Shabbat BeHar-BeHukotai: Love Your Mother

This week we finish reading the Book VaYikra, Leviticus, with another double parashat hashavua. The name of the first of the two, BeHar, offers already a nice little learning. The word behar, actually three words in English, means “at the mountain” and refers to Mount Sinai. The first verse goes on to specify:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בְּהַר סִינַי לֵאמֹר דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם–וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ, שַׁבָּת לה’. HaShem spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the People of Israel, and say unto them: When you come into the land which I give you, the land shall keep a Shabbat unto HaShem.
From this our teacher Rashi asks a famous question: Mah inyan shemitta atzel Har Sinai? “What does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?” This is the Jewish version of a phrase you may know – “what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” In both cases the question concerns the apparent lack of relationship between two subjects – in our case, letting the land rest, called shemitta, and Mt. Sinai. Why is Mt. Sinai mentioned here, at this moment? It might be more than just a subtle reminder that in just another week we will reach Shavuot, the day on which we commemorate standing at Sinai to receive the Torah.
Many answers have been offered by different commentators, wise teachers and curious students:
1. you might think that letting the land rest is merely an economic matter and not spiritual, and therefore we recall the moment we stood at Mt Sinai in proximity to it to remind you.
2. the shemitta year is only one out of seven, yet its impact blesses the other six (by letting the land restore itself naturally for a complete year). You might think that Shabbat, only one out of seven, is a small thing, yet it was commanded at Mt Sinai and, if we rest, it will bless our entire week.
3. The Sefat Emet teaches that this mitzvah is so central that all of Torah depends upon it, and that is why Mt Sinai, which we associate with the giving of the Torah, is mentioned here:
Letting the land lay fallow – letting go of our need to work it, to work, to be productive, to control our future – leaving that in G*d’s hands, that is the foundation of the entire Torah, which necessitates a measure of submission to God’s will and a relinquishing control in this world. To embrace a life of Torah, one needs a measure of letting go. (from Steven Exler, The Bayit)
And, finally, a contemporary teacher asks: What does it mean that the whole Torah is dependent upon the laws of Shemittah?
It means, very simply, that the entirety of our religious lives, our spiritual lives, are built upon the very physical reality of a functioning earth. None of the world of Torah gets off the ground – literally – unless the ground is healthy. We cannot do anything without an earth which is nourished, sustained, sustainable, and healthy. If we have no clean air to breathe, no clean water to drink, no clean soil to plant in, then we have no foundation in which to root – literally – our religious lives. It is a simple, basic truth: we need to take care of our earth to have a future upon it. (Steven Exler, The Bayit)
As the following parashah, parashat BeHukotai, makes very clear, if we fall from Mt Sinai, we and the earth will suffer together. Our ancestors understood the existential linkage between our ethical behavior and our world’s physical existence. On this Shabbat before the secular holiday of Mothers’ Day, may we consider that other Mother of ours, the planet upon which we live, breath and find our meaning.

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.

Shabbat Zakhor: Remember? then Do Something

This Shabbat, on which we read the first words of the book VaYikra, called Leviticus, is also called Zakhor, “remember”. 

For Jews, to remember is to do. This assumption – that the mental act prompts a physical one – is encoded in the ancient Hebrew: 

וַיְהִי בַיָּמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם, וַיָּמָת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה, וַיִּזְעָקוּ; וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים, מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה.

It came to pass in the course of this long time that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel were groaning under their bondage, and they cried out, and their cry came up unto G-d.

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-נַאֲקָתָם; וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת-בְּרִיתוֹ, אֶת-אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יִצְחָק וְאֶת-יַעֲקֹב.

G-d heard their cries, and G-d remembered the covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. (Exodus 2.23-24)

Jewish tradition teaches that we are to regard stories which depict G-d in human terms for their role model value. G-d clothed Adam and Eve, so should we clothe those in need; G-d buried Moshe, so we see to it that people are properly buried; G-d provides food for all through the processes of nature, so we make sure that the natural abundance of our world reaches all who are hungry.

So too here: G-d remembers that human beings are suffering, and moves to alleviate it, and the wheel of history turns. And as a result of this ancient linguistic idiom, Judaism develops an ethic: to remember, to take note, is to act. A good person can never note a problem and simply turn away, assuming that someone else will respond.

And so it is that we do what we can to move that wheel when it is our turn, even if only by a few inches. We are not called upon to fix the problem we face, necessarily, but we are expected to do our part, as the rabbinic saying goes:

 לא עליך כל המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל  It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. (Mishnah, Pirke Avot 2.19)

So we do what we can, knowing that the only unacceptable response is the refusal to engage, and do what we can.

The Jewish ethic of remembering and doing offers us a curious question: What does it mean to say that G-d remembers? is it possible to say that G-d forgets? and for those of us who don’t think of G-d as a being who either remembers or forgets, but as a non-anthropomorphic reality or presence, what do either of those words mean?

Yizkor, “may G-d remember”, is the first word of the ritual we observe four times a year in memory of our loved ones who have died. If G-d is just a king on a throne, so to speak, then maybe that sort of divinity needs reminding. But consider it differently: perhaps we are expressing a desire for the memory of a loved one to continue to be remembered, in a way that causes an act, a change, in the world as it is, even though they are no longer with us. Perhaps what we are really saying is “may the world remember – and be affected by that memory”.

That is what brings us to the desire to see a photograph, or hear a voice recording, and know that it is extant in the world because it keeps a loved one more fully in that world. More profoundly appropriate, that is why in Jewish tradition one gives tzedakah as a memorial. Not because of the name alone, but because through the tzedakah that name is not only remembered, but good is enacted as well. And that is the moment in which we truly are sharing in a remembrance that is of G-d.

