Coming Closer and the Quality of Mercy

Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1-5) discusses the laws of sacrifice. In ancient times sacrificing animals was a way to thank God and/or ask for forgiveness. In modern times, this is a difficult and cruel torah portion. What can we learn from this torah portion that would be meaningful in our lives today?

After the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish ritual changes from animal sacrifice to prayer, Torah learning and charity. In Hebrew, sacrifice (le-ha-kriv  להקריב) and coming closer (le-hit-ka-rev  להתקרב) derive from the same root  (kuf, resh, bet  ק.ר.ב). In ancient times animals were precious and the individual who brought a sacrifice brought an animal he bread and cared for. Therefore, the individual is ordered to lay his hand upon the head of the animal, and ask for its forgiveness and willingness to serve as sacrifice: “And he shall lay his hand upon the head of the burnt-offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.”

In the book of Leviticus the name of God is the sacred name that means Being (Ha-vaya in Hebrew). Rabbi Yehuda Halevi defines the difference between the two names: Elohim is the name of a powerful ruler, the sacred name, Havaya, is God’s personal name that signifies proximity. The same intimate proximity between the human and the divine can be seen in the book of Genesis when God creates man from earth: “Then the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”

How do we come closer to God, closer to our fellow men and women? Through the quality of mercy.

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice
~William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice.

The quality of mercy is given generously, like rain, without preference without fear. Our ability to be generous and to practice mercy does not depend on the rewards we might gain from the situation, but solely on our ability to give.

Feature Photo: Portia, by Henry Woods (1888).

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