1. Parsha details
Completing another sefer, the third of five of our annual cycle. And it has been my first chance to catch my own breath after a couple of hectic weeks. And yet, even though the travelling is much less this week, even with Shabbat with my Cleveland Chavura and two more trips there (one for the Board of Rabbis meeting and one for a mentor meeting), there has been wonderful time to listen to tapes and process what I am learning.
It has been about a year of intense studying for me as I learn new things, remember old things, assess and process. A prominent recent theme has been our ancestors, recent and not so recent. What have we learned from them and what have we lost -- and what did the holocaust really cost us as a people, as families and as individuals.
It has always amused me to notice that themes carry through periods of time and that lessons learned often can be collected into seferim, books. My own father (a'h) seems to be a recurring theme recently and I have been reliving more and more of my memories of him. In a side bar, this reminiscing of him has made me miss my mother (a'h), too, because she was the only other person I could have asked some of my questions. I do miss them, and I am coming to understand how very lucky I was to have had them for the time that I did.
My father was a bit of a misfit both in his own family and in 1960's-1970's small town American Jewry. He would probably have fit in much better into the Jewish renewal environment because he was what we might call 'forward thinking'. He was far from perfect and not very good at conforming to other people's image of The Rabbi. Some of the things he did really irritated people, like not noticing what a person looked like or whether or not they were female or male or purple or pink. He also was willing to learn a new melody for a t'fila (prayer) and decided early on that Sephardi pronunciation was the way to go (he was a big supporter of Israel and frequently included prayers for peace in the Land.)
He thought people should understand what they were hearing and saying and sometimes found disfavor in parents' eyes for insisting that the children learn what their portions said. I can remember him saying that a parrot could learn to repeat a song and that we needed to do more than be a parrot. (We had a myna bird that my father adored who did learn major parts of some of the Torah and Haftorah brakhot because my father frequently did instruction in our kitchen and the bird spent a great deal of time there as well. -- The bird also learned "No services tonight" one snowy Friday and "I'm a myna bird, what's your excuse", as well as some phrases that I can only chuckle about now.)
I recently found some of my father's notes -- my mother had actually written them based on things he would say and teach. I hope to transcribe these into a book some day -- that will take some effort, my mother's script, while much better than my father's, is still very Germanic and somewhat difficult to read. I will also need to find his tanakh references -- if my mother remembered to ask where something was, his references were limited to the Parsha or just the book (when it wasn't Torah).
My father never restricted my access to Torah, either the scroll itself or the texts for studying. I am not sure if it is my own memory or having been told this detail often, but when Torah would be brought around during davvening and I was a little girl, my mother would hold me up to it and I would reach out with both arms and hug it and give it a kiss. I was taught respect for the scroll and a wonder-full closeness.
Now, I watch as people come up for an Aliyah, usually women, but not always, and they sometimes either cry or tremble because they have never been so close to a real Torah. Sometimes I put my tallit around them, sometimes I just silently acknowledge their moment. I have been so lucky to have a life that has allowed me to be as close to Torah as I have been.
One of the interesting things to me is the great variety in scrolls -- each one is identical and VERY different. The personality of the sofer (scribe) comes through, not only in the actual script and size of the letters, but in many other details. Decorations of the letters, spacing of parshayot and many other details are left to the sofer's discretion. And so, each Torah is unique and special, as we all are. We each have wonderful and unique gifts to share with the world as we do the avodah, the work of the Divine. And this parsha even talks about that responsibility.
1. Parsha details: Lev 21:1-24:23 ( tri 23:23-24:23 ) [ Haftorah Ezekiel 44:15-31 ]
2. Questions and a few observations
Summary: Sabbatical year, jubilee, rules for sales of homes, Rules for servants/workers, rules about the Land and rain, valuations of people and tithes. Not the most exciting parsha, and one that may pose difficulties for some.
Another double Parsha. The last one in this sefer. There are three double parshayot in Vayik'ra and only one in B'midbar and one on Sh'mot. This is also the shortest of the five books (D'varim - Deuteronomy is next smallest).
It is considered by many to be a fairly dry book, without all of the historical detail with which all of the other books are so filled. And yet, this is the book with the dedication of the Mishkan and the sudden and startling death of Aharon's sons, so there is significant drama here. And there are difficult parts to the sefer, especially in light of today's understanding and awareness.
