You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Vayikra.
Parshat Vayikra – 2 Nisan 5783
By Rabbi Min Kantrowitz
After the high drama of Exodus, we arrive at the beginning of the third of the Five Books which make up the core of the Hebrew Bible. Genesis portrayed creation, Exodus described liberation, and God’s presence now dwells among the people Israel, filling the Tabernacle. We are ready to receive instructions from the Holy One about how to behave and how to make offerings in the Tabernacle.
This book is known in English as “Leviticus” (from the ancient Greek and Latin referring to the priestly tribe of the Israelites, “Levi”). In Hebrew, the first word in the book (and in the parsha which bears the same name) is “VaYikra”, meaning “and He called”, referring to God’s calling out instructions to Moshe.
These instructions emphasize ritual, legal, and moral practices rather than beliefs. In a way, we are being told how to conduct ourselves now that we’ve received the gift of Torah. The details of each different type of sacrifice to be offered in the Temple correspond to distinct prohibitions detailed in the laws of the Torah.
Just before beginning this inventory of actions designed to repair our relationship with God after erroneous, sinful or misguided action we see the word “VaYikra”— God calls out from the Tent of Meeting. This ‘calling’ proves to the people that, indeed, the Holy Source is dwelling among them and is about to tell them how to act as a Holy People. A specific peculiarity in the way the word “VaYikra” is scribed in every Torah scroll caught my attention, and that of many other commentators.
The final Hebrew letter in the word, an aleph, is written in miniature. Many commentators have speculated on the origin and meaning of this traditional scribal practice. They note that if the aleph was totally missing, the word would be ‘VaYikar’, meaning ‘and he happened’, which doesn’t sound as if it were an intentional Divine act, but an accidental occurrence. Rashi comments, based on the Midrash: [Genesis Rabbah 52:5] Vayikar is an expression ordinarily used to denote events of a casual character, an expression for something shameful, an expression for an unclean happening. But the aleph is NOT missing, it is intentionally scribed —in miniature. The Baal HaTurim (14th -century Spain) explains that the small aleph is a reflection of Moses’ humility. Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, the Chassidic Rabbi from 19th -century Poland, states that the smallness of the aleph calls attention to it and gives it prominence, to teach us the importance of humility. (He is the same person who teaches that one of our pockets should contain a piece of paper saying: ”I am but dust and ashes” and in the other pocket should be a piece of paper saying: “For my sake was the world created.”). Clearly, this tiny aleph is calling out to readers “Drash me”!
Here is another speculation, based on the idea that not only is the aleph miniature, but it also makes no sound. The very first letter in our alphabet is silent. Bet is the first letter written in the Torah, beginning the word “Breishit”. Aleph is the sound of all potential creation, the silence out of which Creation occurs. The expression “VaYikra” refers to creation in Genesis (Gen 1:5 and others). Just as silence holds the potential for Creation in Breishit, the silent and scaled down aleph of VaYikra hints at an important question: “What is a silent call?” Psalm 65:2 states “lecha dumia tehilla—-to You, silence is praise”. We use the expression “to feel called” for the pull toward the Divine, which Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi referred to as “theotropism”. In Ecclesiastes we read: “A time to keep silence and a time to speak”. We use silence in prayer, as in the silent Amida. In Pirkei Avot, Shimon says: “I have found nothing better for a person than silence.” When we pray for our lips to be opened prior to the Amida, we recognize that silence is a powerful precursor to prayer.
Perhaps this scribal tradition is a reminder that prior to performing the rituals detailed in the psukim that make up the remainder of this Biblical book, we need to be silent, to listen, as Elijah did in 1 Kings 19:12, for that still small voice of the Divine. The tiny aleph of VaYikra reminds us of the immense power of silence.
May each of us find time to be silent and listen for a call during this week of VaYikra.
From The Hebrew College
“God Does Not Play Dice with the Universe”
By Rav Rachel Adelman
In this essay, I want to unfold one word for you, like a map by which we might direct our path towards this coming season of Purim, in language play on va-yiqra’ / va-yiqar. This week’s Torah reading opens:
And [He] called to Moses [vayiqra’ el Moshe] and the LORD [Yhwh] spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting saying: Speak to the Israelites and say to them…. (Leviticus 1:1-2)
It’s an odd beginning, as the subject of the action is initially hidden. Where is the agent of the verb “and He called [va-yiqra’]”? Why doesn’t the narrative introduce God as the one who summons Moshe?
Do I quibble overmuch, when the very next phrase mentions the LORD (Yhwh) as the speaker? I think not! So many paragraphs in the Torah open, unambiguously: “And the LORD spoke to Moshe, saying…. [Va-yomer Yhwh ’el Moshe…. or “Va-yeddaber Yhwh ’el Moshe le’emor].”
Perhaps the elision of God as subject here is meant to highlight that we readers are en media res—really in the middle of a story, picking up from where we left off at the end of the Book of Exodus. There, Moshe had just finished setting up the mishkan, when the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and God’s presence filled the Tabernacle (Exodus 40:32). Yet Moshe was excluded from entering until he was summoned at the opening the Book of VaYiqra (Leviticus), when God literally called him in: VaYiqra’ ’elav. (Lev. 1:1)
Alternatively, perhaps the origin of the voice, the subject of the summons, “VaYiqra‘”—and He called—is elusive to Moshe? The Masoretes (the scribes responsible for adding vocalization and other diacritical marks to the Torah) hint at this with an orthographic comment. The silent letter aleph, the last letter of the five-letter word, VaYiqra’, is tiny, suspended as one might signal an ordinal number—a suffix of the enth degree. This points to another reading—instead of “call” or “summon” (qof.resh.aleph.), one might read it as “happen upon” (qof.resh.heh.).
There’s a hidden message here. Maybe God’s voice is heard, at first, as a call that happens upon [va-yiqar] Moshe, just as prophecy happened to Balaam: “Va-yiqar Elohim ‘el Bil ‘am—And God met or happened upon Balam.” (Numbers 23:4; and again in v. 16) Indeed, the verb qof.resh.heh. is associated with happenstance, a chance meeting, a seemingly accidental encounter—like an impure “nocturnal emission” [miqreh lilah] that happens to a man. (Deuteronomy 23:11)
On a less tainted note, the verb is deployed by Abraham’s servant as he stands by the well in Padan-aram, asking for a sign or omen to help him choose the right bride for Isaac:
And he said, “O LORD, God of my master Abraham, please make it happen in my presence this day [haqreh n’a lefanai ha-yom], and deal graciously with my master Abraham….” (Genesis 24:12).
Paradoxically, the servant is calling for Divine Providence—for God to make it happen (haqreh, the root qof.resh.heh. in the causative, hiphil). Yet it is he, a mere mortal, who initiates the test, a sign by which he might know the young woman to be worthy of Abraham’s son. And, indeed, Rebekah proves herself worthy by offering him a drink from her jug and watering all the camels as well.
Luck be a Lady Tonight.
This verb connotes happenstance, which might be both providential and of human initiative; palpable as the God-of-small-things who inheres in the World yet made manifest by mortal summons.
Most auspiciously, the verb qof.resh.heh. is associated with the encounter with Amalek, which we read on Parashat Zakhor (on the Shabbat before Purim, in addition to the weekly Torah portion):
Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, how he happened upon you [qorkha] on the way, when you were faint and weary, and struck down all who lagged behind you; he did not fear God. (Deuteronomy 25:17-18)
Rashi (on Deut. 25:18) relates this verb, qorkha—happened upon you—to chance, miqreh, happenstance; also qeri and tum’ah, an impure emission that defiles a man. That is, Amalek encountered the Israelites, and then, undeterred by fear of God, struck down all the stragglers in the back—the old and the infirm, the women and the children. Ruthless. Deliberate. Indeed, an ill-fated encounter—impure, tainted with evil!
This chance encounter with evil characterizes the relations between Israel and Amalek ever after. The verb rears its hoary head again twice in the Megillah, like the two-headed dog, Orthrox, of Greek mythology. In Megillat Ester, we read in chapter 4:
“Mordechai told him [Hatach, the messenger of Queen Esther] about all that had happened to him [qarahu]” (Est. 4:7), and again, in chapter 6, “Haman told Zeresh his wife and all his supporters all that had happened to him [qarahu]….” (Est. 6:13).
In the first report “of all that happened [qarahu]” to Mordecai, he may recount his refusal to bow down to the viceroy—not anticipating the consequences—and the decree of genocide, initiated by Haman, descendant of Amalek and enemy of the Jews, which would effectively be paid for by the 10,000 talents of silver placed in the King’s coffer. The second report, “of all that happened to him [qarahu],” that is to Haman, marks the beginning of the cascade of reversals; when that enemy of the Jews was compelled to parade Mordecai about, dressed in the king’s robes and on the king’s horse, with the proclamation: “So shall be done to the man whom the king desires to honor.” (6:10-11)
Accidental happenstance? Miqreh?
It depends on how we view chance occurrences. The very holiday of Purim is named for “the lot,” Pur—goral h’u (Est. 3:7, 9:24; cf. 9:26, 29). Yet, we take the randomness rampant throughout the story, those comic happenstances or chance encounters—what Avivah Zornberg calls the Dis-providential—and turn them around, nahafokh-hu. We make human meaning of them, and then sanctify this holiday-of-chance, Purim, in historical time, summoning the God-of-small-things to Earth.
Albert Einstein once famously pronounced: “God does not play dice with the Universe.” Yet, he was the scientist who discovered the time-space warp, and in critical conversation with quantum mechanics, ruled by the random emissions of quarks, subject only to probabilities. (I don’t really know what a quark is, but I do know that Modern Physics is not deterministic!) So, what did Einstein mean?
Let me venture an answer, returning to the opening of this week’s Torah reading. “And [He] called to [va-yiqra ‘el] Moshe….” (Lev. 1:1) This was a summons from within the Holy of Holies, that most sacred of places. To Moshe, it may have been a mere murmur at first, a seeming chance encounter, a miqreh—but then it became clear to the prophet that it was purposeful; it was the LORD speaking: “….and Yhwh spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying….”
The story of Esther and the Holiday of Purim depicts a topsy turvy world of seeming random events: drunken feasts and supposed beauty pageants, where an orphaned Jewish girl becomes Queen; and Mordecai, whose refusal to bow down to Haman prompts a decree to destroy all the Jewish people, eventually becomes second to the king.
How do we interpret all these chance reversals? Who knows? Perhaps Esther attained royal position for just such a moment! (Esther 4:14) What summons her to step into the breach, to hear the call? Within our hearts we listen to the World—like Moshe, like Esther—initially not knowing the origin of the voice that summons us forward (va-yiqra’ ‘el), attuning our ears to all that seems incidental and accidental, be-miqreh; in turn these incidents and accidents acquire meaning, perhaps even meaning divinely given.
From Rishe Groner
The Torah portion this week begins with “vayikrah” – the call; the call of God to the people and the call of the people to Divine; the call that opens a conversation between human and Divine with a vast set of priestly rituals; sacrifices and offerings, in incredibly vivid detail.
There is sacred space – a mikdash, a sanctuary.
There are live animal sacrifices, raw and real and bloody. There is fat and innards being thrown onto a burning altar; there is incense rising in copious coils of aromatic smoke causing heady state-changing intoxication for everyone who stands nearby. There are cakes of gorgeous flours and decadent oils being prepared on pans in every direction. The flames of the nearby lamps dance and glow with light; the mirrored surfaces shine of bronze and copper and silver and gold.
The music is flowing, the people are moving in and out, and everyone is marking some occasion in their life – from the abundant to the unfortunate – with a personal visit, gift of meat or bread in tow, and the invitation to spend some time being present with their moment; witnessed by a Priest; and accompanied by their family and friends.
The sacrifices, whether they were carnivorous or vegan or burnt to a crisp, were the embodied rituals of raw and real blood, guts, and a lot of heart. The people used the symbol they knew best in ancient society – a rich feast, a barbecue, an exchange of blood and fire, to convey what they cared about – their connections. With each other, with their priesthood, with the Divine.
And it’s so hard for us to understand here today.
The fact is, while our preferred ritual practices have shifted a fair bit in the last three millennia, there are still ways that we mimic, embody and re-create the rituals of the ancient sacrifices in our everyday.
There’s how we bake and break our bread; the table where we eat, and even the salt that we use on the table (said by our sages to be an adoption of the salt on the sacrificial altar).
There’s the wine we pour, the oil we use, and the way we delight in each other’s company and the food we eat.
There’s the blessings we say, the songs we sing, and the gratitude we share before and after the meal.
There’s the food we source, where we buy it and how we prepare it; the food farmed lovingly or the meat raised consciously, that we elevate through our own experience preparing it and sharing in it.