Every time you move that wheel just a bit, in memory of someone you loved, you bring that loved one into the Memory of the World.

This Shabbat is one of the special Shabbatot that reminds us of the approach of Pesakh – a time for Yizkor and a time for tzedakah. May you find a meaningful way to remember and to do, in honor of a memory you cherish.

Shalom Shir Tikvah Learning Community,

We have begun reading from the third book of the Torah in our ritual cycle; the book VaYikra, translated as “Leviticus”. The word refers to all things priestly, literally, of the Levites. It gives precise instructions for how the ancient sacrificial cult was to be enacted, and probably was originally meant only for the priests, as a sort of manual.

Sacrifice – killing animals in a ritual way, offering them up along with grain, wine and water (with incense and salt added) – here is a whole swath of Torah that seems so far beyond relevance for us today. 

Yet the Jewish dance with Torah is a committed one; we continue to hold on even when the steps aren’t so certain. As Martin Buber taught, we who are covenanted with G-d see the Torah as our ketubah. We are always to accord it the same respect that we would a human interlocutor. That is to say, we do not decide in advance if the person speaking to us will offer words worth considering. Rather, we grant that courtesy in advance, for the sake of authentic communication. In the same way, with every verse, we give Torah credit for having something to say to us that is worth hearing, and keep our minds and hearts open for what it might be.

We begin to bring the conversation out of obsolescence and into provocative territory simply by noting the Hebrew name of the book. VaYikra, “And he called out.” This is the first word of the narrative, yet unlike in good English grammar, there is no named subject, no definition of “he”. One must go back to the preceding words, at the end of the book Shemot (Exodus), to find the referent. It is G-d, calling from the newly-built sacred space that the Israelites just spent the last few parshas constructing. 

The lack of clarity here invites us in; it is not so clear what is summoning or to whom, and so we can ask ourselves; in what way does this apply to me? what, for example, summons me, even if I am not entirely clear yet about it? What is it that pulls at us so softly that we cannot quite name it?

Jewish tradition offers us a way to listen more closely to that which summons us. It comes from an interesting aspect of this very first word. As written in the Torah, the last letter is too small: 

That first letter, the alef, sits there and says to us darsheni, “interpret me!” And so we consider: the first letter is first, which connotes importance, even centrality; it is not a surprise, then, that the alef is the first letter of the word you need to express yourself, your “I”: ani.  This letter’s place in the initial word of the book VaYikra can be seen to offer us a lesson all by its small self. It is the insight taught by the mystics: if you want to experience G-d, get your “I” out of the way.

When you feel that uncertain something, that invitation to consider not what is but what might be if you are ready to contemplate a new learning, don’t let your “I” stop you. It will say “I don’t believe” or “I don’t want to change” or “I already understand” or even “I have a right to….” 

This first word of the book that calls out is calling out to you not to let surface strangeness put you off. It is not dangerous to corral your “I” (a mystical practice called tzimtzum, voluntary contraction of the self) when you do it from a place of choice. And when you do it, leaving defenses behind and making room for that summons, the word VaYikra hints at what you might find – something very yakar, “precious”. And if not a certain finding, certainly a sense of something pulling you toward what might be, yet, to learn.

The Meaning of Sacrifice

On this Shabbat we begin the Book VaYikra (in English, “Leviticus”, because the book is really an instruction manual for the Levites and Kohanim, priests). This book records for us the ancient ritual of sacrifices as they were offered to our G-d (other sacrifices offered in specifically different ways were offered to other gods). What are we, two thousand years after the last sacrifice was brought to the Jerusalem Temple, to do with these texts?

This too is Torah, and within it there will be something that we need to learn, if we are willing to look closely and in a spirit of thoughtfulness. If we come to the text feeling dismissive, prejudging it as clearly meaningless, it will be. Follow the lead of generations of Jews who determined to keep it relevant because it is a memory of our ancestors, our grandparents and great-grandparents. Look closely at the words, see if something does not intrigue you. And if you can’t find it for yourself, read the commentaries. 

One example: VaYikra Chapter 1, verse 1: If you look closely at the first word, VaYikra, which means “[G-d] called” you will see that the last letter of the word, an alef, is written much smaller than the rest of the letters. What can be learned from this small alef? The alef is the first letter of the Hebrew alef-bet, and it is also the first letter of the word ani, “I”. Insight: sometimes one must make oneself small, i.e. humble, in order to hear G-d’s call.
The most intriguing question brought forth by this material for me is to consider:

What is the importance of sacrifice? The sacrifices our ancestors made seem far from us, and they are difficult to understand or to justify in our own day. But the details are preserved so completely and so carefully, at such length, that we should be curious as to why. Human nature has not changed so very much in only a couple of thousand years. What made the sacrificial system so necessary, in their eyes, to their relationship with the universe, and with G-d? What essential human need is served by giving up something of great value? Remember that for them, bringing an offering from their flocks of sheep or goats was a real financial sacrifice. One theory is that they felt that this was the only way to bring the universe back into balance after the kind of cosmic skewing caused by sin.
How does your Jewishness inform your understanding of sacrifice? Is there anything in your religious observances that moves you to sacrifice something for a greater good? Are you able to see the idea of sacrifice as answering an essential human need? To ask it another way, what, in your experience, is an effective way of atoning, bringing the universe back into alignment, after you sin?
I know, it’s a long time from Yom Kippur, Rabbi, why are you talking about sin? It’s one of those words from which we can learn a great deal if we are willing to bring it out of the box of toxic words damaged by powerful individuals who have used profound religious teachings for venal, manipulative purposes. Sin is simply that which separates you from G-d. Atonement through sacrifice may be a very powerful way of bringing you back home.