekers.
Uplifting experiences may inspire us, but are we really penetrating the heavens? How accessible is God? Last week, the Book of Exodus closed on a disturbing note. As Moses completed the construction of the Tabernacle and prepared to enter it, he was suddenly rendered impotent. The glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan, but “Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it” (Exodus 40:35).
We don’t know how long Moses was left waiting outside, but it is not till this week, as we start a new biblical book, that Moses is called by God into the Tent of Meeting. “He called to Moses and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” (Leviticus 1:1).
Why does God call out to Moses before speaking to him? Rashi suggests that “every time God communicated with Moses... it was always preceded by God calling.... Calling is a sign of Divine affection.” This approach is shared by the midrash that compares God’s call to a father tenderly placing his young son upon his lap and embracing him (Vayikra Raba 1:15).
Yet the Divine call also shows that while Moses could prophesy whenever he wanted, his relationship with God was governed by strict protocol. This began at the Burning Bush, when Moses was told not to come close because he was on holy ground, and at Mount Sinai, where he waited for six days while the mountain was covered by the cloud (Exodus 24:18).
It’s a pattern that continued at the consecration of King Solomon’s Temple, when the priests found themselves excluded from the sanctuary by the clouds of glory (I Kings 8:11).
Another midrash also recognizes this gulf between Moses and his Maker, but it suggests that it was not God who demanded distance and prevented Moses from entering the Tabernacle; rather, Moses’s own humility kept him outside. As we begin the Book of Leviticus, God pays tribute to Moses’s fine etiquette, by calling to him and welcoming him into the Tabernacle (Vayikra Raba 1:15).
This modesty, according to Maimonides, must define our relationship with the Almighty. Connecting to God requires hard work. In his parable of the palace, Maimonides explains that those who make little effort to search out God stand far away, with their backs turned to the palace, while those who have made greater efforts enter the outer courtyards, and the most devoted spiritual seekers enter the palace and approach the throne room (Guide for the Perplexed 3:51).
What gains us access to God’s palace? Former American president Dwight D. Eisenhower distinguished between activities that are urgent and those that are important.
Urgent matters, like responding to emails, demand our immediate attention; the consequences of delaying them may be dire. Still, they usually play to the needs of others, without advancing our own longterm agenda. Important matters do not fulfill an immediate need, so they can easily be put off, but it is investment in these areas that empowers us to fulfill our longer-term purpose, such as developing the skills and knowledge required to do our job better or further our career.
The rabbis made a similar distinction between urgent activities that might fulfill an immediate religious need, and important activities, such as religious study, which deepen our knowledge of God, enabling a richer long-term relationship with the Almighty.
This is why they repeatedly ruled that study is the greatest possible religious activity (Kiddushin 40b and Shabbat 10a). The more we learn about God, the greater our connection.
It’s a demanding approach, but it is not the only way. The Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of hassidism, offered a more accessible path to God. He suggested that the walls of the Divine palace are illusory. Anyone who sincerely seeks God can breach them and stand before his King. This matches God’s promise that even in the darkest moments of exile, “if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him...” (Deuteronomy 4:29).
This gentler approach might be detected in Rashbam’s (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, 12th century) explanation of Moses’s initial exclusion from the Tabernacle.
He suggests that the cloud of glory hovering over the Tabernacle on the day of its dedication was a signal of God’s love for his people and Divine approval for the house of worship that Moses and the people had built.
Once everyone had seen this loving gesture, the cloud shifted into the Tabernacle, enabling Moses to enter and to hear the voice of God.
If Moses is beckoned with a gentle and affectionate calling of his name, so, too, are we. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 11th century) adds that not every Divine communication begins with a calling, because sometimes God pauses to allow Moses time to digest the message. God understands human frailty and is patient, allowing us the space to develop our own religious personality within the framework of His laws.
For while in our story God calls out to Moses, later, in the book of Psalms, we are taught that “the Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who sincerely call upon him” (Psalms 145:18).
Each person will create their own relationship with God, the scholar with the intellectual depth that comes from sustained study, the simple Jew with his poignant cry to the heavens. God just asks that we constantly work at enriching our connection. We may not always get an instant spiritual fix, but ultimately we will gain the deep contentment that comes from a sustained relationship with God.
Shabbat shalom.
The writer is the British United Synagogue’s rabbi in Israel.