Our offerings happen daily; through prayer, according to the rabbis, but also through the myriad minute rituals we do from moment-to-moment, as we create around ourselves a mikdash.
From Reconstructing Judaism
Drawing Close to Sacrifice
By Ellen Dannin
When Adar comes in, our happiness is increased. But when Vayikra comes in, we feel as if the Promised Land of great stories and heroes is far, far away.
Torah scholars through the centuries have tried to give us reasons to rejoice in these endless passages on the most minute and bloody details of sacrifices, but it is hard to say they have succeeded. Some point out that we are moving from a physical to a spiritual journey. After all, the book begins with the words “And God called.” Called – not just spoke.
Others point out how the details of ritual sacrifice were transformed so that Judaism and the Jewish people were able to survive thousands of years without a temple. Reconstructionist prayers have embraced this break by eliminating prayers for the restoration of the temple sacrifices.
But let me suggest a wholly different way of approaching these very difficult passages. Try embracing them. Try taking on the feeling of what it means to be living in a society in which this is the form worship takes. After all, this form of worship, using sacrifices as its center, has had a long history of success. It must offer people something for this to be the case. Use these weekly parshiot to explore what that might be.
To that end, let me offer some questions to guide you in your embrace of Vayikra. Consider that this is a very physical approach to spirituality. Those of us who practice yoga know that physical practices can lead to spiritual development. These laws of korbanot (sacrifice) are regarded as hukkim (laws that for which we have no rational understanding) as opposed to the mishpatim, which are the sorts of legislative laws we think of. So pay attention to the most minute details of the practices. Notice what is a sin (pesha) versus an error (het).
Try to feel what it would mean to have this sort of practice and how it would affect you spiritually. What does it mean in 1:4 when it says, the burnt offering “will be accepted for him, to atone for him?” Are sins against neighbors also sins against God? If so, why within this system? Recall that the Hebrew for sacrifice (korban) is related to the word to cause to draw near (hakriv). What is being drawn closer? To what? The burnt offering is the “olah” – the one who rises up. What is it that is rising up?
Consider how the different purposes of the laws of sacrifice and the ways they operate: to expiate wrongful acts (Lev. 4:2) and then let them go; to expiate social or communal wrongdoing (4:13); and to ask forgiveness and to forgive trespassers (5:20 – 26).
In your study, consider also that all of us in every era will commit some form of sin. This means that every system needs to have a system of forgiveness and expiation. Compare how well our own system of public expiation on the High Holy Days satisfies this function compared with the system of sacrifices. Would the vividness of the blood and death of animals, who are dying as a result of our actions, make us want to amend our ways? Would it remind us that we too will die and force us to consider how we therefore want our lives to be remembered?
Since death is an irrevocable act, would it make us consider that our repentance should be irrevocable? Compare this to our current Jewish methods of penance and those of the Catholic confession and penance. Would the sacrifices give us a greater appreciation for the sanctity of life? Would it make us more reluctant to take life? Or would it just harden our hearts to suffering? Would it make us feel we could game the system – sin and sacrifice, sin and sacrifice?
Finally, consider the number of prophets who rail against sacrifices? Today we would be repulsed by the blood and carnage? What was the Prophets’ concern?
From Rabbi David Kasher
SALT OF THE EARTH, AND THE HEAVENS – Parshat Vayikra
Leviticus is full of substances. Between its detailed account of the sacrifices and its nasty catalog of impurities, this is a book that is blazing with fire, dripping with blood, flaking with skin, and rotting with mold. There is flesh and fat, oil and grain, ashes and smoke, water and wine.
And so, we will not be surprised to find in Leviticus the mention of that most familiar of minerals: salt.
You shall season your every meal offering with salt… (Leviticus 2:12)
וְכָל-קָרְבַּן מִנְחָתְךָ, בַּמֶּלַח תִּמְלָח
What is surprising, however, is the second part of that verse:
… you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of the covenant with your God.
וְלֹא תַשְׁבִּית מֶלַח בְּרִית אֱלֹקיךָ, מֵעַל מִנְחָתֶךָ
Salt of the covenant? What covenant? It seems unlikely that this is a reference to the great covenant forged between God and the Children of Israel, for that one already has its famous symbols: the tablets from Sinai; the Sabbath; the circumcision rite. So instead, the commentators begin to wonder if there might be some other covenant represented by salt.
Rashi’s answer, as usual, is the most intriguing:
A covenant was sealed with salt, from the six days of creation. For the lower waters were promised they would be offered on the altar, in the form of salt.
שהברית כרותה למלח מששת ימי בראשית, שהובטחו המים התחתונים ליקרב במזבח במלח
This requires a bit of unpacking. The covenant in question, it seems, was made between God and water. The reference to “lower waters” comes from the opening chapter of Genesis, on the second day of Creation, when God creates the sky, as follows:
God made the sky by separating the water under the sky and the water above the sky, and it was so. (Gen. 1:7)
וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹקים, אֶת-הָרָקִיעַ, וַיַּבְדֵּל בֵּין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מִתַּחַת לָרָקִיעַ, וּבֵין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מֵעַל לָרָקִיעַ; וַיְהִי-כֵן.
So now there are upper waters (in the clouds, maybe?) and lower waters (the oceans, seas, lakes, etc.), and according to Rashi, the lower waters refused to be taken down until they were promised they would eventually be brought back up. This return happens in the form of salt, which is extracted from the ocean, seasons the offerings, and then travels upward in smoke.
We assume that Rashi is basing this narrative on a Midrash, although strangely, no one is able to identify the source. There is another Midrash, however, that adds some emotional color to this story of divided waters:
Rabbi Berechya said: When the lower waters were separated, they were weeping. (Genesis Rabbah 5:4)
אָמַר רַבִּי בֶּרֶכְיָה, לֹא פֵּרְשׁוּ הַמַּיִם הַתַּחְתּוֹנִים מִן הָעֶלְיוֹנִים אֶלָּא בִּבְכִיָּה
The waters now are not just jostling for high position. They are crying like a family being torn apart. The lower waters long to go up in order to be reunited with their other half.
The great Jewish philosopher of Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Loew – the ‘Maharal’- in his super-commentary on Rashi, explains it this way:
There is, in this Midrash, a great secret. For everything always wants to to be raised up. As it says in the Talmud, ‘we increase in holiness and never decrease.’ So when the lower waters were separated from the upper waters, and turned into low things, this was the opposite of the order of creation and existence, where everything is always longing to be raised. Therefore, they refused to be divided until God promised them that they would be offered on the altar, and finally achieve elevation.
ויש במדרש הזה דבר נעלם מאוד, לפי שכל הדברים תמיד הם הולכים להעלות, ומעלין בקודש ולא מורידים (ברכות כח. ) , ומים תחתונים נבדלו מן עליונים ונעשו תחתונים, וזהו הפך סדר הבריאה והמציאות, שהולך הכל להתעלות תמיד. ולפיכך, לא היו נבדלים מהם עד שהבטיח השם יתברך אותם להיות קרבים על המזבח, שיקנו ההתעלות
Here is a vibrant, enchanted, picture of the world. Everything is reaching up! Everything is seeking elevation! The whole world is filled with yearning and aspiration, looking toward the heavens, demanding to be taken up.
But more than that, what the lower waters are longing for is to be reunited with the upper waters. All longing for elevation is actually a longing for one’s other half. And, conversely, all longing for love is a longing for elevation.
And so we, too, are like those lower waters. We are yearning for an experience of completeness, for the feeling of transcendence that comes from finding the one we have been searching for. When we lay our offerings upon the altar – or, today, our slices of challah on the table – and sprinkle them with salt, we are calling on God to honor this covenant, and bring us back to our upper waters.
Let us all be reunited with our other half. Let us be raised up by love.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Vayikra: The Healing Power of the Letter Aleph
This is an 18 minute video
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
How pure is it?
Not always so pure. Purity is not – generally – a part of my vocabulary though the Levitical sensibility intrigues me.
How pure is it?
I will have to get out of my head for a second. Live into the question. And the matter of intention: everything, this act, this word, this gesture, this work, the gift of pure intention, to enter an action a commitment a giving yourself over to a body of work with purity. Is that what you mean: How pure is it? Not always so pure.
How pure is it?
Always a problem. But I think the intention creates purity. An act-as-if concept, within the not-so-pure comes the pure. It rises. The act itself transforms, transforms even intention. You make the commit, launch, find your purity then launch. The work itself transforms. Transforms the participant most of all. I think I get that.
So how pure is it?
Try this: Something has been corrupted. The seal has been broken so to speak. We clean it up. Purify. Something gets into the oil. Some obstacles to the gift, someone withholds. Someone something always withholds, don’t let it be you. It’s a narrow bridge, don’t get in your own way. You don’t withhold anything. Make your intention pure. You are not attached to outcomes, you are attached only to the purity of act, word, entry, intention. How pure is it?
Seems pure to me. I am your teacher. I am inside now. I will never leave you.
“Korbonot and Closeness: Revisited”
By Rabbi Cheryl Weiner
In 2013, in considering this parshah, I asked some questions that I want to reconsider from a different frame of reference. How do we fulfill our yearning for closeness with divine energy? How do we establish our relationship with God? How do we ask for forgiveness for our behaviors? How do we thank and praise God? I pose these questions today in relation to climate change and regulations.
The word for sacrifice in Hebrew is korbon, which shares the root of the word for becoming close, so, inherent in the act of sacrifice is the kavannah/the intention of becoming closer to God. In the Chabad Hasidic tradition, when we bring the animal sacrifice to God, we are bringing the animalistic part of ourselves to the sacrifice. When we burn the sacrifice in part or in whole, we are burning that aspect of ourselves that represents the sin that we have committed, our hubris, and our failings in the moral domain. When we bring an offering that is not an atonement, we are bringing our gratitude and our yearning and intention to come closer to God.
Perhaps a better translation for sacrifice today is offering. What are the ways that we can offer something of ourselves to become closer to God? How can we sanctify our relationship to God through some action that either represents atonement for our various sins or that offers praise and recognition for the gifts that we have received?
Today, I ponder these questions with a sense of urgency related to our body politic. How are we as a nation prepared to offer some aspect of comfort in our lives to benefit the planet? What is it that we can do to expatiate the sins of our age? And what is the nature of those sins. Chet— the sin we commit inadvertently, the mistake that we make. Avon— the sin that we commit with full knowledge and intention towards another human being. Pesha-— the sin that we commit as a transgression, a crossing the line to disobey God’s will. If we inadvertently polluted in the past, perhaps this was a mistake, an error in judgment or knowledge. If we then pollute intentionally through ignoring regulations, isn’t this a violation of the pubic trust? However, if we intentionally do away with the regulations themselves, aren’t we in some way in rebellion against God’s will? Aren’t we commanded to care for the earth?
Some would say that we sacrifice jobs or monetary gain or our freedom by imposing regulations. Rather, I would say that regulations are the constraints that provide us with the freedom to live in safety and security. Regulations are researched and put into place as protections for our well-being, not as a hindrance to progress, not as a handicap to economic growth or the creation of jobs. Just as the “siyyug to Torah”, the gates of our laws that contain the Torah, regulations function as a safety net.
Sometimes we need to sacrifice in order to become whole. As a society, we need to learn to sacrifice, to find new solutions to challenges, to break through to a new form to bring us closer to God. When we speak of korbonot/sacrifices in the modern world, our atonement for sins of misusing or abusing our planet. We need to learn to offer praise and gratitude for our resources. Our sages say, as it is below, so it is on high. We can transform the world by the offerings that we make of ourselves, to sacrifice in the short term perhaps, to find long term solutions to protect the planet. We can find joy in the appreciation of the resources that we have and celebrate them by finding power solutions that harness the earth’s creative potential through wind, or solar, or wave energy. Through a process of atonement as well as gratitude, we can bring ourselves closer to the manifestation of God’s goodness in the creation of God’s world and our own.
REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST – Parshat Vayikra
Does our God have a sense of smell?
In Psalm 115, there is a scathing critique of idolatry that mocks the lifelessness of fetishized statues and totems – specifically their lack of any sensory powers:
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak; eyes, but cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear; noses, but cannot smell… (vv. 5-6)
So don’t be fooled by the vivid, carved features on the faces of these figurines! They are oblivious, inanimate, dead. Surely these are no gods!
But what is the implication here about our God? Is it that the real God does see and hear, taste and smell? Or is it that ascribing the human senses to God is altogether ridiculous?
