What Does Our Mission Statement Demand of Us?

Raizy Lichtenstein, Jewish Studies Teacher

The Book of Vayikra (Leviticus) is unlike the two books of the Torah that precede it. Rabbi Jonathan Saks elaborates: 

Vayikra, the third book of the Torah, is markedly different from the others. It contains no journey. It is set entirely at Sinai. It occupies only a brief section of time: a single month. There is almost no narrative. Yet, set at the center of the Mosaic books, it is the key to understanding Israel’s vocation as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” the first collective mission statement in history.

(Covenant and Conversation, Vayikra)

Why does the Torah introduce the Jewish nation’s mission statement – to be a holy nation – in the third book of the series? That seems quite belated unless we recognize that a mission statement always has a history.  It is the culmination of a process in which someone noticed a need, considered how to best fill that need, and created a new social space in which that need could be addressed. Take JCHS’s mission statement: 

JCHS develops the promise of each individual through the strength of community. We empower students to embrace their unique Jewish identities, express empathy, delight in lifelong learning, and improve the world.

Reading JCHS’s mission statement, one may infer the lack that existed before our school existed: a void that needed to be filled in the Bay Area by a warm and wonderful Jewish community school that could enable students to fulfill their personal and emotional selves through joyous learning and spread a pluralistic Jewish-inflected goodness to the world. 

What was missing before the mission statement in Vayikra;  before the Torah presented a  statement mandating that the Israelites identify as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”?  

We can infer, perhaps, that the Israelites still had room to grow in their national identity. In the first two books of the Torah, our national identity evolved and developed: In Genesis, a massive family fissure that had been set into motion by the notion of exclusive blessing was finally laid to rest when Jacob, unbidden, gave blessings to all his children, thereby diminishing favoritism as a source of grave internal tension in the early nation. In Exodus, a group of Jewish slaves, in the throes of despair, prayed to God for salvation and mustered the courage to follow God through the wilderness to a better future. The mandate to treat fellow human beings fairly and trust in God was cemented in the narrative messages of these early books.  

Vayikra, the third book, recognizes a possibility of greatness beyond these core values, and issues its national mandate: Strive to be a holy nation; a nation of holy people. 

How does one become holy?  Our Torah portion suggests that it is through sacrifice. The pursuit of holiness begins in our Parasha, which introduces five kinds of sacrificial offerings, each serving as a portal into an aspect of transcendent attitudes and behaviors.  

Take the example of the Minchah (grain) offering:

וְנֶפֶשׁ כִּי־תַקְרִיב קָרְבַּן מִנְחָה לָהּ’ סֹלֶת יִהְיֶה קָרְבָּנוֹ וְיָצַק עָלֶיהָ שֶׁמֶן וְנָתַן עָלֶיהָ לְבֹנָה׃

When a person (Nefesh; lit. soul) presents an offering of grain to God: The offering shall be of choice flour; the offerer shall pour oil upon it, lay frankincense on it […] (Leviticus 2:1)

The medieval French commentator Rashi brings the Talmud to bear on this verse:  

ונפש כי תקריב. לֹא נֶאֱמַר נֶפֶשׁ בְּכָל קָרְבְּנוֹת נְדָבָה אֶלָּא בַּמִּנְחָה, מִי דַּרְכּוֹ לְהִתְנַדֵּב מִנְחָה? עָנִי. אָמַר הַקָּבָּ”ה, מַעֲלֶה אֲנִי עָלָיו כְּאִלּוּ הִקְרִיב נַפְשׁוֹ

Nowhere is the word “Nefesh” [lit. soul] employed in connection with free-will offerings except in connection with the grain offering. For who is it that usually brings a meal offering? The poor man! The Holy One, blessed Be [God], says, as it were, I will regard it as though he brought his very soul (Nefesh) as an offering (Menachot 104b).

To be holy, according to this Talmudic interpretation, is to be willing to put one’s Nefesh – one’s entire soul – into a spiritual endeavor.  This is different for every person – we all have different life circumstances, different means, different talents, or abilities, but the mandate to be a “holy nation” is for each person to strive towards an ideal personal greatness to which the narrative sections of Genesis and Exodus were only a prelude.  To be holy is to strive for goodness that is bound only by an internal reckoning between oneself and God.  We fulfill that mandate when we ask with unflinching honesty: how much we can truly give of ourselves to a greater cause?  

As parents and educators, being holy may mean first asking ourselves how deeply we are investing in the values that we love in the JCHS mission statement in our own lives: Are we fully developing our own potential? Have we strengthened our own community or embraced our own identities?  Are we delighting in lifelong learning or improving the world?  Perhaps if we strive for these values with all our souls, we can impart them to our students and children with equal vigor.