Leviticus guides personal growth. Vayikra introduces humility. Tzav teaches gratitude. And Shemini? Self-restraint.
Leviticus opens with the word “Vayikra,” with its last letter written smaller and slightly elevated. This hints at an other-than-expected translation, from Vayikra el Moshe vaydabeir Adonai eilav – “(God) called to Moses and said to him” – to Vayakar Elohim el Moshe vaydabeir Adonai eilav – “God was precious to Moses, so God said to him.” Since God was precious to Moses, therefore Moses could hear God speaking to him. Because Moses was able to perceive that he was part of something greater than himself, he could hear the call to service.
Moses was a man of great substance. Yet he saw himself in context as an agent of God. He heard God’s call not to better himself, but to serve others. With humility dawns the awareness of being a servant of God.
And with humility comes the desire to offer thanks for life’s gifts. Tzav describes the sacrificial offerings for thanksgiving and wellbeing, and sin and guilt. These reflect not only the obvious blessings – a prosperous year, a healthy family – but also those that stem from self-awareness, desirous of teshuvah and forgiveness. We can imagine the gratitude felt by those able to release their inner feelings through the sacrificial offering.
The priests, too, had to make a sin offering when they were ordained. No person can lead without humility. No person can understand another without being self-aware, conscious of personal flaw and frailty. An unhealthy ego threatened the priest’s ability to serve well.
This brings us to Shemini. If ever a portion cries out to us about the need for self-restraint…. Shemini opens with the profound ceremony of the High Priest Aaron concluding the ordination ceremony and dashing the sacrificial blood against the altar. The people fall on their faces and Moses and Aaron offer blessing upon them. Caught up in the moment, perhaps too caught up with their own importance, Aaron’s older sons, Nadav and Avihu, break every rule they have learned and bring an unbidden offering to God. They are killed. The penalty was well-known to them; why did they do this? Had they been in a truly spiritual state during the ordination ceremony, humility would have restrained their impulse to bring the offering. Instead of behaving with humble gratitude, their egos left them heady and wild.
The dietary laws further this admonition for restraint. No reason is given for the food restrictions, except that “you shall not make yourselves unclean” (Leviticus 11:45). “Unclean” references the state of being in which one was not permitted to offer a sacrifice. To truly worship God, one needs to be “clean.”
Today, instead of sacrifices, we offer prayer. Prayer comes from the heart, but is offered through the mouth. How do we use our mouths? We eat. We drink. We speak. We kiss. We sustain ourselves, we form relationships, and we offer love and share intimacy. One’s mouth is a vessel for the sacred acts of life.
What makes us “clean” or fit to pray truly and sincerely? In the kavannah preceding the T’filah, we pray: “God, open my lips that my mouth might declare Your praise.” Though one might take this literally, the prayer also urges us to utter words that would please God. God doesn’t need us to shout “Hallelujah!” every moment. God hopes for words that build relationships and forge peace.
At the conclusion of the T’filah we pray: “Keep my tongue from evil and my lips from deceit.” This is about gossip. Restraining from gossip is one of the hardest things to do. My students try to track how often they speak about other people. Many give up after a day or so. I confess, too, how difficult it is not to talk about others. Shemini urges restraint.
Leviticus guides personal growth. Worship then and now invites us to refine our characters and fill our souls with light. “May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable before You, O God.”