That latter approach might appeal to the rationalists among us, but the Book of Leviticus seems to push the other position: yes, God can smell things. In the opening chapters of this middle volume of the Torah, we find ourselves running through a list of various forms of animal sacrifice, and after each one, the same phrase is repeated:
A pleasant scent to the Lord. ( ריח ניחוח לה׳ )
These offerings will go up in flames, the smoke will rise, and – it seems – God will smell it, and be pleased. And this isn’t just some obscure reference we pass by once. That phrase will appear a total of sixteen times in the Book of Leviticus! Add seventeen more in the Book of Numbers, and three earlier appearances in the Book of Exodus, and you have thirty-six mentions of this “pleasing scent” to describe the smoke of the Tabernacle sacrifices. It seems that not only can God smell – God does it all the time!
Now what in the world can that mean? Because surely, unlike the sculptured idols from the verse in Psalms, our God doesn’t have a nose and an olfactory system! We know that by the medieval period, Jewish theology has arrived at a clear consensus that God has no physicality at all. But even here in the Torah, much is made of the formlessness of God. Even when we use words like the “face” or the “hand” of God, we assume these are metaphors, symbolic representations of some aspect of God’s being. What, then, would God’s sense of smell symbolize?
My friend and colleague, Rabbi Joe Schwartz, reminded me that Marcel Proust is credited with giving articulation to the theory that smell is the sense most linked to memory. In what is considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th-century, Remembrance of Things Past, Proust writes: “When nothing else subsists from the long-distant past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered…the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls… bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.” Indeed this notion, now so familiar to us, that smell evokes involuntary memories more powerfully than any other sense, is often referred to as the ‘Proustian Phenomenon.’
Remarkably, however, the very same concept appears in the writings of the 18th-century German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. An enlightenment thinker who worked with Lessing and was admired by Kant, Mendelssohn is best known for his attempt to reconcile traditional religious belief with participation in modern civil society. But he also wrote a commentary on the Torah, the Biur (which was widely admired by later Wissenschaft scholars, and is often cited by Nechama Leibowitz). And in Mendelssohn’s commentary on Exodus, in the very first appearance of the phrase, “A pleasant scent to the Lord” in relation to the offerings of the Tabernacle, he writes the following:
The sense of smell, in the Holy [Hebrew] Language, corresponds to the power of memory in the soul, for the idea of memory is the remaining impression in the soul, after the tangible experience has passed. That is the unique property of scent… and for this reason it says, “A pleasant scent” – that is, one which will provoke the desired memory before God.
Amazing. There you have the Proustian Phenomenon, two centuries before Proust! But now we might ask of Mendelssohn, what is this desired memory we want God to have? What is it that the Book of Leviticus will attempt to recall to the Divine consciousness sixteen times – nine in our parsha alone?
To answer that question, we will rely on a straightforward linguistic connection. For there is only one place in the Torah before the Tabernacle is built where that very same phrase, “a pleasing scent to God,” is used. And that is in the story of Noah.
After the 40-day flood, after all life on earth has been destroyed except for the family of Noah and the animals he saved, after the dove Noah sends out returns with an olive branch and proves that the waters have receded, Noah steps timidly out of the ark and onto dry ground again. And the first thing he does – maybe he was the first person ever to do it – was to build an altar to the Lord, and…
Taking of every pure animal and every pure bird, he offered burnt offerings on the altar. The Lord smelled the pleasant scent… (Gen. 8:20-21)
There it is, ריח ניחוח, that same “pleasant scent.” And God smells it, and then this is what God says:
The Lord smelled the pleasant scent and the Lord said to His Heart, “Never again will I doom the earth because of humanity, for the urges of a person are evil from his youth. Never again will I destroy every living thing as I have done.
So when we burn sacrifices on the altar of the Tabernacle, we are recalling the sacrifices on the first altar, and we are asking God to remember God’s promise. No, that’s not right, exactly. We are not asking. We are attempting to trigger the Divine memory, to produce an involuntary recollection with the scent of the same smoke that God smelled just before God made the promise that day, never again to destroy us.
And when do we send forth that scent? When do we offer sacrifices? At times when we have sinned. We have incurred Divine wrath, and are attempting to find atonement through these offerings. How exactly does that work, the commentators have long wondered? Does the animal stand in for us, acting as a substitute for our own deserved death? Is it simply the act of surrendering something of value that shows our contrition?
Or is it that we are able, with the very fires of that offering, to remind God of God’s commitment to be merciful? To remind God of what God realized back at the beginning of history. That we are born with terrible urges we cannot always control. That this is who we are. That God made us this way, after all.
And the priest shall turn it into smoke on the altar, for a pleasant scent to the Lord. Thus, the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven. (Lev. 4:31)
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Pursuit of Meaning (Vayikra 5776)
The American Declaration of Independence speaks of the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Recently, following the pioneering work of Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology, there have been hundreds of books published on happiness. Yet there is something more fundamental still to the sense of a life well-lived, namely, meaning. The two seem similar. It’s easy to suppose that people who find meaning are happy, and people who are happy have found meaning. But the two are not the same, nor do they always overlap.
Happiness is largely a matter of satisfying needs and wants. Meaning, by contrast, is about a sense of purpose in life, especially by making positive contributions to the lives of others. Happiness is largely about how you feel in the present. Meaning is about how you judge your life as a whole: past, present and future.
Happiness is associated with taking, meaning with giving. Individuals who suffer stress, worry or anxiety are not happy, but they may be living lives rich with meaning. Past misfortunes reduce present happiness, but people often connect such moments with the discovery of meaning. Furthermore, happiness is not unique to humans. Animals also experience contentment when their wants and needs are satisfied. But meaning is a distinctively human phenomenon. It has to do not with nature but with culture. It is not about what happens to us, but about how we interpret what happens to us. There can be happiness without meaning, and there can be meaning in the absence of happiness, even in the midst of darkness and pain.
In a fascinating article in The Atlantic, ‘There’s more to life than being happy’, Emily Smith argued that the pursuit of happiness can result in a relatively shallow, self-absorbed, even selfish life. What makes the pursuit of meaning different is that it is about the search for something larger than the self.
No one did more to put the question of meaning into modern discourse than the late Viktor Frankl, who has figured prominently in this year’s Covenant and Conversation essays on spirituality. In the three years he spent in Auschwitz, Frankl survived and helped others to survive by inspiring them to discover a purpose in life even in the midst of hell on earth. It was there that he formulated the ideas he later turned into a new type of psychotherapy based on what he called “man’s search for meaning”. His book of that title, written in the course of nine days in 1946, has sold more than ten million copies throughout the world, and ranks as one of the most influential works of the twentieth century.
Frankl knew that in the camps, those who lost the will to live died. He tells of how he helped two individuals to find a reason to survive. One, a woman, had a child waiting for her in another country. Another had written the first volumes of a series of travel books, and there were others yet to write. Both therefore had a reason to live.
Frankl used to say that the way to find meaning was not to ask what we want from life. Instead we should ask what life wants from us. We are each, he said, unique: in our gifts, our abilities, our skills and talents, and in the circumstances of our life. For each of us, then, there is a task only we can do. This does not mean that we are better than others. But if we believe we are here for a reason, then there is a tikkun, a mending, only we can perform, a fragment of light only we can redeem, an act of kindness or courage or generosity or hospitality, even a word of encouragement or a smile, only we can perform, because we are here, in this place, at this time, facing this person at this moment in their lives.
“Life is a task”, he used to say, and added, “The religious man differs from the apparently irreligious man only by experiencing his existence not simply as a task, but as a mission.” He or she is aware of being summoned, called, by a Source. “For thousands of years that source has been called God.”
That is the significance of the word that gives our parsha, and the third book of the Torah, its name: Vayikra, “And He called.” The precise meaning of this opening verse is difficult to understand. Literally translated it reads: “And He called to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying …” The first phrase seems to be redundant. If we are told that God spoke to Moses, why say in addition, “And He called”? Rashi explains as follows:
And He called to Moses: Every [time God communicated with Moses, whether signalled by the expression] “And He spoke”, or “and He said”, or “and He commanded”, it was always preceded by [God] calling [to Moses by name]. “Calling” is an expression of endearment. It is the expression employed by the ministering angels, as it says, “And one called to the other…” (Isaiah. 6:3).
Vayikra, Rashi is telling us, means to be called to a task in love. This is the source of one of the key ideas of Western thought, namely the concept of a vocation or a calling, that is, the choice of a career or way of life not just because you want to do it, or because it offers certain benefits, but because you feel summoned to it. You feel this is your meaning and mission in life. This is what you were placed on earth to do.
There are many such calls in Tanach. There was the call Abraham heard to leave his land and family. There was the call to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:4). There was the one experienced by Isaiah when he saw in a mystical vision God enthroned and surrounded by angels:
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)
One of the most touching is the story of the young Samuel, dedicated by his mother Hannah to serve in the sanctuary at Shiloh where he acted as an assistant to Eli the priest. In bed at night he heard a voice calling his name. He assumed it was Eli. He ran to see what he wanted but Eli told him he had not called. This happened a second time and then a third, and by then Eli realised that it was God calling the child. He told Samuel that the next time the voice called his name, he should reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening.’ It did not occur to the child that it might be God summoning him to a mission, but it was. Thus began his career as a prophet, judge and anointer of Israel’s first two kings, Saul and David (1 Samuel 3).
When we see a wrong to be righted, a sickness to be healed, a need to be met, and we feel it speaking to us, that is when we come as close as we can in a post-prophetic age to hearing Vayikra, God’s call. And why does the word appear here, at the beginning of the third and central book of the Torah? Because the book of Vayikra is about sacrifices, and a vocation is about sacrifices. We are willing to make sacrifices when we feel they are part of the task we are called on to do.
From the perspective of eternity we may sometimes be overwhelmed by a sense of our own insignificance. We are no more than a wave in the ocean, a grain of sand on the sea shore, a speck of dust on the surface of infinity. Yet we are here because God wanted us to be, because there is a task He wants us to perform. The search for meaning is the quest for this task.
Each of us is unique. Even genetically identical twins are different. There are things only we can do, we who are what we are, in this time, this place and these circumstances. For each of us God has a task: work to perform, a kindness to show, a gift to give, love to share, loneliness to ease, pain to heal, or broken lives to help mend. Discerning that task, hearing Vayikra, God’s call, is one of the great spiritual challenges for each of us.
How do we know what it is? Some years ago, in To Heal a Fractured World, I offered this as a guide, and it still seems to me to make sense: Where what we want to do meets what needs to be done, that is where God wants us to be.
 See Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, Jennifer Aaker, and Emily N.Garbinsky, ‘Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life’, Journal of Positive Psychology 2013, Vol. 8, Issue 6, Pages 505-516.
 Emily Smith, ‘There’s more to life than being happy’, The Atlantic, 9 Jan. 2013.
 Viktor Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul: from Psychotherapy to Logotherapy, New York: A.A. Knopf, 1965, 13.
 Rashi to Vayikra 1:1.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
March 16, 2015
Any afternoon or evening, any time, with or without kids, I could come over and sit on a stool at the kitchen counter. Donna would make us a pot of nana tea – the comfort of mint mixed with the stimulation of caffeine.
We would chat in the plainest of terms about what was on our minds. How we aren’t sure we are handling difficult coworkers well. How we can deal with feeling ashamed of something we accidentally said. How one of us should interpret a weird, disturbing dream. How we are irrationally angry that we can’t get anyone else in our families to help clean the bathroom.
You name it – we dealt with it openly over that nana tea. Donna had an amazing ability to receive everything without judgment. Worries and self-criticism that you would never share with anyone – you could lay it on the table, talk it through, and it would disappear into smoke as a non-issue.
In some ways, sitting down to nana tea in Donna’s kitchen is like visiting the mishkan (sanctuary) in Parshat Vayikra (Leviticus 1-5). The reasons for bringing a sacrifice are a lot like the reasons for talking over a cup of tea. If you have a special joy to share, you bring a zevach shelamim, a well-being offering. If you fixed a problem but still feel bad about it, you bring an asham, a reparation offering. If you feel creeped out by something uncanny, or if you need to deal with something hideous in national current events, you bring a khatat, a purification offering. The priest takes your offering, and disappears your problems in smoke.
The beginning of Parshat Vayikra invites us into this kind of intimacy with God. The first sentence says, Vayikra HaShem el Moshe – God called to Moshe. In our scribal tradition, the last letter of the word vayikra, the Aleph, is written smaller than the other letters of the word, almost as an afterthought.
Perhaps we can read the tiny aleph as suggesting that there are two alternative readings of the word: you could read it vayikar, as if the aleph weren’t there at all; or you could read it vayikra, pronouncing the aleph. In modern Hebrew, yakar means “precious” and kara means “called.” Perhaps we are supposed to read both meanings. “He called…He made someone precious…He called…He made someone precious.”
