Haftarah Parshat Vayikra
(Isaiah 43:21- 44:23)
March 30, 2001
In the Torah reading this week,we begin the third of the five books of the Torah – Sefer Vayikra – Leviticus. Its more ancient name is “Torat Kohanim” – “The Teachings of the Priests” – because much of this book details the sacrificial rites of the Israelites, as practiced first in the portable sanctuary in the desert (the Mishkan) and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.
While the sacrificial rites seem alien to most Jews today, this form of worship involved great religious intensity. Sacrifice was not simply communication with God, it was the most “whole-hearted” way that a people could give of themselves to God. By offering to God something which was precious, each sacrifice became an act of giving of one’s very self. The sacrifices were our ancestors’ way of acknowledging their indebtedness to God.
Now we can understand better the message found in the words of the prophet Isaiah, the source of this week’s haftarah. The Torah reading outlines the responsibilities involved in keeping the commandments of the sacrificial order; the Haftarah concerns itself with what happens when the human relationship with God breaks down. In the second verse of the haftarah (Isaiah 43:22) God dispairs: “You have not called upon Me, Jacob, nor have you wearied yourself for Me, Israel.” (JPS, 1917).
Is it any surprise that God should be disheartened when people do not pay adequate attention to what He has done for them – when they do not even acknowledge their blessings, let alone their responsibilities? Relationships cannot flourish where they are only one-sided – where there is no “whole-hearted” sacrifice and therefore no reciprocity.
In the following tragic parable we get a sense of God’s disappointment in the Jewish people:
Rabbi Yossi the son of Rabbi Hanina said: God proclaimed, “If only my children would think of me like they think of dessert at the end of a meal!” Rabbi Yudan said: it is like a servant of the king who gave a party for all of his friends without inviting his master, the king. The king, deeply hurt, bemoaned, “If only my servant would treat me at least as well as he treats his friends!” So says the Holy One Blessed be He: “If only they would yearn for me as they look forward to dessert at the end of a meal. But instead, ‘you have not called upon Me, Jacob’ — you work hard all day long without tiring, but when it comes time to pray to me you are too tired, so that when your friend calls you to pray, you answer, ‘I am too tired.’ (Adapted from Eicha Rabba Peticha 10.)
Even after the destruction of the Temple, God wants from us the kind of “whole-heartedness” that we give to our other major concerns. If we find the time for all of our other concerns, we must make the time also for God. This is what the sacrifices represented for our ancestors, and this is the challenge in our own religious lives today.