The Obligations of Intimacy


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candies: 6:49 p.m.
Torah: Lev. 1:-5:26; Exodus 12:1-20
Haftorah: Ezekiel 45:16-46:18
Havdalah: 7:49 p.m.

Vayikra (the first Torah portion in Leviticus) is about intimacy with God, and the responsibilities that come with that intimacy. But to understand what those responsibilities entail, we need to jump back much earlier, to the original state of Divine intimacy. We need to start with Adam and Eve in the Garden.

That couple eats the fruit, realizes guilt, and hides from God. God, “strolling in the Garden,” calls out to the couple: “Ayekah?” (Where are you?). The hiding comes to an end. God elicits the truth of the first sin. Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden.

The lesson seems to be: In an intimate life with God there is no hiding from Him. Closeness precludes secrecy.

Let’s return to Leviticus, which brings us back to the Divine intimacy that Adam and Eve lost.

I say we have returned to intimacy, not just because Leviticus is a book largely about the rites of the Mishkan, the space in which God dwells among the Israelites. Leviticus brings us back to Divine intimacy because, through Leviticus, God invites us into His domain. Consider, for instance, the Rashbam’s reading of the book’s first word: “Vayikra” (And He called).

According to the Rashbam, the word Vayikra is a direct continuation of the Book of Exodus. At the end of Exodus, Moses constructs the Mishkan but finds it so holy, so suffused with God’s presence, that he cannot enter. Then, at the opening of Leviticus, God begins a long speech with the words “Vayikra el Moshe… MiOhel Moed” (And He called to Moses from within the Tent of Meeting). The Rashbam reads these words as God calling to Moses from within the un-enterable Tent.

Then comes God’s description of the rites, rituals, daily offerings, and duties that will take place behind the veil of the Mishkan walls, even the precise details of the Yom Kippur service in the Holy of Holies. We have gone from being unable to enter God’s space to standing alone with God in the most sacred of spaces on the holiest day. We have crossed from a barrier to closeness.

We have reversed, in a sense, the expulsion.

If this is a restoration of an intimacy of the kind we felt with God in the Garden, we would expect, too, that we must give up the secrecy that lost us God’s intimacy to begin with.

Which is exactly what we find. Immediately after God lays out the basic principles of sacrifice — the animals and foods we offer, the methods of preparation — God speaks of sacrifice that atone for sins. Many of these are sins of hiddenness and secrecy.

Some are sins that are hidden even from the sinner: If the community has sinned and not realized it [Lev. 4:13]; if an individual has sinned and not realized it [Lev. 4:27]; if an individual touches an unclean thing… and not realized it [Lev. 5:1-3].

Other sins are ones of hiding the truth: someone who is in a position to testify in court but does not [Lev. 5:1]; someone who swears falsely that an object is his when, in fact, it is his neighbor’s [Lev. 5:20-26].

If the Mishkan will return us to intimacy with God, then we must upend the kind of hiding that, ages ago, drove God’s intimacy away.

Perhaps there is something else at play here. When God confronts Adam and Eve about their sin, Adam accuses Eve of guiding him toward the fruit. Eve accuses the Serpent of the same. Both of these people, these first children of God, refuse to accept blame. They refuse to change the way they view themselves — for this, they must hide from the face of God; for this, too, they are expelled from that intimate place with God.

Sinners who bring their sacrifices, as in Vayikra, must do what Adam and Eve could not: they must change how they think about themselves. One who has not known that he has ever erred must, suddenly, view himself as a sinner who must repent. One who has kept a respectable public persona must bring a sacrifice based on the awareness that, in fact, he is a fraud.

To come back to our original question: What does an intimate life with God require? The answer is: It requires being honest about yourself.

That kind of openness, that brutal honesty, is very hard to achieve. But remember, again, God’s opening to Moses at the beginning of our Torah reading: “Vayikra” (And He called). God knows this intimacy is challenging for us.

Even so, He calls to us.

Abe Mezrich is the author of the forthcoming “The House at the Center of the World,” a book of readings on the Mishkan and Leviticus, to be published by Ben Yehuda Press. Read more of his thoughts on his website,