This two-faceted word describes the magic of Donna’s kitchen. She invites you in, and in that space, you are precious. Perfect and dear just as you are. Your flaws, your imperfections – insubstantial as smoke.
And this is the magic of the mishkan. Through the technology of the sacrifices in God’s kitchen, your self-doubts become as insubstantial as smoke.
In the Haftorah reading, the prophet Isaiah tells us that idols cannot effect this kind of healing transformation. Believe it or not, he specifically tells us that idols don’t have the right kind of kitchens.
Here Isaiah describes the idolator’s use of wood:
Part of it he burns in a fire:
On that part he roasts meat,
He eats the roast and is sated;
He also warms himself and cries, “Ah,
I am warm! I can feel the heat!”
Of the rest he makes a god – his own carving!
He bows down to it, worships it;
He prays to it and cries,
“Save me, for you are my god!”
The piece of wood helps to meet the idolater’s material needs – it keeps him warm, it helps him cook. So the idolater says, “you are my god!”
But the idolator’s meal fulfills physical needs only. The fears, the guilt, the worries that ought to be burned up are neither received and released. Instead they grow into guiding principles, leading the idolator into ever more confused decision-making.
As Isaiah says,
A deluded mind has led him astray
And he cannot save himself;
He never says to himself,
The thing in my hand is a fraud!
We all have times when we are like Isaiah’s idolater. Difficult, uncomfortable thoughts and feelings may overtake us. We might not recognize ourselves. We might be weighed down with anxiety. We might wonder if we should even have these thoughts and feelings, or if we should tell anyone about it. We might need help figuring out if we are defrauding ourselves!
At these times, we need a kitchen! We need someone who will sit with us, listen and receive without judgment, hold up a mirror, so to speak, with love. It might be a friend like Donna who makes nana tea; it might be a representative of an established organization, like the priests in the mishkan.
Vayikra teaches that an individual cannot deal with worries, guilt, creepiness, or disturbing public events alone. Every one of us needs someone who recognizes the weight of thoughts and feelings – even when our material needs are met, even when we have fixed the practical consequences of our mistakes. Every one of us needs someone who can help lighten the load, turn the substantial into vapour.
Every one of us needs a meal in God’s kitchen!
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Parashat Vayikra / Shabbat Hahodesh
By: Reb Mimi Feigelson,
Masphiah Ruchanit and
Lecturer of Rabbinic Studies
And there was Night and there was Day – One Day
Torah Reading: Leviticus 1:1-5:26; Numbers 28:9-15
Maftir Reading: Exodus 12:1-20
Haftarah Reading: Ezekiel 45:16 – 46:18
Often I share that my life can be divided into two chapters – in the first chapter I experienced God’s love for me by virtue of having a Teacher to Learn from and with. Someone that would share the secrets of Torah that I needed in order to keep my soul alive. The second chapter of my life, the one that I live in now, is defined by walking in the world with Students that I’m blessed to share the Torah I have gathered, and am able to offer them. It is a gift like no other.
I have learned over the years that both Teachers and Students manifest in a form and shape not always expected or anticipated. It keeps my heart open, not knowing when either of them will show up to claim a piece of my heart that their light will ignite.
It is such a manner that Father Henri Nouwen entered my life half a decade ago, when introduced to him by a friend. Those of you who know me know that the fact that Father Henri crossed-over at the age of sixty four, in 1996, is no barrier in declaring him a significant Teacher. On the contrary, I often try to imagine conversations that he and my Teacher Reb Shlomo Carlebach may be conducting in the heavenly realm. Both of them, Men of the Cloth that walked in the world as wounded healers.
It is his words that I hear echoing, as a commentary to Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105) quoting Midrash Rabba on Vayikra (Leviticus) 1:2.
The verse in our Torah portion teaches us: “Speak to the Children of Yisrael and say to them, if any man [ADAM] of you brings an offering to God…”
Rashi questions the use of the word ADAM for a person, versus other titles that the Torah could’ve used for one that brings a gift-offering sacrifice. He brings the Midrash that suggests that the use of the word ADAM is to evoke the consciousness of Adam in the Garden of Eden, who ” never offered sacrifices from stolen goods” thus suggesting, here too, that this gift being brought to the Mishkan (tabernacle) was not from stolen goods.
I can’t help but read this in utter dismay – who would think to bring a gift-offering to God from stolen goods??? How could one even ponder such a thing? What would motivate such behavior and how could one, in good faith, put their hands on the animal to be offered on their behalf if it wasn’t theirs?
It is here that I have summoned Father Henri Nouwen to help me unpack that which is so unfathomable to me.
In his book “The One Necessary Thing” on living a prayerful life he speaks of a listening heart. He offers the following:
“The discipline of the heart… makes us aware that praying is not only listening to but also listening with. The discipline of the heart makes us stand in the presence of God with all we have and are: our fears and anxieties, our guilt and shame, our sexual fantasies, our greed and anger, our joys, successes, aspirations and hopes, or reflections, dreams and mental wandering, and most of all our people, family, friends and enemies, in short, all that makes us who we are. With all this we have to listen to God’s voice and allow God to speak to us in every corner of our being. This is very hard since we are so fearful and insecure that we keep hiding ourselves from God.
We tend to present to God only those parts of ourselves with which we feel relatively comfortable and which we think will evoke a positive response. Thus our prayer becomes very selective and narrow. And not just our prayers but also our self-knowledge, because by behaving as strangers before God we become strangers to ourselves.”
Now I can live with Rashi, with the Midrash and with the possibility of “stolen goods.” It is by means of employing the concept of ” Gneivat Da’at.” Literally this concept translates as “theft of mind / consciousness.” When used in context of Jewish law and morality we can speak of a misrepresentation or even an element of deception when presenting a given situation. While it is more often used in the realm of business and commerce (such as the boundaries and definitions of advertisement) I would like to suggest that Father Henri Nouwen is speaking of standing in God’s presence with only a portion of who we are. He alludes to only bringing our favorable traits when standing in God’s presence, appearing to be that person, and not what we may perceive as our dark side. This would then fall under the category of spiritual gneivat da’at, and perhaps this is the way we could understand Rashi.
I would like to pose the possibility that the “stolen goods” that Rashi is speaking of is our misrepresentation of the totality of our being when in the presence of God. While I personally can identify with the fear that showing up with our totality may bring, I can also touch upon the joy, gratitude and relief in knowing that I am who I am; that God sees me in all that I am; that I can be loved by the Divine regardless of the flaws that I myself don’t allow myself to acknowledge. I believe that it is being seen in such a way by God that will, in time, avail me to own those parts of myself that I shun.
It is with this understanding that the Alexander Rebbe (R’ Yisrael Dantziger, 1853-1910) understands the word in our opening verse, ” Me’kem” / “of you” – the gift-offering we bring is meant to come “from ourselves,” or as the Rebbe expresses, “from our desires” – this is an opportunity to offer, to elevate our desires to and with God; those desires that we are happy to share in daylight, and those that we barely allow to breathe some fresh air at night when no one is around. And if you ask, would this not be a blemished offering being brought to God, I would respond by saying: “If you whole-heartedly put your hands on its head, if you own it as also being a part of you, then you are bringing the most holy offering of all! It is not blemished but rather whole, for you are whole!” I believe this is the first step to our personal redemption and exiting of Egypt.
May we dwell this Shabbat in the trust and faith necessary to bring such offerings to God. May this Shabbat Rosh Chodesh avail us of a new way of standing in the world. May the hiddenness of the moon give us the courage to grow in our truth and shine in all that we are when she comes to completion Seder night!
Shabbat shalom, Chodesh Tov and Chag Sameach.
From Rabbi David Ingber
God Says, “Be Big”
From the Maqam Project
Shabbat Parashat Vayikra
March 16, 2014 / 5 Nisan 5773
By: Rabbi Aaron Alexander,
Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
We Need To Talk
Torah Reading: Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26
Haftarah Reading: Isaiah 43:21 – 44:23
“We need to talk.” I apologize if these words create residual trauma and I’ve probably already scared you off. But at least we’re in this together. Each of us has likely been on the other side of this ominous phrase at one point or another, and probably guilty of saying it, too. It just stings.
Let’s harness the pain, briefly, and take a moment to reflect on the elusive art form of difficult-conversation starters. The book of Leviticus, Va-Yikr’a, begins:
And God called to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying… (Lev. 1:1)
At first glance this feels pretty direct. God has what to say to Moses, so God calls him and begins a lengthy discourse on all means of sacrifice. A closer look, though, reveals a slight difficulty. Namely, why did God have to call to Moses before speaking to him? They are both in the Tent of Meeting and a simple, “And God spoke to Moses,” would have been enough of an introduction to the communication that follows.
The prodigious commentator, Rashi, smoothes this over by explaining that the ‘call’ was not of the dinner-bell variety, a ‘come and get it’ scene many of us experienced in our youths as supper approached. Rather, this was a gentle and thoughtful invitation, a tender communication from God to Moses.
As Rashi puts it: “The language of “calling” is an expression of affection, a similar articulation used by the ministering angels in conversation with one another, as it says, ‘And one called to the other (v’ka-ra zeh-el-zeh ve-amar)…’ ” (Rashi to Lev. 1:1)
The paradigm set forth is of angels seamlessly interacting. How potent. It didn’t matter, therefore, what God called to Moses before giving him endless instructions, and it wasn’t important that Moses and God were already occupying the same space. Rather, it was the caring way in which God called Moses. God asked Moses to join the conversation and allowed Moses to be as fully present as possible. While God and Moses were not necessarily about to get into an awkward or dicey conversation (okay, maybe dicey), this interpretation does offer insight into precarious-conversation starters.
How often do we find ourselves in the same room with another person, poised to enter into a difficult conversation, but also at a loss for words? How does one create an inviting space with room for both participants to express themselves, authentically, while still willing to give something to the other? Our natural tendencies of avoidance, discomfort and/or nervous anticipation often result in communication that is more passive-aggressive, or likely just aggressive: In our homes, synagogues, schools, or offices, all potentially sacred and safe spaces, all potentially hazardous and contentious.
The Torah offers us a slightly different model of engagement: loving invitation. Even in an assumed safe space, an ohel mo’ed interaction demands thoughtful, kind, and honest entry. Jumping right in with a “we need to talk” followed by whatever needs to be said may not allow the listener to prepare for the difficult message to be delivered. The example set forth by God and angels offers an alternative access point for the adrenaline-filled moments that can consume our day-to-day experience. I wish I could offer a one-size-fits-all phrase or invitation. The challenge is that each opportunity demands precisely the kind of warmth that Moses must have heard when God called him in that Tent. And that differs, significantly, in every friendship, partnership, and union.
There is no avoiding confrontation in any relationship. That is a truth. But thoughtfully and intentionally introducing and transforming potentially heated interactions into fertile ground for openness and readiness may go a long way in warding off some of the residual discomfort that often lingers for much too long.
Actually, I think I want to go back and start this commentary differently. Do over?
Why a Sheep? (5773/2013)
Jewish scholar Lawrence Hoffman says simply, “symbols symbolize,” i.e., they mean different things to different people. Psychologist Carl Jung says that symbols are helpful tools, like telescopes, showing us ideas we can’t quite put into words.
You probably know the symbolic meaning of the zroa, the bone or (for vegetarians) beet on the Seder Plate. The zroa symbolizes God’s outstretched arm, as well as the lamb of the Passover offering. But what does the lamb symbolize?
Torah reports that the night before the Exodus, the Israelites were instructed to slaughter a lamb in religious style, eat together with everyone included, brush their doorposts with lamb’s blood so none of their firstborn would die in that night’s plague, and testify of these events to their children.
This week’s parshah, Vayikra, describes the why, when, and how of animal and vegetable offerings. For a few offerings, a sheep — ewe or ram — is always preferred. You should offer a sheep if you were called to testify in court but did not; or suddenly came upon an animal corpse but forgot; or touched someone ritually impure but forgot.
So, in both stories, sheep remind you to testify, help protect you from a brush with death, and help reset you when you have been tainted by something upsetting. But how do sheep work this magic? Do they help us see something we can’t put into words? What characteristics do they have? What role do they play in Torah?By offering them on the altar, were our ancestors celebrating or negating their characteristics? Many of our most beloved ancestors were shepherds – what is their legacy?
What does a sheep tell us about the meaning of Pesach? Symbols symbolize – enjoy this Seder discussion topic!
From Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks
Five Windows to This- Parshat Vayikra
This week begins the first parsha of the book of Leviticus, Vayikra- “He called”. It gives instructions about five different kinds of sacrifices which the Israelites were to offer. These five sacrifices can be seen as a paradigm of life, each one a symbol for a particular way of approaching this moment.
