Shabbat VaYikra/Shabbat HaHodesh: The Small Alef

This Shabbat we begin the book VaYikra, Leviticus. The first word of the narrative is the book’s name, a word which is Hebrew for “[and] he called.” The lack of pronouns indicate that this is a continuation of an earlier story, and indeed the content fits that assumption. We have just ended the detailed description in the book of Exodus of the construction of the Mishkan, the holy place to which Israelites will go when they seek to experience the Presence of G*d. Now we continue with the description of the various kinds of rituals which will take place in that space. And so – who is calling, and who is being called? The simple answer is that G*d is calling to Moshe.
It’s interesting to note in this context that the word is written with a small alef, that is to say that the last letter of the word, the alef, is written smaller than the rest of the word.
Like this:   ויקרא  Our commentators on the Torah find this intriguing; since the Torah is a holy book that speaks to us in a way which is considered to be qualitatively different than usual human speech, this small alef means something. It’s not just a typo. The way in which the Torah is written has been preserved exactly for many years; the Aleppo Codex, the oldest copy of the Tanakh in existence, is one thousand years old, and it also shows this word written in just this way.
Today we on our learning tour of Israel learned from a kibbutznik, a member of one of 284 idealistic socialist communities that helped to build the State of Israel from its earliest beginnings. Yonatan told us that people raised on a kibbutz were raised to know that they were not the center of the universe; that it was not the individual that mattered but the mission, the vision of the community.
It has been taught that the little alef referred to Moshe, and, as such, we can see it as a way of referring to each of us. To think of ourselves in the moment when we are called upon by G*d, so to speak – called out of ourselves and into that which we might be – is to know oneself as very small in just this way – smaller than that which calls upon us, and at the side, not central at all, but yet an integral part of the word. To live for a cause, to feel called upon to participate in something which is greater than oneself, is to give oneself to something which can lift us up if we concentrate on the whole of it, and not upon ourselves.
No system, not the kibbutz movement nor any other, is perfect. We humans will see to that. But on this Shabbat, which is also Shabbat haHodesh, the beginning of the first month of the Jewish year, we are each called upon, vayikra, to see ourselves as a part, as integral, to something so much bigger than us, which can hold us, carry us when we are despairing, and lend us meaning when our own lives challenge that concept. May the new month which is the first month renew for all of us the holiness of each moment of our lives when we see how we are linked to the Life of the World.
To learn more about the kibbutz movement, look here: The Kibbutz.
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Shabbat HaHodesh: Say His Name

This Shabbat carries so much significance – it is Shabbat HaHodesh, the Shabbat of The Month, that is, the first month of the Jewish year, the month in which we will commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. That escape occurred on the 14th day of the month we now call Nisan, and every year we gather to tell the tale. The power, we are taught, is in the words that we share.

And when your children ask you, “What do you mean by this ritual?” you shall tell them, “this is the Passover.” (Ex.12.26-27)

Our Rabbis taught that even those who know the tale well are considered praiseworthy if they tell it at length, this story of how one moves from slavery to freedom. Tell it again, tell it over and over, tell it until it is heard, and recognized.

We are so much in need of that story today. When we retell it, we remind ourselves of the importance of saying what is important out loud. From the beginning of creation, when the first people helped G*d create the world by naming all its creatures, Jewish tradition has understood the great power of speaking truth in words, out loud.

When I visited City Hall on the morning of March 1, I witnessed the power of speaking words directly. A group lifted up the simple chant:

Say his name! Quanice Hayes! Say his name! Quanice Hayes! Say his name! Quanice Hayes! 

No matter how you feel about the tactic of refusing to allow regular city business to proceed as usual by showing up during open city council sessions and disrupting them, it is powerful to realize that a simple, repeated chant cuts right through such attempts to proceed with business as usual.

There is a tremendous power in speaking truth directly. Alas, we also know that there is a great deal of power in refusing to speak what should be spoken, and thus recognized as real and significant.

Our Jewish tradition decries the act of remaining silent when speaking up is the needed moral act, even as it denounces those who speak falsely in order to manipulate the truth to their own advantage. We have a surfeit of the latter, but what do we know about the former? 

For Zion’s sake I wil not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be still, until her justice shines like a light, and her help like a burning torch. (Isaiah 62.1)

That chant continues to ring in my ears: Say his name! Quanice Hayes! Say his name! Quanice Hayes! Say his name! Quanice Hayes! 

On this Shabbat HaHodesh, we are called to consider the importance of saying our truth out loud, and supporting the rights of others to that same speech. The words of G*d echo through every person’s truth, even – probably especially – the truths that disturb our peace and quiet. 

And on this Shabbat which is also called VaYakhel-Pekudey, after the Torah parashah that we are reading in the yearly cycle, we cannot but also note that VaYakhel, which means “gathering”, reminds us that words must not only be spoken aloud, but also heard, and witnessed, by the gathered community. Only in such a community of shared meaning and purpose do our words fulfill their purpose: to tell the story, and tell what it means.

Today at 2pm Quanice Hayes will finally be laid to rest – a horribly long time after he was tragically killed. His name joins too long a list of other young African American men killed at the hands of police. To say his name is to insist that we listen, and that we tell that story too, as many times as necessary until we finally discover the way from slavery to freedom for all.

In every generation we are commanded to consider that we ourselves are going out of Egypt. (BT Pesakhim 116b)

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other,

Shabbat shalom

Shabbat HaHodesh: The First Month For You

“This month shall be for you the first of months”. This is the way the special Torah reading for this Shabbat begins. With Rosh Hodesh (“the head of the month”) tomorrow begins the first Jewish month, Nisan

If so, why is it that, even though the Torah clearly indicates that the High Holy Days are observed in the seventh month, we wish each other a happy new year at Rosh HaShanah, called “the head of the year”? 

The answer illuminates the development of Jewish identity from antiquity. Once, we were farmers and herders, and the beginning of spring was literally the time of all things new – baby lambs and goats, new growth in field and tree. It was the natural rhythm of our relationship with G*d, and it echoed through all our acts as we excitedly, and worriedly, moved through this most vitally important of seasons to one’s physical life and well-being. With the growth of each healthy new plant and animal our own future seemed more assured.

As a result of the industrial revolution, of modernity and urbanization, many of us have to “go out” in order to connect with that most fundamental level of nature, of baby lambs now found in petting farms and new shoots in a community garden or on a window sill. It’s no less profoundly true that G*d is found in nature, just that we seek G*d less in the Great Outdoors and more in the Mysterious Inner Depths of our own being, and in our relationships with others.

We struggle to nurture a garden of morals, rather than (sorry) morels. And so the seventh month, with its Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, have become our moment for taking stock, turning a new leaf (even if only metaphorically), and starting over.

But this month of Nisan is still called “first”. Note what we are commanded: “this shall be for you the first of months.” Perhaps the buried hint is that each of us, for ourselves, can still relate to this time of new growth as a time that encourages new hope. And from that thought, of course, we move to the teaching of our embracing, loving tradition – that every month, every day, every moment can be for you the first of months.

What “first” needs your nurturing right now? what small green shoot of promise is there for you, simply awaiting your deeper gaze into its true potential?