Parashat Vayikra

The Truth Of Social Justice

The truth that exists in moments of intimacy and human connection can also infuse our ritual lives.

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In our Torah portion this week, which begins the book of Leviticus, we learn that the intimacy integral to social justice is a foundation of truth. Within the first few verses, a drama of immeasurable proportions has occurred. Moses, who transmitted the design of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the desert, and oversaw its construction, is unable to enter, for God's presence fills the Mishkan. But in the opening verses of our parashah, God invites Moses into the Mishkan, this portable tent, for an uninterrupted conversation.

The rabbis elaborate on the intimacy God and Moses share. It was not only that God spoke to Moses, but God spoke only to Moses, as the divine voice was not audible outside the tent. Moses stood not at the entrance of the tent, but in its innermost chamber.

Finally, God's voice spoke to Moses from a single point, between the images of keruvim, the heavenly creatures that adorned the ark holding the Ten Commandments. The episode is singularly private, intimate, secluded.

Moses Understands More Than Anyone

And in this tightly enclosed space, Moses understands God's revelation in a manner unmatched by anyone. Certainly, Moses enjoyed a kind of access unique among the Israelites leaving Egypt. The rabbis emphasize that, unlike other prophets, God spoke to Moses panim el panim--face to face, as it were--in the highest degree of intimacy. Where there is intimacy, imply our rabbis, there is undeniable truth.

I would hope that we can learn from our experiences striving for tikkun olam (repairing the world), and infuse our prayer lives with greater depth and substance--that we can plumb the depths of that spark which we feel in a soup kitchen, across from a mentee or a bed-ridden elder, and hold onto it during Shabbat morning services.

My aim is not simply mercenary, to create an experience that "catches" people and lures them into the synagogue. Rather, it is to strive to realize the vision of Isaiah, to bring our lives into an integrated whole.

We pray so that we can soften our hearts and render ourselves better vehicles for God's presence, as we cultivate awe for the humanity, which is God's creation. We attend to the cultivation of compassion and humility so that we can better alleviate suffering and pain.

And the contact with other human souls in turn reminds us of the depth and resilience of the spirit with which we are uniquely endowed. And through social justice, we discover that the truth enlightens all aspects of our lives and propels us to seek and feel more deeply.

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Rabbi Justin David

Rabbi Justin David is the spiritual leader of Congregation B'nai Israel in Northampton, MA. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and is a graduate of Oberlin College. He lives in Northampton with his wife, Judith Wolf, and his sons Lior and Ezra.