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:
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.
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.