Vayikra: Vocation, 16th March 2019, Benji de Almeida-Newton

Why do people do what they do? Well, if we’re thinking in terms of jobs in an industry of some sort then some people do what they do for money alone, others for the combination of money and intellectual satisfaction; few people do unpaid work for obvious reasons, especially if they are already on a low income. Our association between work and simply making a living is a well-founded one – and the capitalist system supports this, gradually reducing the opportunities for nonmaterial satisfaction, but when you ask someone who is fulfilled by what they do, money almost never comes up. I can’t really stand here though and talk about earning a salary or doing any serious paid work. The only thing I do is volunteer at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and it is made at times painfully clear that there is definitely no money involved in sitting in a cold room for 4.5 hours on a Sunday afternoon. People may work and gain fulfilment through being good at what they do – acquiring a level of autonomy that helps them rise to a new level of expertise – the clearest example of this being the concert pianist or the athlete. What the concert pianist and the athlete share is a gift, and for them, being good at something is reason enough to go into that profession. The work Vayikra talks about is not about exploiting a gift but (responding to) a vocation, what we are called on to do. My friend Izzie is brilliant at maths, with a rare gift for it but rather than let it take up all her waking hours, she now shares her time with something she feels she has a duty to do – to be an active member of the school’s green team, and it is something she is passionate about. Before we use the term vocation to apply to everyday situations and to cultures not our own, we have to remember that it was first used in a religious context – the idea of vocation being to carry out a task set by God, from the Vulgate Latin ‘vocatio’. The French word for ‘lawyer’ is ‘avocat’, literally ‘advocatus’ – someone who is summoned to help. We can have a gift, like the ability to do complicated calculus, but the sense of mission is what can give life direction. This notion is introduced by the opening word of Leviticus, vayikra that lends its name to the entire book, meaning ‘he called’. The first sentence has both ‘he called to Moses’ and ‘God spoke to him.’ Either the latter or former clause may seem an unnecessary enhancement. The former phrase, ‘he called’, is then the call, the setting of a mission, the beginning of a long list of instructions to be carried out exactly and thoroughly, similar to the call in Exodus 3:4, the burning bush scene, where it is God calling Moses to assume leadership. Perhaps Moses shouldn’t be included in this call in Leviticus. After all, it is the role of the priest to carry out the sacrifices, and Moses was not a priest. So the vocation must be that isn’t just narrowly applicable, but something that is all encompassing, the establishment of a contract with everything, and so the task of keeping the covenant which is the contract is the uniting vocation of all Jews. Moses may not be able to perform the sacrifices himself, but he can certainly convey the laws to the Levites and facilitate their practice. And the practice of slaughtering the sacrifice was not some empty ritual in itself that did not warrant a vocation either, but a slaughter carried out for the sake of the sacrifice for which it was consecrated, for the sake of the offerer, for the sake of the Divine Name, for the sake of the altar fires, for the sake of the aroma, and for the sake of pleasing God, and a sin-offering and a guilt-offering for the sake of sin – all of this is laid out in the Mishnah Zevachim 4:6. What is your vocation? When and how do you realise what it is? We return to the concert pianist. To be a professional musician it’s widely accepted that you should have practised for 10,000 hours in total already and maintain 4-8 hours of practice a day. Not only do you have to have talent or a gift for it, but you have to accept the drudgery that goes into it, all the technical work, scales, and the endless repetition of difficult bars – essentially, arduous work and sometimes seemingly futile effort leads to real achievement, and the main component to this difficult work is sacrifice. Lang Lang, the famous Chinese concert pianist, sacrificed his childhood, a relationship with his mother, and was at one point told to commit suicide by his own father because he wasn’t able to get a place at one of the conservatoires in Beijing. Is anyone willing to pay this price? So Leviticus beginning with a call is apt in that vocation (to be truly a vocation) necessarily entails sacrifice. The idea of vocation is a not a new one but is certainly a pressing one when it comes to our planet. God made Adam and Eve stewards of Eden, a creation given into our care and enjoyment. And when we take vocation to be the synthesis or crossover between what we’re good at and what the world needs, with the devastating news about climate change and the destruction of ecosystems and plastic over the past decade, we have catastrophically failed in our vocation. Especially in an age where selfishness and self-interest is damaging the very world we live in, sacrificing or changing aspects our comfortable though perhaps non-environmentally-friendly lifestyles, and doing something that will benefit everyone and the future generations, just as the high priest sprinkled blood for his own mistakes and the mistakes of the nation, we have to find in each of ourselves our own prophetic vocation to do something about it – and perhaps there, we’ll encounter a new direction or purpose to our lives. Shabbat Shalom.