The first is the Olah, or “Elevation” offering. This offering was unique in that it was burned completely on the altar, with nothing left over. This hints at giving ourselves entirely to the task of this moment. We tend to see this moment as a mere stepping-stone to another moment, and we are often doing one thing while our minds are somewhere else. The Olah hints that if we wish to live in an “elevated” way- that is, free from mundane stresses and worries, we paradoxically need to completely bring ourselves to the mundane. We need to “burn ourselves” completely in this moment, without leaving over part of our minds to dwell on something else.
The second is the Minkha, or “gift” offering. This was a grain offering, brought by those who were not wealthy enough to bring animal offerings. This hints at the wisdom of humility and the willingness to offer of ourselves what we can, even if we think it is inadequate, or that the work required is “below” us. It is the willingness to serve the needs of this moment, without imposing our own preconceptions.
The third is the Shlamim, or “Peace” offering. This offering was brought out of gratitude and praise. It brought peace partially because the priests and the offerer both enjoyed it as food, and partially because it was supposed to have a peaceful effect on the world in general. This hints at dedicating our actions toward universal benefit for all. When we act, we do so because we have some particular motivation. If we take a moment to dedicate our actions to universal benefit, this will give our actions and even our decision-making process a special quality of openness and generosity.
The fourth and fifth are the Hatat and the Asham- the “Sin” offering and the “Guilt” offering. Their purpose was to correct and make healing for wrongs committed. It is good to remember that we have not always been perfect. Whenever we do anything, we are not acting from a clean slate, but rather we act against a hidden karmic background. Keeping this in mind will allow us to approach this moment with humility and the intention for healing whatever negativity lingers from the past. It will also help us accept what happens to us moment by moment, cleansing us from the arrogance of resisting things we don’t like- “How could this happen to me?” Instead, let us accept what is, and offer ourselves to this moment as a force of healing.
May these five offerings manifest themselves in our lives toward greater awakening to the spiritual potential of this moment, always.
Vayikra: A Compassionate Offering
Leviticus chapter 5 teaches that someone brings a chataat offering when they overhear a curse, witness a crime, learn about a crime, touch a corpse without knowing it, or blurt out an oath.
Some commentators translate chataat based on its use of the root cheyt – sin – and understand it as a “sin-offering.” They focus discussion on cases where the curses, oaths, witnessing, and contact with death are associated with misdeeds. For them, offering the chataat is part of the process of atoning for a crime.
Others translate chataat based on its function of helping to remove ritual impurity. In the Levitical system, ritual impurity is associated with psycho-spiritual discomfort when boundaries are suddenly violated. These commentators understand the chataat as a “purification offering.” They recognize the fear that can result when we see or hear terrible things, blurt out words that come from a hidden part of us, or suddenly realize that we have come into contact with death. For them, the chataat is part of the process of self-understanding and release.
From this second perspective, the chataat is a gift of compassion from the cohanim (priests) to the people. The chataat offers an opportunity to pause, reflect on the upset, and let it go. Without such a pause, fears may be held secretly inside and compound over time, moving us to attack ourselves as well as others. The cohanim recognized the importance of witnessing the troubles of others, helping them come to self-knowledge and providing rituals that restore stability. From them we can learn some new tools for compassionately support people in our lives.
Torah Reading for Week of March 18-24, 2012
“The Worth of Our Salt”
By Rabbi Janet Madden ‘11
Parshat Vayikra (“and He called”) provides a how-to guide that lays out the taxonomy of Temple sacrifices, each category of which calls for particular types of animals, birds or grain. In contrast to the compelling narratives of Beresheit and Shemot, this section of the Torah, replete with rules instead of stories, demonstrates a new level of maturity in the relationship between the people and the Holy One, expressed through communal participation in the sacrificial rites, and even more powerfully, by the responsibility of every individual to bring offerings. The specificity of the instructions accompanying each kind of sacrifice makes clear that sacrifice is not a pro forma obligation. That each sacrifice is a holy act is emphasized by the articulation of the concomitant state of intentionality on the part of the person who brings the specified offering and by prescribed actions by the cohanim who perform the sacrificial rites on the behalf of the people. Vayikra demonstrates that sacrifice is the visceral expression of the relationship between G-d and Israel through its emphasis on the nuances and complexities of the sacrificial rites and, most of all, through its reiteration that whether the offering is bird, animal or grain, there is a single component that unifies every offering: salt.
So ubiquitous and inexpensive today that we take it for granted, salt held an elevated status in all cultures of the ancient world both for its function as food preservative and as seasoning. In contrast to pagan sacrificial rites in which blood was drunk and salt was not used, salt’s role in ancient Israel is embodied in its status in Temple sacrifices, which eschewed the consumption of blood and mandated the addition of salt, a substance that defined the Land in the form of Yom Ha-Melah, the Salt Sea. Salt appears throughout the Tanach as a symbol of permanence and, particularly, as a symbol of covenantal relationship. The declaration that “All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for the Lord…shall be an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord for you and for your offspring as well” in Parshat Korach explicitly establishes the relationship of salt and sacrifice in the context of sacrifice and covenant. Chronicles 13:5 tells us that the Davidic line is established by a covenant of salt. Ezekial 16:4 reports that in ancient Israel, newborns were rubbed with salt, and Ezra 6:9 and 7:22 record that large quantities of salt were delivered to the post-exilic Temple for use in sacrifices, underscoring Vayikra’s instruction about the use of salt in each kind of offering.
It is easy to understand the sacrificial requirement of salt in the context of meat, since salt would have removed blood from the altar, much as today we use salt as a purifying and consecrating agent in kashering. More intriguing and poignant is the inclusion of salt in the grain sacrifices, which presages how we use salt ritually today. Pablo Neruda’s depiction of salt’s “broken voice” and “mournful song” in his “Ode to Salt” captures the emotional undercurrent of how we commemorate the Temple’s destruction in our custom of sprinkling salt over bread after making the blessing over it.
Me’am Loez records the legend that at the Creation, when the lower world was parted from the firmament and the waters of the heavens from the waters of the seas were separated, the seas begged the Creator to be placed closer, not off in the distance. In order to reassure the seas that they had not been abandoned or rejected, they were granted the privilege of providing salt for all Temple sacrifices. Similarly, our mindful ritual use of salt brings us closer to our history, our traditions, and our G-d. Salt, as Neruda understands, is not merely the “dust of the sea”; in the “smallest, miniature wave from the saltcellar…we taste infinitude.”
From Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Mar 21, 2012
VaYikra 5772/2012: “The Sacrificial Call”
(c) Rabbi Menachem Creditor
From Melissa Carpenter
Yayikra: A Voice is Calling
At the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot, the children of Israel are satisfied. Their biggest fear, that they would be abandoned in the desert without any way of connecting with their god, has been eliminated. Not only is Moses back among them; they also have something better than a golden calf to serve as a visible and tangible focus for God: the portable sanctuary. In Hebrew this sanctuary is called a mishkan, a “dwelling-place” for God. The book of Exodus ends with God’s cloud of glory reappearing and filling the inner sanctum of the mishkan.
What a relief! Now the people can leave Mount Sinai and journey on with confidence to the promised land of milk and honey … right?
No, not yet. First they have to learn the rituals for using the mishkan and the duties of its attendant priests, as well as some ethical laws for holy behavior. These instructions are given in the book of Leviticus. The Hebrew name of this book, the name of this week’s Torah portion, and the first word of the book are the same word: Vayikra, which means “And He (or he, or It) called”.
And It called to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When a human being brings close from among you a korban for God, you will bring close your korban from the four-footed animals, from the herd or from the flock. (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:1-2)
takrivu = you will bring close, bring forward, offer, present
korban = Common translations: sacrifice, offering. Literal meaning: something brought close (to the altar) in order to bring the person close to God (both psychologically and literally; the altar is no more than 60 cubits or about 100 feet from the space above the ark where God manifests).
Two odd things about the first verse of Vayikra are that the letter aleph at the end of the word vayikra is written smaller than the other letters in every Torah scroll; and that the sentence is constructed so that the first verb, “called”, is separated in a non-standard way from the second verb, “spoke”. Both draw attention to the verb “called”.
There are only three places where the Torah says Gods “calls” to Moses: at the burning bush on Mount Sinai, when God first speaks to Moses; from the top of Mount Sinai, which Moses climbs when the multitude of Hebrew ex-slaves and their fellow-travelers first arrive and set up camp; and here at the beginning of Leviticus/Vayikra. This time, God calls from within the Tent of Meeting, not from the mountain.
Why does God call to Moses before giving him the next set of instructions? Because it is an important moment, according to some commentators. Others point out that when Exodus/Shemot ends, Moses was not able to come into the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it, and the glory filled the mishkan. (Exodus 40:35) Then God had to call to Moses, to let him know that he could now enter the Tent and hear God speak from the Holy of Holies.
And what about the miniature letter aleph at the end of the word vayikra? Samuel David Luzzatto (a 19th-century rabbi and Hebraist) wrote that the earliest written copies of the Torah did not put spaces between words, and sometimes, when one word ended with the same letter that began the next word, the scribe did not write the letter twice. Later, when spaces were added between words, the missing letter was added in miniature.
But the miniature aleph also lends itself to symbolic interpreta-tions. Two medieval commentaries, the kabbalistic Zohar and the more down-to-earth Rashi, both view the miniature letter as expressing a restriction in God’s call. The idea of restriction is reinforced by the fact that this time the Torah says He/It called to Moses instead of God called to Moses.
In the book of Exodus/Shemot, God calls, and speaks, to Moses out in the open air—not just on Mount Sinai, but also in Egypt and in the wilderness. This changes after the sanctuary is completed. Although occasionally Moses prostrates himself on the ground to get a quick word of divine advice, now God usually speaks from the empty space above the ark, behind the inner curtain, inside the Tent of Meeting.
What does it mean that God now speaks with an indoor voice instead of an outdoor voice? I think the change is related to another change in the Israelites’ relationship with God. In the book of Exodus/Shemot, God only speaks to the people once, on the day of revelation in Exodus/Shemot, when God’s voice sounds like a shofar (ram’s horn) in the thunder (and lightning and fire and smoke and earth-quake). The experience is too devastating for the people, and they beg Moses to be a go-between for them. Moses does so, trotting up and down Mount Sinai, speaking with God at the top and the people at the bottom. The ex-slaves from Egypt remain passive. Even when they are afraid Moses has died, they ask his brother Aaron to make them an idol; they wouldn’t dare make a golden calf themselves.
But when Moses passes on God’s instructions for making a mishkan, everyone with a willing heart donates materials, and everyone with a wise heart helps with the craftsmanship. In the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, Moses tells the people how to contribute to the service for God in the mishkan, specifying when and how to bring their offerings, both animal and vegetable, to the altar. Aaron and his four sons get new jobs as priests conducting sacred rituals, and at every stop on the journey through the wilderness, each tribe has a designated camping spot in relation to the mishkan.
Everyone is involved in serving God. But God’s voice is now muted, manifesting inside the Holy of Holies.
Today we still see a difference between the organized religion of a congregation, and a lone person hearing God’s call on a mountain-top. People still have individual mystical experiences, usually when they are more or less alone and confronted with a sight or sound that inspires awe. Those experiences are precious. But they are not sufficient for leading a good life aspiring to holiness. After all, does anyone today get explicit instructions from God whenever he or she needs them? Is anyone today like Moses?
When we yearn for a moral compass or a way to walk with (or at least toward) God, we need help from other people. We need a community of fellow-seekers, wise persons to advise us, books to study, prayers to chant, rituals to conduct. We need our own equivalent of the mishkan.
And if we build our mishkan, our dwelling-place for God, in the right way for our own community in our own time, then we, too, can draw closer to God. God’s voice will be muted for us. But we will still feel it calling.
From Rabbi Miles Krassen
Va-Yiqra 5771 according to Sefer Az Yashir Moshe (Meta-Torah)
The infinitesimal Alef calls to Moshe and (then) the Source of Compassion speaks to him in the mind space where Divinity and Humanity meet. (Leviticus 1:1).
The Meta-Moshe Rabbenu (Rinpoche) has immediate access to Divine guidance under all circumstances. At that level one doesn’t need a Temple to go to or any particular spiritually enhancing context in order to approach the Shekhinah. You yourself are a Sanctuary and the Shekhinah is in and around you and even speaks through you.
But, how do we “get there?” Our Sages tell us that Divinity is broadcasting an evolutionary current at all times that seeks to bring us into alignment (teshuvah). This infinitesimally subtle vibration is however all too rarely perceived. In fact, although we receive it quite frequently, the level of confusion that characterizes most of us in our misconception of Reality prevents us from “getting the message”— the Divine “love-taps” that are subtly seeking our attention. This subtlety of Divine transmission is required by the evolutionary process itself, commonly thought of in terms of “reward and punishment” (karma). If the broadcast were louder and clear enough for everyone to hear, there would be no possibility of evolution as no effort would ever be required of us. If that were the case, there would be no way to feed the Shekhinah and the Atzmut, the very essence of ALL THAT IS (Eyn Sof), would have no basis for manifesting as EVERYTHING in time and space.
