A Cosmic Call – Shabbat Vayikra Friday, March 19, 2021

It looks for all the world like a scene out of an Indiana Jones movie: A team of antiquities experts and archaeologists rappelling down a harsh and unyielding desert mountainside, over cliffs, down gorges and into ancient caves – with names such as the “Cave of Horrors” — in search of the treasures of the ancient world.

For four years, this team from the Israeli Antiquities Authority searched more than 500 caves of the Judean Desert south of Jerusalem, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found 70 years ago. They were armed, not with knives or pistols like in the movies, but with metal detectors and drones, seeking out tiny artifacts that would teach them more about Israel’s past.

This week, we learned of their remarkable success:

Dozens of fragments of Biblical texts, which may have been secreted away in the caves during the failed Bar Kochba rebellion against the Romans in the second century.

Coins minted by those Bar Kochba rebels to declare their independence from Rome.

Also uncovered: the six-thousand year old mummified skeleton of a child, and an intact basket that is more than ten thousand years old and may be the oldest in the world.[1]

But it’s the Biblical scroll fragments that most fascinated me. All of them date from about the first century, and they are in Greek. Pieced together with care and delicacy, they were found to include portions of the twelve books of the Minor prophets.

What’s crucial about them, according to researcher Oren Ableman, is that they contain textual variants that have never been found in any other manuscript of the Hebrew Bible. Joe Uziel, who heads the Dead Sea Scrolls Unit for the Israel Antiquities Authority, said this gives us a better understanding about how our Bible as we know it came to be:

“When we think about the biblical text,” Uziel said, “we think about something very static. It wasn’t static. There are slight differences and some of those differences are important.”[2]

Some of the new fragments contain verses from the prophet Nahum. Others come from the exilic prophet Zecharia, who wrote after the destruction of the first Temple in the sixth century before the Common Era.

Here is part of the Zecharia text that the team was able to piece together, as they shared it in English:

“These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates. And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, because all those are things that I hate – declares the Lord.”[3]

For researcher Oren Ableman, these specific verses lay out clearly the concept of equal justice for all that, in his words, “are read by people and are meaningful to people to this very day.”[4]

To which I would say: Amen.

Finding any of these scraps of text is a miracle. But finding these particular verses makes this a find of cosmic importance. And I do not think it is coincidental that these words from Zecharia have reached across 25-hundred years of Jewish history to speak to us on this very Shabbat.

The truth is that God’s demand for equal justice for all people is proclaimed time and again in the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. But it is not exclusive to the prophets.

In fact, it goes to the heart of the Book of Leviticus – in Hebrew, Sefer Vayikra – which we begin reading tonight.

It’s all too easy to miss the message. After all, the focus is on the priests – who hold an exalted position in ancient Israelite society.

The vivid, detailed descriptions of how the animals are slaughtered, cut up, and burned are fascinating for some people and horrifying for others. And the whole exercise has been anachronistic for two thousand years.

And yet, just in the first few verses of Leviticus, we glean something much more important. Not all the offerings are cattle or sheep or goats, which are a precious commodity. Some people come offering pigeons and turtledoves. And others bring a handful of flour, which is mixed with oil and essentially baked into griddle cakes.

This meal offering, which in Hebrew is called mincha, is of particular interest to the rabbis, who searched for meaning in every word of Scripture.

Chapter two – in the middle of this week’s parashah — begins with the words

וְנֶפֶשׁ כִּי־תַקְרִיב קָרְבַּן מִנְחָה לַיהוָֹה

We would usually translate this as “When a person presents an offering of meal to the Eternal . . .”

But the Midrash sees something deeper. Here, the rabbis point out that the first word, “nefesh,” is unique to the meal offering. It appears in connection with none of these other voluntary offerings like cattle or goats or even birds. “Nefesh” isn’t a person but a soul, or – more literally – a life. And so they teach:

“A voluntary mincha is likely to be the gift of a poor person who could not afford anything else; all the more must we value it aright. Once, a priest expressed contempt for the handful of flour a woman brought to the Temple, saying, ‘See what she offers! What is there in this to eat? What is there in this to offer up?’ But then God rebuked the priest in a dream: Nefesh – God reminded him. ‘She offered her very soul.’”[5]

This same Midrash makes it clear that God not only values equally whatever offering people are able to bring – but that even the most rich and powerful man in the land does not get special treatment from heaven.

