“We are Billion-Year-Old Carbon:” Parashat Vayikra

On Friday afternoon, I was at the Masjid Muhammad Mosque just a few blocks away from Sixth & I.

I was there with other members of the Jewish community, who we went in solidarity and out of profound sadness and anguish at the murderous attacks on mosques in New Zealand, which have left 49 precious souls dead.

I sat on the floor of the Mosque, listening as the Imam, Talib Shareef, taught about the prayers for the Muslim day of rest – the Jumu’ah. He shared that they are about remembering all of the forces that went into the creation of the world.

And I smiled, because Shabbat, for Jews, is the same: zecher l’ma’aseh v’reishit, we say in our Shabbat blessings: we rest in remembrance of the act of creation.

Why was this important, the Imam asked?

Because if you turn your thoughts to creation, and go far back enough – you get to this person, this idea, that we call Adam. Adam. The very name Judaism gives to all of humanity.

Our rabbis ask: why was all humanity born from just one person? So that nobody could say to their neighbour: my father, my mother is better than your father; your mother.

And if you go far back enough in creation, you get to one place. One moment in time. A big bang. Or a single sentence: “Let there be… us.”

And our rabbis ask: why was all of humanity created with the same dirt of the earth?
So that no person could say to another: I come from a place better than the place you come from.

We’re all made up of the same billion-year old stardust.

And, like Imam Shareef taught today: we are all indebted to everything that came before us. In talking about this idea, he shared his thoughts on the traditional motto of the United States: e pluribus unum – out of many, one. “What if?” the Imam asked us, “we should really turn this upside down: out of one, many.” How would that change how we see the world and each other?

The holiday of Purim is coming up next week. It is a story of how out of many, out of all the Jews, one leader, Esther emerges. It is a compelling narrative, but the depth of its wisdom is often overshadowed by the raucous celebration.

The Jewish mystics saw a hidden secret in Purim: something much deeper than costumes and masks and drunken parties. They taught that the very name of the text we read on Purim – Megillat Esther– the scroll of Esther – actually has a hidden meaning within it.

They connect the word Megillahto the word gilui– meaning “discovery,” and the word “Esther,” to “hester” – meaning “hidden.”

In this way, they teach that Purim is a time for gilui hester – discovering that which is hidden.It’s a time when we might work on an inner focus to reveal that which is hidden in the world.

What is hidden?

Lately, watching the news, I don’t blame people who feel as though a shared sense of humanity is hidden; Who feel like we’re suffering from a compassion drought.

The famous Kabbalistic Rabbi, Isaac Luria, taught about a spiritual state called Hester Panim– the hidden face of God.

There are times when it is difficult; seemingly impossible to sense God’s presence in the world. We want to believe in a compassionate, caring God. But then we awake to news of Mosque shootings in New Zealand. Or Synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh.

It’s time’s like this when we feel the anguish of Hester Panim – that God’s face is hiding from us. Or that we’re hiding our human faces from each other.

It is a time of disconnection and lack of communication with our souls.

Rabbi Luria describes this kind of state as a time of confusion, chaos and pain.  But he also teaches us that for many people, this disconnection is necessary in order to reach a state of wholeness.

Think about all the times you emerge from a period of crisis as a stronger, better person.
All the times you emerge from a conflict with a partner or a friend as a better team.
All the times you grow from confusion into clarity.
All the times when communities are made more whole after times of brokenness.

It takes our own ability and effort to work through these periods of darkness, and discovering what had been hiding from our awareness.

How do we do this?

As luck would have it, the Torah this week offers one model:

This week we begin the book of Leviticus. The book begins with the word Vayikra: “He Called.”

Who called?

It’s only after this word – a few words later  that we find out who might be doing the calling: וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃ “He called to Moses. And God spoke to him out of the tent of meeting, saying…” (Lev. 1:1)

It’s commonly understood that it’s God who does both the calling (vayikra)
and the speaking (vay’daber)… But strictly speaking, that’s not what the Torah says.

First there’s an act of calling by some unknown source, and only after that call does Moses hear something said by God.

First, Moses has to be able and willing to hear a call. Then, he receives a message.

How often are we distracted and disturbed that we don’t notice the most important relationships around us? So focused on ourselves and our own particulars that we close ourselves off to others? The opening of Leviticus says the opposite: the call – the relationship comes first. Vayikra: first be open to hear the call of the Other, then talk.

And it suggests something maybe a little upside down about God: Maybe what God actually says is secondary to the relationship itself.

When we forget our inextricable connection to others,  our ability to hear this call is hidden. And we forget that while we may be many, we all come from One.

So we have to do the work so that we can be ever present to hear the call of others.  I’m not talking about a naïve, kumbaya vision of holding hands  and listening to each other just at one difficult moment in time.

I’m saying that the hidden message in the opening to the book of Leviticus is that the Torah understands that Moses – God’s chosen prophet. Moses – who spoke with God face-to-face. Moses – the central character of the Torah… he can’t get God’s words, and can’t be in relationship with God, unless he himself first does the work to open his own ears, and open his heart to see that the world is calling to him.

And if all that is demanded of Moses, all the more so is it demanded of us.

How can we seek what is hidden? To be present and open to the world? How do we understand what it means to listen? How do we remember that our relationship with each other comes first, before anything we have to say to one another?

Shabbat is one way.

Remember, the point of Shabbat is not just rest and relaxation of the hard week.

Over and over, the words of our prayers tell us that Shabbat is zecher l’ma’aseh v’reishit – a remembrance of the act of creation.

Whether you understand creation to be the forces of gravity coming together in a giant atomic explosion, or the mystical work of a compassionate Creator bringing humanity into existence, Shabbat is a time to when we turn from the world of creation, to the creation of the world.

Of course it’s Shabbat when we do this “work.” All the rituals help us: When ideally, we make it a quieter time, and tune out the distractions of the world. When we sing words that express awe at the wonder of creation. When we grasp at something much bigger than ourselves. And when we bring ourselves physically closer to the ones we love.

It’s only when we do this that we can tune our hearts and ears to hear that which calls us; to reveal that which is too often hidden to us.

We are all indebted to everything that came before us.

All of us are made up of the same stuff, all of us come from the same source.

And when we remember that — only then – can we truly hear the call of God that emanates from each of us.

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