The difference between an un-awakened person and a Tzaddiq-in-training may be measured by the degree of sensitivity that a person has to this subtle sound current. The Noam Elimelekh says a Tzaddiq-in-training is not a person whose behavior is always perfect, but rather a person who is extremely sensitive to the guidance coming from the subtle current that let’s one know when a course correction is required. In the state of “sleep,” even though we may think we are awake, we act mechanically. When our behavior is challenged, we immediately become defensive, dishonest, and in denial. But for the awakened tzaddiq-in-training, even though incapable of measuring up to anyone’s conceptual idea of idealized perfection, the least “misstep” is heartbreaking. That very acute presence of Conscience within is an indication that one is sensitive to the call of the infinitesimally subtle “Alef” that guides Moshe Rinpoche.
Whenever Moshe consciously responds to the “call” of the vibration of the infinitesimally subtle Alef, it transforms the mind-stream of the Tzaddiq into a condition called Ohel Mo’ed (mind space where Divinity and Humanity meet). In that special “meeting place,” the vibration of the infinitesimally subtle Alef expands into the transmission of a compassionate and evolutionary teaching. In this parashah the process begins with the transmission of a teaching concerning fundamental ways of drawing closer to the primordial state of inseparability from the Shekhinah. These fundamental ways of drawing closer to the Shekhinah are called “sacrifices” (“korbanot’) because each requires a certain form of conscious suffering.
Tell those on the evolutionary path that if they want to draw closer to the Shekhinah, they should make conscious sacrifices that refine the ‘beast,’ the source of unregulated desires (“min ha-behemah”), sacrifices should be made through the center of awareness (“min ha-baqar”) and through unification of Source and Manifestation (“min ha-TZoN”). (Leviticus 1:2)
The primary and most general sacrificial path is called “from the beast” because it points to the efforts we need to make in order to bring our total animal nature into a higher level of refinement. This is basically the same image Plato used in regard to the horse and carriage that requires a driver if it is to go in an evolutionary direction. The general path of conscious sacrifice includes all forms of self-discipline that regulate and direct unconscious drives that increase our confusion. What is being sacrificed on this general path is the unchecked and relentless pursuit of satisfying our cravings on all levels.
To achieve the general purpose of conscious suffering in order to become more than a beast, there are two supporting inner paths. The first is called: “BaQaR,” which literally means “from the herd” but alludes to the center of awareness, based on the Hebrew root BQR that implies critical insight (BiQQuR). This is the inner sacrificing of mindless confusion. In order to follow this path, it is necessary to make the effort to cultivate constant mindful awareness— to maintain as much as possible the condition of being present to all that one is experiencing.
Deeper than this is the second inner path called: “TZoN,” literally “from the flock.” However, according to Kabbalah we know there are secrets hidden in the letters TZadi Alef and Nun that have to be deciphered in order to disclose a deeper hidden teaching. The letters TZadi and Alef equal 91 which is the sum of the two Holy Names, YHVH (26) and ADNY (65). Thus the sum of these two letters alludes to the unification of the two Holy Names representing Source (YHVH) and Manifestation (ADNY). When the two are ONE, they express the mystery of Divine Love. This love flows from the highest Source all the way down like the final form of the letter Nun (see the first Torah in Liqqutey MoHaRaN) expressing the power of drawing down Divine Grace (Hesed) to the most manifest level of Malkhut. This capacity to radiate Hesed (real kindness) in actuality within the world itself flows spontaneously and directly from the ultimately inseparable union of Source and Manifestation. Thus the sacrifice of “TZoN” is the path of complete non-dual unification. This path is followed by realizing, remaining in, remembering, and returning to the state of Knowledge that existed before we were born and which can be recalled as we evolve in our embodied condition. (See B.Talmud, Niddah 30). Whoever practices this path in life sacrifices ego-identification at the very deepest level (bittul bi-metziut).
May we blessed to become increasingly sensitive to the call of the infinitesimally subtle Alef vibration. May we respond to this Divine Call with sincere efforts of realignment (teshuvah) and share its message to inspire others. May we commit ourselves to the paths of conscious sacrifice that ultimately can enable us to become truly kind and awake beings in this very world as embodiments of non-dual Reality.
Faithfully transcribed from the subtle Alef vibration by
Moshe Aharon (Ladizhyner) for the Shekhinah, Va-Yiqra 5771
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Small Alef Poetry
When You call me
speak louder than you did with Moses
I may not hear the diminished alef*
the sound of affection
You used with him.
I am listening with everything I have
I am listening for the right word
the true story.
Let the pure come and occupy themselves
with the pure —
so said the wondrous Rav Assi [Lev.R.7:3]
3rd – 4th century
student of Rav Shmuel in Nehardea (al-Anbar)
companion of Rav Ammi,
What they talked about —
And G*d called to Moses
And G*d spoke to him
From the tent of meeting
*The Alef is the vav and two yuds
human-being-li-ness and G*d-li-ness
the Alef suspended between
the foundational lower world
and the reach to the upper world
underneath everlasting arm
connected by the sitting
We are connected
above and below
the Alef is diagrammatic — the human being
planted in the lower world
reaching for the upper world.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas Vayikra
Rav DovBer Pinson
Beyond the Past/Re-scripting the Future
This week’s Torah reading begins with the words “And Hashem called to Moshe/Moses…saying, speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When a man from [among] you brings an offering…”(1:1-2) Thus begins the third book of the Torah, the book of Vayikra, known as Leviticus. This book speaks in great length of the various forms of Korbanos / offerings.
Offerings were brought to atone for past negative actions, and so they represent a state of purity, as if one is ‘beginning again’. It is a tradition (Shach, Y’D 245:8), to begin teaching a child Torah with the third book of the Torah, the book of Vayikra. The Midrash says; “Let the pure (child) come and study (the laws of) the pure.” (Vayikra Rabba 7:3)
In Temple times, offerings were used to achieve atonement, and as such, they represent a state of purity. The idea of the offering is a ‘new beginning’.
The verse says, “Adam, Ki Yakriv Mikem” which is commonly translated as “When a man from [among] you brings an offering.” A more literal translation would be, “a person, who offers of himself.”
The person who wished to atone would bring an offering with the intention that they were giving of their very own self. When they gave of their earnings, it represented a relinquishing of their ego, a letting go, as it were.
Atonement is really Re-Alignment.
The principle of cause and effect means that each action creates a reaction. Positive actions have positive effect and negative actions create negative reactions. A positive reaction causes a balanced, equalizing energy, while a negative reaction creates an energy imbalance.
A negative action in the past, based on the laws of cause and effect, will create an inevitable negative consequence. Therefore, what is needed is a shift, a rebalancing in the present, to undo the effects of the past wrongdoing.
When a person would bring an offering of an object, which was a representation of themselves, the balance was restored and a new beginning initiated. The offerings brought purity. The concept of purity being an unsoiled reality – a new beginning and a fresh start.
Time which flows from a perspective of Yesh/existence, which is ego, is as such; what happened in the past is indelibly imprinted on the present, and subsequently gives birth to the future. This is the universe of karmic cause and effect.
Yet, when a person offers from him or herself, which is a selfless giving, they are leaving behind the world of Yesh/existence/ego and entering into the world of Ayin – emptiness, no-thing-ness. From this place of Ayin- unattached to a past, they can chart a new course for their future.
The Torah The Energy of the Week:
Beyond the Past/Re-scripting the Future
In order to reverse the karmic effects of negative deeds in our past – we need to go beyond the reality of cause and effect.
In a world of strict natural order – there is no way to reverse the laws of cause and effect.
However, going beyond our natural state of being, transcending our ego, as it were, we create a new reality for ourselves and rewrite the script of our future.
This week’s Torah reading imbues us with the energy to undo negative reactions from our past, giving us the strength to perform more selfless acts of goodness.
We are able to go beyond our ego and render our ego more transparent. Through ego-less acts of kindness we break the patterns of negativity and enter a brand new state, fresh with undiscovered possibility.
From Rabbi Diane Elliot
Vayikra—A Call to Return
by Rabbi Diane Elliot March 24 2007/ 5 Nisan 5767
“Vayikra el Moshe, And He called to Moses….” In last week’s double parashah, Vayak-hel-P’kudei, Moshe set up the Mishkan with the Ohel Mo-ed, the Tent of Meeting at its heart, and it was filled with the cloud of Holy Presence, the Shekhinah, the In-Dwelling Divine. So full of God was this place, that Moses hung back and could not enter. He had to be called by Ha-Shem, invited into relationship with the Holy. In order for a human being, even one so awake as Moses, to enter into direct relationship with the Divine, space must be made. The Mystery must draw back a bit into itself—and so “vayikra,” he called, the first word of our parashah, has a tiny aleph at the end, smaller than the rest of the letters, to symbolize, according to some, God’s tzim tzum, the pulling back of Self that makes space for another to enter.
Vayikra, the book of Torah that gives in minute detail the particulars of priestly service in the Mishkan/Temple, can be read as a tractate on holy relationship. When we look through the surface of its instructions about sacrifices and purifications from skin diseases and emissions to the spiritual truths hinted at in its depths, we may begin to understand the brilliance of our tradition in offering us a blueprint for right relationship, the means to practice the art of teshuvah, or return.
What makes possible the maintenance of a brit, a covenant with the Divine or with a person for that matter, given our humanity and the inevitability of our falling away from clarity and devotion, is the ever-present possibility Vayikra lays out of t’shuva—the ability through our focused intention, our actions, our prayers, to clear the clogged channels of connection. We easily distracted, easily obsessed human beings are here gifted with the means to restore awareness, to restore balance, to return to a loving state, in our relationships with each other and, underlying, supporting, and shining through those, each in our unique relationship with the Mystery, the Great Truth.
For the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness, the Presence was always visible as a cloud by day and a fire by night hanging over, resting upon the Mishkan. What is this powerful image of God-made-visible to an entire people? None other than the cloud and the fire of the ever-present, ever-active sacrificial altar, emanating morning and evening a ray-akh ni’khoakh, a pleasing aroma, meant to soothe, placate, re-calibrate the relationship between this visible earthly plane and the invisible, unimaginable realm of the Divine.
So what can be our sacrificial altar, the locus of action and focus of attention that helps us maintain clarity and flow in our earthly and our heavenly relationships, within ourselves, with our friends and family and community, and with the Mystery that Sources and Holds us all?
In her profound Torah Journeys, Rabbi Shefa Gold teaches that “the blessing of Vayikra is the call to come into harmony, balance, connection and intimacy with the God who has freed us for this love,” for this loving service. (Torah Journeys, p. 104) And the challenge is to continually grow into that freedom through practices of return. Reb Shefa asks us to make our prayer practice as powerful, as visceral, and as intense as the sacrifice of animals was for our ancestors. Can our davennen engage every sense—the sense of smell, of vision, of taste, of kinesthesia? Can it awaken our blood and vibrate our souls? And can our actions in the daily world—our words, our deeds, our work, our care for others—be informed by such practice, engaging us in a constant web of interconnectedness that grows God in the world?
As for the power and primacy of teshuvah, of which our prayer practice is an integral part, Rav Kook quotes Yoma 86b: “Great is teshuvah for it brings healing to the world, and an individual who returns is forgiven and the whole world is forgiven with her.” (Bokser, Abraham Isaac Kook, p. 56) “Teshuvah was planned before the creation of the world, and it is for this reason the foundation of the world.” (Ibid., p. 55) “This quality of raising what is lowly in life toward greatness never ceases at any time, at any hour. This is the meaning of full teshuvah….”(Ibid., p. 98), an ongoing day-by-day, moment by moment process, not something we do once a year during the High Holy Days, but, along with the practice of Shabbat, Judaism’s core spiritual practice. Through teshuvah, an ongoing consciousness practice that allows us to restore right relationship in all dimensions, we become “a nation of priests and a holy people,” a gathering of persons striving toward connection with the Holiest of Holies
Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
It is an ancient tradition that little boys who have learned their Aleph-Beis and are just starting to read, commence their study of the CHUMASH (Five Books of Moses) with VAYIKRA. “Let pure souls come to study the laws dealing with purity.” For a cynical, sophisticated age that feels entitled to call anything and everything into question, the Torah code of sacrifices and purification may appear ancient, primitive, complicated and irrelevant. But if we are willing to explore the Torah with the fresh eyes of children, ready to take the word of G-d on trust, with faith and belief, we can discover that the sacrificial system contains the keys to repentance and the healing of the soul and the entire world.
