Parashat Vayikra

Striving for I-Thou

Parashat Vayikra challenges the Jewish community to find new ways of interacting with God and God's creations.

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Again, as at Sinai, God beckons to Moses. In Parashat Vayikra, the first Torah portion in the book of Leviticus, God lays out a detailed program for human-Divine interaction: the sacrificial cult. The portion goes on to describe sin sacrifices and guilt sacrifices and sacrifices for inadvertent violations, creating a mechanism for the Israelite community to develop a relationship with God that would outlive its spokesman, Moses.

american jewish world serviceSacrifice and Prayer

From this moment in Jewish history, through to the destruction of the Second Temple (with a break for the Babylonian exile), the sacrificial system served as the primary vehicle for communication between the Israelites and God. Since the destruction of the Temple two thousand years ago, the Jewish community has struggled to find other ways to communicate with the Eternal. Rabbis, sages and philosophers have sought pathways that allow usto speak with God.

Prayer is one such alternate pathway, allowing communities and individuals to call out to God with supplication and gratitude. It maintains the human-God axis of interaction that is present in the sacrificial system, but uses words instead of burnt offerings as the medium of communication. But the Torah hints at another, more metaphorical opportunity for interacting with the Divine.

I-Thou Relating

In Genesis, the Torah teaches us that human beings are created in God's image. Reading this very literally, we can infer that every interaction we have with another person, every face-to-face encounter is, in effect, an encounter with Divinity.

The 20th century philosopher Martin Buber explores this concept in his book I and Thou. He suggests that there are two types of human encounters: I-It encounters and I-Thou encounters. In both of these, I see myself as a full human being; I am a subject. The difference is in how I view the other person. In an I-It encounter, I view the other person as an object, as someone whose value is assessed based on what he or she can do for me. Instead of having intrinsic value, the other person has instrumental value.

By contrast, in an I-Thou encounter I see the wholeness of the other in dialogue with me. The I-Thou encounter is the opposite of the I-It encounter. Here, I meet the other as a fellow subject. He or she has intrinsic value. The exchange is not transactional and it cannot be quantified.

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Eleanor Steinman is a fourth year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, and an alumna of Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps and the 2007 AJWS Rabbinic Student Delegation.