Though the book of Leviticus often carries a reputation of distaste and irrelevance, it also bears essential teachings about our people's wisdom on how to draw close to God. In this week's parashah, a single letter can teach us about our holy relationship with the Holy One.
Two merchants in the Polish town of Warka were both staying in the same inn. One evening, they struck up conversation, swapping stories of their adventures and sharing advice about their favorite taverns. They found one another to be industrious, honorable, and clever, and they became fast friends.
The next morning, they ran into each other again by the stables. They discovered they were both heading to the town of Gur, and they bid one another farewell, looking forward to meeting again soon.
The first peddler arrived in Gur that night and soon learned that his new friend had not yet arrived. Indeed, a full week passed before his fellow traveler finally turned up. When at last they sat down for a meal, the first merchant asked the second, “What took you so long to make it to Gur?”
“The point is that I’m here,” his companion responded. “Whatever happened, happened.” And he made no further comment.
This story comes to us from the Hasidic Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Przysucha [pr. “p’shisucha”; Hebrew פְּשִׁיסְחָה]. This was one of his favorites, a story he’d use to teach the lesson that all of us are equal, even though some do more mitzvot than others. He’d teach, “It’s all the same, whether you do more or less, as long as you direct your heart to heaven.” In other words, it doesn’t matter whether you’re fast or slow, mighty or frail – what matters is that you point yourself in the right direction.
We begin reading this week the book of Vayikra or Leviticus, which has a reputation as being all about sacrifices. But while Vayikra does indeed describe the ancient practice of animal sacrifice at great length, that’s not what this book is truly about.
The word for the sacrifice described time and again in the book of Leviticus is korban, from the Hebrew word karov or close. It was by offering a korban that an Israelite man or woman would draw close to God.
Our ancient ancestors lived in a world where animal sacrifice was, in a sense, the religious language of the day. It’s the only tool people had for worshiping their gods. So, for a thousand years, the Israelites offered sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem as their way of drawing close to the divine.
Then, in the year 70, the Temple was destroyed, and ritual sacrifice was destroyed right along with it. Right away, the earliest rabbis filled the void with new forms of devotion: study, prayer, and acts of kindness. They replaced the service of the Temple with the service of the heart and launched our two-thousand-year-old experiment in trying to approach the divine through the words and deeds of our everyday lives.
Even the ancient and alien book of Leviticus can have meaning for us today if we can look beyond the sacrifices to discover the intention behind them. For instance, this week’s parashah describes the process of atonement when someone mistakenly transgresses a prohibition. Everyone is included, from the priests and the tribal leaders down to the common people. Great or small, all are held to the same standards, and all have the sacred potential to bring repair where once there was brokenness.
This teaching is reflected in one tiny letter. The book of Leviticus opens:
וַיִּקְרָא אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, and God called to Moses…
Oddly, the silent aleph at the end of the word vayikra appears unusually small when printed in the Torah scroll.
Notably, this isn’t the only abnormal aleph in the Hebrew Bible. Traditionally, the first word of the book of Chronicles also contains an unusual aleph – but this time, it’s larger than normal.
Here, the name Adam—the first human being recorded as the common ancestor of all humankind—is written with a large aleph.
So we have a small aleph in the first word of Leviticus and a large aleph in the first word of Chronicles.
These letters teach us that there’s no difference in the eyes of God between someone exceedingly humble like Moses or someone larger than life like Adam. So long as our hearts lead us in the right direction, it doesn’t matter how much success we achieve or even how many good deeds we do. The offering of our heart—measured according to our circumstances and ability—is what God desires.
There is a well-known teaching of the 18th-century Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol (1718–1800):
Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: “Why were you not Zusya?”
Rabbi Zusya’s immortal teaching is that each of us must live up to our own potential for holiness, no one else’s. Each of us has a distinct and precious role to play in the world.
And where did Rabbi Zusya learn this wisdom? I believe it was—as it so often is—from his mother. She was a simple but pious woman, and Zusya used to say of her:
“My mother Mirl, peace be with her, did not pray from the book because she could not read. All she knew was how to say the blessings. But wherever she said the blessing in the morning, in that place the radiance of the Divine Presence rested the livelong day.”
Each of us is Zusya the sage; each of us is Mirl the simpleton. When Vayikra calls out to us to come close to God, it doesn’t care whether we’re as awesome as Adam or as modest as Moses. It cares only that we draw near to God with love, that we embrace the world with compassion, and that we approach one another with kindness.
 This teaching comes from the Sefat Emet, in his commentary on Vayikra.
 Maimonides taught that the Israelites only knew of sacrifice as a practice of worship, so God directed them to sacrifice to God. In time, our ancestors evolved to have more sophisticated (and better) methods of approaching God. See for instance “Maimonides’ Attitude Toward Sacrifice” by Russell J. Hendel in Tradition, available online: http://traditionarchive.org/news/originals/Volume%2013/No.%204/Maimnides'%20Attitude.pdf.
 Buber, Martin (1948). Tales of the Hasidim: Early Masters. Schocken Books, p. 251.
 Ibid. p. 235.
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