The theme of sacrifices enters Genesis and Exodus in a number of places. Adam, Cain and Abel, Noah and Abraham all offered sacrifices. Moses’ declared purpose in taking the Children of Israel out of Egypt was to bring sacrifices, and the animal sacrifices brought at the time of the Giving of the Torah were described (Ex.24:5), as were the sacrifices that were to be brought at the inauguration of the Sanctuary (Ex. ch. 29). However, it is here in the opening parshahs of LEVITICUS that the sacrificial system of the Torah is laid out in detail. The universal significance of this teaching is brought out in the use by the Torah of the word ADAM in introducing the sacrificial commandments: “.when a MAN (ADAM) would bring a sacrifice.” (Lev. 1:2). The sacrificial system comes to heal man’s alienation from G-d through atoning for his sins and bringing him back into a relationship of peace with Him. This is the ultimate rectification of Adam’s sin of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This sin caused the mix-up of good and evil in this world that is the root of all subsequent sin.
VAYIKRA begins with the laws of the OLAH, “elevation” or “ascending” offering, which could either be an ox, a sheep or a goat, a dove or pigeon, or take the form of a MINCHAH offering of wheat in the form of flour or unleavened loaves or wafers. In the case of an animal OLAH offering, the blood of the animal was splashed on the sides of altar, while its fat and other portions were burned on the altar. The OLAH offering comes to atone not so much for “sins of commission” — something a person did — as for “sins of omission”, what he failed to do (such as if he failed to fulfil a positive commandment). The laws of OLAH are followed by the laws of SHELAMIM, the peace-offering, an animal sacrifice whose blood and fat were offered on the altar but whose meat was shared between the priests and the one who brought the offering. The SHELAMIM sacrifice is a celebration that signifies that man has made his peace with G-d.
Next come the laws of CHATAS, the sin-offering brought for unwitting violation of Torah prohibitions whose willful infringement carries the penalty of excision. Different kinds of animals are to be brought and different procedures of atonement apply depending on whether the sinner is a private individual, the “Prince” (Nasi, king or leader), the Supreme Court (Sanhedrin) or the High Priest. [Rashi on Lev. 4:22 comments: Happy is the generation whose leader is able to admit he made a mistake and who tries to make amends.]
The last part of Parshas VAYIKRA contains commandments relating to a variety of CHATAS (“Sin”) and ASHAM (“Guilt”) offerings for specific sins. It is noteworthy that while some of the sins in question are bound up purely with man’s relation with G-d (such as unwittingly entering the Sanctuary or eating sacrifices while ritually impure), there are certain sins in man’s behavior to his fellow men that also make him liable to a sacrifice. These include the sin committed by one who, having received goods or money on trust, subsequently denies it under oath. This is at once a sin against G-d and against the person from whom he received the goods or money. It is normal and natural for a person to choose a private place without witnesses in order to entrust someone with valuable goods or money for safekeeping. Besides the two people involved, the only other “witness” to the transaction is G-d Himself, who knows what really happened. If the trustee invokes the name of G-d to swear falsely in denial of what G-d knows, this is a denial of G-d Himself. Not only must the trustee return the goods or money together with a twenty-five per cent supplement. He must also make amends to G-d by bringing a sacrifice.
Reb Sholom Brodt
VAYIKRa with a small ‘aleph’
The Baal Ha-Turim explains that Moshe who, as the Torah tells us, was the humblest person ‘upon the face of the earth’ (Bamidbar 12:3), did not want to write VAYIKRA El Moshe” in the Torah, (he did not want to announce) that Hashem ‘called unto him’ before He spoke to him. But Hashem did want him to write this. So at first Moshe wrote “VAYIKR” without the ‘aleph,’ which means that He appeared to him [as if] only by happenstance. But the Holy One Blessed is He told him to write the ‘aleph’ as well, so Moshe wrote a small ‘aleph’. [From far you would only see ‘VAYIKR’.]
EXPRESS YOUR LOVE TO THE ONE YOU ARE LEARNING WITH
Even though Hashem always called unto Moshe before He spoke to him as Rashi explains, nevertheless, the phrase “Vayikra el Moshe” appears only three times in the Torah. (Note my perfect Yinglish (Yiddish and English).) On the other two occasions, at the burning bush when Moshe encounters Hashem for the first time, and when Hashem called to Moshe to ascend Mt. Sinai the phrase is contextually expected. However, here at the beginning of Vayikra, Rashi notes that it is unusual, since it does not appear elsewhere when Hashem ‘spoke to’ or ‘said to’ or ‘commanded’ Moshe. Thus Rashi explains that it was written here to teach us that Hashem always called to Moshe first, before beginning to instruct him.
And what is the meaning of this calling? Rashi says “Vayikra” is “lashon chiba”, an expression of love. Before speaking to Moshe, before teaching and instructing him, Hashem first expressed his love for him.
With the Baal HaTurim’s explanation we understand that Moshe wrote the phrase because Hashem told him to do so, and we understand why he wrote it with a small ‘aleph.’ But we still need to understand what we are supposed to learn from Hashem insisting that Moshe write this phrase [even if only one extra time] and what can we learn from the fact that Moshe Rabbeinu wrote it particularly here, at the opening of sefer Vayikra which deals with the ‘taharah’ – the laws of purity, and the mitzvot of bringing sacrifices to Hashem?
I believe that there is an important teaching for all of us, imbedded here. Just as Hashem expressed His love to Moshe before teaching him Torah, so too before you teach someone Torah, you must first express your love for the one you are going to learn with. There is a dimension of Torah that gets transmitted only with love. Even the intellectual aspects of Torah require love to be fully communicated. Yet, we still need to understand – why is this teaching found here rather than anywhere else in the Torah?
The Sweet Learning Of The ‘Aleph-Bet’
According to our tradition on the first day that a Jewish child begins going to learn in ‘cheder,’ his parents would wrap him in a tallis and carry him all the way to school. At this first encounter with learning the holy Torah, the child’s teacher starts his first ‘aleph-bet’ lesson by showing him and saying the names of the letters that had been written with honey on a hard cookie, and the child would then eat the letters. Then the rebbe- teacher reads and explains the opening verses of Vayikra to him. Why were these verses chosen for the child’s first Torah lesson? The Rabbis explain in the Talmud: The laws of the sacrifices are about ‘taharah’ [ritual purity], let those who are ‘tahor’ [pure] come and learn them. (Pedagogically speaking, it seems that a child can understand ‘korbanot’- sacrifices, better than an older child can.
Realize that it is quite appropriate for the phrase “Vayikra el Moshe” to be at the very beginning of the first Torah portion that is taught to the child. These are the first words that the rebbe will read to the child, and by listening carefully, the rebbe hears Hashem teaching him to teach Torah with love.
The small ‘aleph’ also suggests that the Torah scholar and teacher must keep his own ‘aleph’ small. The teacher must make space for the student; the Torah teacher must have humility. Like Moshe Rabbeinu who did not seek any honor for being the teacher of all of Israel, and who was in fact the most humble person on the face of the earth, so too all of us who are teaching Torah must do our work without seeking personal reward or gratification of the self.
In the sefer Or Gedalyahu I learned an interesting elaboration on the difference between VAYIKRA- He called and VAYIKR- he simply met (pronounced vayikar). Reb Gedaliah explains VAYIKRA as Hashem calling Moshe to come close to Him, to prepare himself to speak with the Holy One baruch Hu. Hashem raised him higher and brought him closer. This is the meaning of “lashon chiba”, the expression of love – to love is to be close and to elevate. Hashem’s revealed elevating love ‘called’ to Moshe to bond with Him. When you love someone you raise them up and you restore their self-confidence. (As we all know, we learn best when we learn with teachers who elevate you and have confidence in you.)
Reb Gedaliah explains further that this love is not simply ‘one way’. Moshe received Hashem’s love, and as he came closer to Hashem, Hashem also received ‘nachas’ from Moshe’s ascension! The Rabbis, ob”m taught (Midrash Eicha Rabbati 1:35) that when the children of Israel do His will, they add strength to His supernal power! And this is the meaning of the calling to Moshe. Something happened, something changed in Moshe each time Hashem called him- he came closer, he rose to a higher level. Whereas when Hashem spoke to an idolatrous prophet, the prophet did not change. Hashem actually spoke to Balaam more than once, he even told him not to go and curse the Jews, yet Balaam remained wicked and sought to find some way to sneak in a curse.
Bringing A Korban
The Hebrew word for sacrifice is ‘Korban,’ derived from the root ‘k-r-b/v’ = karov = close. Any person, who for one reason or another had a desire or felt a need to come closer to G-d would bring a ‘Korban.’ The literal meaning of the word sacrifice is to make [fice] holy [sacre], giving something Up to Hashem, rather than ‘giving up’ on keeping something.
Almost 2000 years have passed since we last offered animal sacrifices in the holy Temple and we recognize that it is difficult for many of us to imagine ourselves bringing an animal sacrifice; and this is not necessarily because we are more refined, advanced, sensitive or sophisticated than our ancestors were.
The Ramban [Nachmanides- Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman] explains that the person who is bringing a sacrifice upon the altar should perceive the animal being sacrificed as a substitute for his own self. The intent of bringing a sacrifice is to offer our ‘selves’ upon the altar. The Kohen who performed the rituals and the Levite, who provided the music, were there to help us in the process of getting closer to Hashem. It was their role to help us have pure intentions to come close to Hashem and that we were not merely coming [mistakenly, to be sure] to bribe G-d. What was amazing is that when a sacrifice was offered properly with sincere ‘kavannah’- intent, the individual would leave the Temple with a true feeling of having rectified his relationship with Hashem. The baggage of past mistakes was no longer able to hold him back from making progress, from believing in himself. It was such a powerful and positive cleansing experience, that sadly, in the end it was abused, i.e., people would sin and do harm to others, then they would come to the Beit Hamikdash with a sacrifice and rid themselves of their guilt and then they would say, “Wow, I sinned and now I don’t feel guilty anymore,” and so they would repeat their sins. In the ‘Haftorah’ portion from Isaiah Chap 1, we see how much this angered Hashem.
Today, we also have ways of rectification, and these too can be abused and misused. In the past we had prophets like Isaiah, with the ability and courage to speak sharp and holy words to all of Israel. Today we have only ourselves. We ourselves need to take responsibility for our actions. We ourselves together with good friends need to ensure that we are not fooling ourselves; we certainly are not fooling Hashem. And we have to ascertain that the Temples that we build in our hearts will not be destroyed.
Most of all we must believe and remember Reb Nachman’s teaching:
“IF YOU BELIEVE THAT YOU CAN DESTROY, YOU MUST ALSO BELIEVE THAT YOU CAN REPAIR AND FIX!” And if you sincerely want to fix then you better be B’SIMCHA- joyous, for without simcha, it just can’t be done!
Though there seem to be very divergent views between the Rambam and the Ramban about why we bring korbanot, Reb Gedaliah zt”l explains that basically all the great Rabbis do agree that ‘korbanot’ were offered in order to come closer to Hashem, but there is a difference in emphasis.
The Rambam (Maimonides), in explaining ‘korbanot’, puts the emphasis on the offering of korbanot as a means to heal the pain we caused our souls with idolatrous ‘bad beliefs’. Significant early mid-eastern cultures engaged in the worship of animals (their possessions); by sacrificing these animals to Hashem, we proclaim our faith that everything belongs to Him and that we can and must serve Him with everything that we possess, by elevating it all to Hashem; we proclaim that there is absolutely nothing else that should be worshiped- we worship only Hakadosh Baruch Hu alone.
The Ramban raises a question on the Rambam- how can you explain that sacrifices that sacrifices were offered primarily to be cleansed of idolatrous beliefs, given that sacrifices were already offered by Adam and by Abel before there was any idolatry in the world?
Reb Gedaliah explains -The Talmud teaches that a major aspect of Avraham Avinu’s service was to uproot all and any feelings and thoughts of “kochi v’otzem yadee” – it is by my strength and prowess that I … , for this too is idolatrous. In our holy tradition, to see one’s self as a ‘yesh’ – as a ‘some-thing’ independent and separate from Hashem is idolatrous. Though Adam harishon was created directly by Hashem, he still was a creation and therefore had feelings of being a ‘yesh’. In his offering a sacrifice to Hashem he wished to come close to Hashem and distance himself from any thoughts of independence from Hashem. So too for Abel and Noach, their intentions were too remove any feelings of separateness from Hashem. And so the Ramban’s question on the Rambam is resolved.
