When I was young, my image of God was Cantor Joseph Frankel. Cantor Frankel was the principal of the synagogue religious school I attended and the chazzan of the congregation. He was always on the pulpit singing and leading us in prayer. Children often first picture God as an old man in the sky. For me, I couldn’t have picked a better older man than Cantor Frankel to be Divine.
In his early years, Cantor Frankel survived the death camp Auschwitz. In his later years, Cantor Frankel lived a life of mitzvot observance and traditional Jewish learning. How he lived his life represented perhaps the strongest statement of faith one could encounter. I met with Cantor Frankel before my Bar Mitzvah to ask him for material to help me write my speech. When I informed Cantor Frankel my Torah portion was from Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, and my passage was Metzorah, his smile disappeared. Metzora deals with how the head Israelite Priest examined skin blemishes amongst the people and quarantined some of them for having certain types of infections (not the most relevant topic).
He sighed, “Metzorah may be a problem,” and then immediately picked up from his desk a Jewish calendar. A smile quickly returned. “Your Bar Mitzvah is also Shabbat Ha-Gadol,” he said. “That is the Shabbat immediately before Passover. You will focus on Pesach in your talk.”
Why did Cantor Frankel immediately steer me away from Leviticus? The obvious answer is context. Leviticus is about Priests and the Priestly Code. Neither entity exists today. The book is inherently foreign and it often feels primitive. Cantor Frankel was correct in finding me a more relevant subject. But it is often important to delve below the surface to find something worthwhile.
If you attend synagogue on Shabbat this year during the months of March, April and into May, you will find most of the weekly Torah portions coming from Vayikra. When you hear these words of Torah chanted or read out loud, force yourself to look closely below the surface. Read the commentary in the Chumash or from another source. Listen closely to an interpretation the rabbi or other congregation member may share. Do not be content dismissing what takes place as a remnant from a past primitive time. You may find yourself humbled from the experience. Rather than feeling morally superior towards the past, you may find yourself inspired by individuals showing true character confronting the challenges of their day. ✿
Elliot Fein is married to Eve Melman Fein and is the father of two sons, Aryeh and Perry. He is the Education Director at Temple Beth David in Westminster.