“King Agrippa[6] – who reigned over Israel in the early first century — once wished to offer up a thousand burnt offerings in one day. He sent word to the High Priest: ‘Let no man other than myself offer sacrifices today!’ But there came a poor man with two turtle-doves in his hand, and he said to the High Priest: ‘Sacrifice these!’ The High Priest responded: “I cannot. It is the king’s command.’

“The poor man was beside himself. He pleaded with the High Priest, saying: ‘My lord High Priest, I catch four [doves] every day; two I offer up, and with the other two I sustain myself. If you do not offer them up, you cut off my means of sustenance!’ In other words, every single day, he offered to God no less than he kept for himself. He was sure that God was, in turn, rewarding him for his most generous gift by making sure that he always caught enough. His family, he was sure, would starve if he wasn’t able to make his daily offering at the altar.

“So the priest took them and offered them up.

“That night, King Agrippa had a dream in which he was told: ‘The sacrifice of a poor man preceded yours.’ The king was furious. He strode up to the High Priest and chastised him, saying: ‘Did I not command you thus: Let no one but me offer sacrifices this day?’ The High Priest replied: ‘Your Majesty, a poor man came with two turtle-doves in his hand, and he said to me: I catch four birds every day; I sacrifice two, and from the other two I support myself. If you will not offer them up you will cut off my means of sustenance. Should I not have offered them up?’

“The king was chastised for his arrogance. He told the High Priest: You did the right thing.”[7]

If we look at these opening chapters of the Book of Leviticus through the eyes of the rabbis, we see that they are really not about the trappings of the priesthood. They are about the equal opportunity to please God that the altar offers every single person.

Whether they can afford a bull, or turtledove, or a handful of flour – the what’s important is that they give what they can. All of these, according to the Torah, give off a ray-ach ni-cho-ach L’Adonai — “a pleasing odor” to God. And it is the simple meal offering shared with the priest that is declared to be “kodesh kodoshim” – a most holy offering to God.

As the Sefat Emet – the great sage of 19th-century Warsaw – explained: when the opening of Leviticus says, “When an individual brings an offering to God” – what it really means is “every person must bring of himself” to God.[8]  What’s important is not the value of the gift in dollars or shekels. What’s important is the open heart that compels us to give.

This, too, I think, is a discovery of cosmic importance. It speaks to us of the same eternal value of equal justice for all that inspired archaeologist Oren Ableman as he pieced together the words of the prophet Zecharia from those tiny, ancient fragments.

This incredible discovery, in a dusty cave in a forsaken desert half a world away, comes to us at a most crucial moment in our history. A moment when so many of our communities are beset by fear, and baseless hatred, and suspicion of the “other.” A moment when justice and fairness and kindness and compassion must prevail.

A moment when we must bring – and give – of ourselves, and challenge others to do the same. A moment that those who come after us must be able to look back on with pride, just as we do with these fragmentary reminders of the gifts we have inherited over the generations.

Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our mission. As we say together: Amen.

####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] https://www.timesofisrael.com/dead-sea-scroll-discovery-brings-tantalizing-prospect-of-more-yet-to-be-found/

Accessed March 17, 2021.

[2] https://apnews.com/article/new-dead-sea-scrolls-israel-19844d3eb208190914182e78d9d79aac#:~:text=JERUSALEM%20(AP)%20%E2%80%94%20Israeli%20archaeologists,Rome%20nearly%201%2C900%20years%20ago. Accessed March 17, 2021.

[3] Zech. 8:16-17

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/16/world/middleeast/dead-sea-scrolls-israel.html. Accessed March 17, 2021.

[5] Leviticus Rabbah 3:5. See Gleanings on Parashat Vayikra in Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, edited by W. Gunther Plaut (New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2005), p. 680.

[6] @10 BCE-44 CE.

[7] Davka Corporation Judaic Classics version 3.3. ©1991-2009  Institute for Computers in Jewish Life.

[8] Torah Gems Volume II: Shemot, Vayikra, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1992), p. 243.

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