Photo of a chocolate cake with candles that spell out "Happy Birthday"
(Photo/Flickr-Will Clayton CC BY 2.0)

Vayikra is bad for birthday cakes, but good for life guidance

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Leviticus 1:1-5:26

A rabbinical school classmate loved to bake. Throughout the year, she delighted each of us — in our small class — by baking us birthday cakes. We always looked forward to her homemade cakes. But, above all, we were excited to see the decoration.

These cakes, which lovingly came to be known as “parsha cakes,” were masterpieces depicting parashat ha-shavua — that week’s Torah portion. (Yes, it’s true. We didn’t get out much in rabbinical school. But even if we had, these cakes were amazing!)

For each birthday, the cake artist/future rabbi would create a sugary scene derived from the Torah portion. One year, my birthday fell during Parashat Vayikra. I wasn’t quite sure what that would mean for my cake.

Parashat Vayikra is the first portion in the Book of Vayikra, or Leviticus. Like the rest of the book, it includes all kinds of laws by which the Israelites are to set up a society.  This book of the Torah is dense and filled with incredible instructions for our autonomy — and for a civil society that was way ahead of its time. But … the language is sometimes hard to engage with. And … the images are archaic. For example, this Torah portion is all about animal sacrifices.

After being freed from slavery in the Book of Exodus, the Israelites begin a long journey of wandering through the desert. The journey served two purposes. First, a practical one. The long wandering took our ancestors to the land of Israel.

Now, if you’ve spent any time in the Sinai Desert, you know that it certainly does not take 40 years to wander from Egypt to Israel. It’s more like a few days’ journey — maybe a week or two if the Israelites stopped to relax at one of the resorts by the Dead Sea.

So why did the journey take 40 years?

The generation that left Egypt — and knew only slavery — had to be replaced by a new generation. And with that transition, a society had to be created that would allow a newly freed people to govern itself. So a lot of important work had to be done during those 40 years in the desert.

In order to build a society, God gave the Israelites many, many laws. A completely new society had to be created. The Israelites needed to understand the rules for independent living. And the instructions had to be given in a language that resonated with them. The images were intended to help the Israelites design a religious practice — and enter into a strong relationship with God.

“What does all of this have to do with Torah-themed birthday cakes?” you ask.

Well, at first glance, a Torah portion that describes gory sacrifices might not seem like a wonderful one to depict on a birthday cake.

For example, this instruction from Vayikra (1:14-15) might be a challenge to a cake decorator: “If the offering to Adonai is a burnt offering of birds, it shall be chosen from turtle doves or pigeons. The priest shall bring it to the altar, pinch off its head and turn it into smoke on the altar; and its blood shall be drained out against the side of the altar.” That’s a toughie!

Recently, a 12-year-old student said to me — upon learning that Vayikra would be her bat mitzvah Torah portion — that it might be hard to find modern relevance in its words.

But as we read through a Torah portion which, at first glance, is challenging to our contemporary (animal-friendly) sensibilities, we found many relevant and eternal meanings.

This parashah is really about finding a voice for one’s own conversations with God.

And it helps people think about rituals for both apology and forgiveness. These are necessary for people to live together in peace.  The Torah portion’s messages are very relevant to all human beings, throughout time. Sometimes, a challenging Torah portion — when explored — turns out to be one of the most beautiful to guide us in contemporary life.

So, what did my Vayikra birthday cake look like?

Well, let’s just say it was one I will never forget. And there might have been some marshmallow Peeps involved. Peeps are the modern, springtime, candy version of turtle doves or pigeons, once sacrificed by our ancestors. My Vayikra cake was quite amazing!

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf
Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf is the senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. She is a participant in the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship, which inspires, educates and trains American rabbis to become national advocates for human rights.