The Ramban (Nachmonides), unlike the Ramabam, emphasizes the positive aspects of bringing a ‘korban’. When one brings a korban purely for the sake of Hashem alone, it is described in the Torah as “a fragrant fire offering, pleasant to Hashem.” The kavanah of offering the korban is to bring oneself close to Hashem, to unify and to raise all worlds to Him.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
The heart of things (Radical Torah) 2007
The book of Vayikra (Leviticus) is the text at the center of the Torah, the kernel around which the other books form a kind of parenthesis or embrace. Now we’re getting into the heart of things.
And the blood of things, and the entrails of things, the kidneys and the fat of things. In this week’s portion, Vayikra, we dive straight into instructions for making korbanot, usually rendered in English as “sacrifices” though the word really means “drawings-near,” as in “offerings which draw us near to God” (or maybe “draw God near to us.”)
Sacrifice-as-worship is wildly foreign to us today. Burnt offerings and offerings of meal; offerings of well-being, and expiation offerings to atone for sins — this stuff feels pretty far out. In this week’s portion we read that when a person unwittingly incurs guilt with regard to any of the mitzvot, that person shall bring such-and-such an offering to be slaughtered, and the fat and blood shall be burned. Could this be further from our understanding of teshuvah as a personal (and individualized) process of soul-searching and turning-toward-God? This is a valuable reminder that avodah, service of God, was once physical and concrete.
It’s easy to feel a disjunction between what we read here, and the form of worship we take for granted now. And the text doesn’t acknowledge that at all. God doesn’t say, “this is how you shall draw near to Me now, for the time being; later on, when humanity is maybe a little bit more evolved, you’ll find other ways of approaching My presence, offering thanks, and seeking to atone for your misdeeds.” It might make our lives easier now if those words were in there — if God had given us an advance alert that someday our paradigm for relationship with God would change. That we would grow to be capable of finding connection through words, instead of bodily fluids and ashes.
But those words would have been disconcerting and painfully baffling to our ancestors. In the days of sacrifice, who could have imagined the satisfaction, joy, and genuine connection we would find in our strange modern worship — our shelves of siddurim (prayerbooks), our minhagim (customs) and nuscha’ot (melody-systems), our piyyutim (liturgical poems) and improvisational prayers? The arrow of linear time moves us in one direction only — which means that we always look back on what was, while our ancestors couldn’t imagine what would be.
But we inhabit circular time as well as linear. Every year we return to the new moon of Nisan. Every year, just as we bid farewell to the book of Shemot, which in English we call Exodus, we prepare ourselves to relive the exodus from Mitzrayim which that book chronicles. And every year we re-enter the sacrificial space of Vayikra, this dip back into a consciousness which considered the careful sacrifice of animals to have transformational effect.
As it happens, this year I’m reading these verses with new eyes. These last few months I’ve had a complicated new relationship with the physical stuff inside my body: the muscles and fat, the blood and nerves and kidneys. I have a clearer understanding of just how complex the body is, and how ultimately mysterious. For all that medical science has achieved (and believe me, I value modern medicine more than words can express), there’s still so much we don’t understand.
So when I immerse in this week’s Torah portion, that’s what really moves me: the mystery of physical bodies. The clear sense that there’s a direct connection between our flesh and the Holy One of Blessing, even if we can’t articulate what that connection is. The sense that what we really want to offer up to God is the life that courses through our bodies — life which ultimately comes from God, and returns to God; which can be sensed but not touched; which can be burned but not ultimately consumed.
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
(And He Called)
LEVITICUS 1:1 – 5:26
The book of Leviticus begins with the Laws of sacrifice for the individual, the congregation and the priests.
AS WE STEP INTO THE BOOK OF LEVITICUS, we move to another level of spiritual development and pause to take stock of our journey. Genesis can be read as the descent of the soul and its contraction into physical form. It is the story of incarnation and as the story ends we find ourselves enslaved in the narrow perspectives of physical reality.
Exodus then shows us the path of liberation, the awakening of the soul to its true essence, which interpenetrates the Divine Essence. God must find a way into our hearts and we must find a way into the heart of Reality… which is God-consciousness. The story of Exodus ends with the building of the Mishkan, which is the vehicle for this interpenetration. Through the Mishkan we learn that our Freedom depends on our connection to God and our willingness to make a holy space within us and between us for God to dwell.
How can we sustain this connection, this state of holy freedom?
This is the question addressed by the book of Leviticus. So often the complications of life seem to draw us away from the perspectives of holiness. We become alienated, distracted, complacent, blind to what is essential; deaf to the music at the core of silence; numb to the mystery that dwells at the heart of this life. Our daily struggles sometimes close us off from the flow of the Great Love.
The blessing of Vayikra is the call to come into harmony, balance, connection and intimacy with the God who has freed us for this love… and not only to return, but to establish for ourselves a system of continual returning.
THE MEDICINE that Vayikra gives us for the dis-ease of our alienation from God is described in the language of Korbanot, the “sacrifices.” Literally, Korbanot means “bringing ourselves near” again to God. The Korbanot were a powerful and eff ective means of engaging all of the senses, witnessing the power of Life and Death, and then sharing a sacred meal in the Presence of God. The result was experienced as total purification – removal of obstructions and a re-connection to the flow of God’s love and presence. And for a time this was a spiritual technology that worked well.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
OUR TRADITION TELLS US that prayer now takes the place of the sacrifices. The spiritual challenge of Vayikra is to make our prayer-life as powerful, as intense, and as effective as the sacrificial system was for our ancestors.
Can the word of a prayer engage the senses fully? Can we taste it? Smell it? Touch it? Feel its blood? Hear its music and the silence within it? Witness its passage into the void? See in it the shadow of death and the spark of life? Do we leave our prayer feeling purified, our burdens lifted?
Our ancestors celebrated their new state of connection by sharing a sacred meal with the priests and with God. After praying in community, can we also make our celebrations holy? Can we eat these sacred meals – our Kiddush and Oneg Shabbat gatherings1 – knowing that each bite of our feast is also tasted and enjoyed by God?
Wendy’s comment: I encourage you to click on the link to this parsha on Reb Shefa’s website . Under Guidlines for Practice she lists the sacrifices of Olah, Sh’lamin, and Chatat and describes the spiritual illnesses associated with these offerings and the chanted phrase that can be the medicine.
1Kiddush, literally “sanctification,” and Oneg Shabbat, literally “Sabbath joy,” have come to refer to the celebrations following Sabbath services, which can range from simple cake and soda to elaborate sit-down meals.
2 Psalms 23:5
3 Lamentations 4:21
For Guideline for Practice please click on link to website.
Fat Belongs to God
And the priest will make them go up in smoke, a food offering by fire, for a soothing fragrance. All fat belongs to God. A law for all time for your generations: You will not eat any fat, nor any blood, in any of your settlements. (Leviticus 3:16-17–Vayikra)
chalev = fat, especially abdominal fat
dam = blood
The blood and the abdominal fat of livestock are reserved for God in chapter 3 of the book of Leviticus, Vayikra, which provides instructions for making zevach shelamim, the animal sacrifices that are offered by an individual for the sake of “wholeness”. This type of offering is not made for atonement, but rather to express gratitude to God, or to confirm peace with the people invited to share the feast afterward.
In brief, a man brings an unblemished cow, sheep, or goat to the altar, leans his hand against the animal’s head, and then slaughters it. The priests dash the animal’s blood against all sides of the altar. The priests burn the fat covering the entrails, liver, and kidneys. The fragrance of the smoke is the donor’s gift to God. Then the donor and his guests eat the meat in celebration (and according to Leviticus 7:31-35, the priests are given the breast and the right thigh to eat).
Splashing blood is certainly a dramatic ritual, and fat burns well. But fat and blood are not merely reserved for the ritual at the altar. The Torah prohibits the people from eating any abdominal fat, or any blood, anywhere. Even far away from the altar, even in a time when there is no temple, abdominal fat and blood are reserved for God. Why?
A reason for not consuming blood is given in Leviticus 17:14: You may not consume the blood of any flesh, because the nefesh (soul, animating force) of all flesh is its blood. Genesis 9:5-6 also links blood with the nefesh of a human or animal, and forbids humans to eat flesh with the blood still in it. (Ramban wrote that someone who eats an animal’s blood dilutes his own nefesh and becomes less spiritual, more animal.)
So blood is equated with the nefesh, the animating force that makes a creature alive. What does abdominal fat stand for?
Rabbi R.S. Hirsch wrote that the blood of an animal is its essence, while the fat is what it produces for its own needs. The essence of an animal must never become a human being’s essence, and the needs of an animal must never become a human being’s needs. Human nature must not be equated with animal nature.
I would add that abdominal fat is stored up as a reserve calorie supply against a hungrier time. It’s like a pot of silver buried against hard times; in modern terms, it’s like a stock portfolio. Stockpiling resources can be a good strategy. But we must not become so attached to our stock portfolios that we despair when the market plunges. We cannot really control our savings, so in a way they do not really belong to us. The fat belongs to God.
Similarly, it’s good to tend to our health, to enjoy each day of life, to “choose life” for ourselves and others. But my life, my nefesh, ultimately belongs to God.
From Rav Kook
Vayikra: Black Fire on White Fire
With the construction of the Tabernacle complete, the holy structure began to fulfill its primary purpose: a conduit for communication between God and Moses. “I will commune with you there, and I will speak to you from above the ark-cover” (Ex. 25:22). Before each actual communication, God would first summon Moses to the tent, with a Voice that only Moses could hear.
“God called to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Communion Tent.” (Lev. 1:1)
What was the nature of this Divine call?
The Miniature Aleph and the Four-Pronged Shin
The word Vayikra (‘God called’) is written in an unusual fashion. The final letter, the aleph, is miniature. Did God command Moses to write it that way? Or was this an expression of Moses’ extraordinary humility — an attempt to ‘hide’ the aleph, so that it would appear that God only happened (“vayikar”) to speak with Moses, in a way similar to the chance prophetic experiences of the evil prophet Balaam?
Another unusual letter may be found in the tefillin (phylacteries) worn on the head. Usually, the letter shin is written with three upward strokes, but the shin embossed on the left side of the tefillin has four. Some commentaries connect this peculiar shin to the Midrashic description of the Torah’s transmission to Israel as black fire engraved on white fire. What does this mean? What are these black and white fires?
Black Ink on White Parchment
When we think about a Torah scroll, we usually only consider the letters themselves, written in black ink. Yet, the Talmud (Menachot 29a) rules that every letter in a Torah scroll must be completely surrounded by parchment. This requirement is called “mukaf gevil.” This means that the white parchment around the letters is an integral part of the Torah. In fact, the white space is a higher form of Torah. It is analogous to the white fire of Sinai — a sublime, hidden Torah that cannot be read in the usual manner.
There is a delicate balance between black and white in the Torah. The shirot, the poetic portions in the Torah, are written in a special fashion, like a wall constructed from layers of black and white bricks. These poetic sections are the loftiest parts of the Torah. Consequently, they have more white space — they contain a greater measure of the esoteric white fire. If a scribe were to write other sections of the Torah in this special layout, the Torah scroll would be rendered invalid. After the Torah was revealed and restricted to our limited world, it must be written with the appropriate ratio of black to white.
What about the four-pronged shin on tefillin? The mitzvah of tefillin is closely connected to the manifestation of Torah after its revelation into the finite world. “All of the peoples of the land shall see that the name of God is called upon you, and they shall be in awe of you” (Deut. 28:10, Menachot 35b). Thus, tefillin correspond to the lower realm of black fire, and are marked with a shin bearing an extra measure of black.
We can deepen our understanding of the white and black fires by considering another example of white space in the Torah. Extra space is left blank to separate sections of the Torah. The Sages explained that these separations allowed Moses to reflect upon and absorb the previous lesson. In other words, the white fire corresponds to the loftier realm of thought and contemplation. The black fire of the letters, on the other hand, is the revelation of intellect into the more concrete level of speech — a contraction and limitation of abstract thought.
The Divine Call Before Revelation
The distinction between white and black fire also sheds light on God’s call to Moses before speaking with him. The Voice summoning Moses to enter the tent was in fact the Divine call from Sinai, “an infinite call that never ceased” (Deut. 5:19). The summons would reach Moses as he stood outside the tent, before being constrained within the four walls of the Tabernacle. This Voice was not a revelation of Torah, but an overture to its revelation. It belonged to the esoteric white fire of Torah, before its constriction and revelation into the physical world.
This is the reason that Moses made the aleph of the Divine call smaller. Since it belonged to the realm of white fire, the summons required an extra measure of white space over black ink. On the surface, Moses’ miniature aleph humbly implies a diminished state of the revealed Torah of black fire; but on a deeper level, it reflects an increase in knowledge of the hidden Torah of white fire.
(adapted from Shemuot HaRe’iyah IV)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
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