When I read a parsha like this one, I am reminded of an email that circulated some months ago as a 'statement' to Dr. Laura about how outdated her concepts are because they are 'rooted' in Torah. It is not my intention here to debate Dr Laura and her position (parts of which I have serious concerns about), but rather, the idea that Torah is outdated.
Sometimes I think this is because the fundamentalists who want to take everything literally (and that's easier on the brain..... ) and not think about anything and then those who look around at the world and see that a literal interpretation no longer applies and use this as another excuse for thinking and simply reject it as outmoded.
And I think this Parsha talks to that issue at many levels. On the literal hand, it tells us: "Ki Li v'ney Yisrael 'avadiym, 'av'dey heym..." (Lev 25:55) "Because My 'avadim' (workers) are the children of Yisrael, my 'avadim' they are...." So what does this mean?
To answer that question we need to look at the text. It is written in very old Hebrew to a people who could still remember being 'avadim' to Pharaoh in Mitzrayim. Did being God's 'avadim' mean they were to build pyramids to God? While that might have been a literal translation/interpretation, I think it points to the key in dealing with many parts of Torah that might at first be labeled 'problematic'.
Anything that talks about slavery could fit that category. So let's dig a little deeper and see if there is more to this 'problematic' piece of Torah. First, the word avadim. Hebrew words are wonderfully powerful and ALWAYS multi-faceted. The Hebrew root (and we always have to look at the shoresh, the root, to get the pieces-parts of meanings) '_VD is related to all of the following: slave, serf, laborer, feudatory, helot, bondman, to work, to serve, to worship, to cultivate land, to adapt, to till.
So what does Torah mean when she says we are God's 'avadim'? Avodah, work, is also from the same root and being free means being free to work, to be of service. So we are free to serve the One, to do His work in the everyday world. That's what we were 'chosen' to do.
I know many people who say, oh, that chosen thing, that's egotistical, it means we think we are better than other people. Unfortunately, I think the people who took that meaning missed the whole point of being 'avadim'. We have been 'chosen' to be avadim, workers. We witness the One and demonstrate that relationship through how we live by making everything just a little better, a little more 'kodesh' (look back at the d'var on Kodeshim for a discussion on what that means). We have been chosen for responsibility and work, not for a life of luxury and waste.
It's no accident that the word avadim is related to the soil, to the earth. This Parsha talks a great deal about those aspects. Being Her avadim means we are caretakers of the earth, the soil. We need to make sure that proper rest and recuperative time is given to our resources "so that the rains may fall as they should". We are only now starting to learn how our treatment of the Earth relates to the delicacy of the ecosystems and its balance. The mystics often talk about the world hanging from a single strand -- we may be learning that the swing and balance is even more precarious than that.
Torah warns of that in this Parsha -- if we do not take care of the resources, God's soul will reject us from the land and it will get the rest it needs. What an interesting concept, God's soul. The same word that Torah uses to describe our souls, lest their be any question there.
The key to the slavery described here is not that it 'allows' slavery, for slavery was a way of life back then. The key is that it acknowledges rights and humane treatment of those slaves or workers. That is the difference and it had to be told in the language of the times since the children of Yisrael lived in those times.
And that's another clue on how we are to serve the One. This is an 'easy' training -- going back in time and put our selves in their place and grasping what these words would have meant to them. If we learn that lesson, then maybe we can learn to put ourselves in other's places and help them be treated just a little better, a little more humanely and maybe treat the Earth a little better. This Parsha does still talk to us, but we do have to learn the whole lesson to 'get it'.
3. Some Observations
Sabbatical/Jubilee years -- often times of poorness and stress. But Torah tells us that the sixth year will be marked by the fields giving us three times the needed produce -- and we are to store that and use it until the sabbatical year is over and the soil is again tilled and cultivated (ahhh, those avadim words again). As early as Yoseph, we knew how to store up provisions and mete them out.
Even then, greed and failure to plan caused problems. We have learned a great deal about how the wonderful natural system works and more and more of what Torah tells about it comes to make sense. And still we have failed to bring the promised peace. We miss the part of Torah that tells us that this is part of the avadim thing, too. If we would remember to serve the One as we live our days (and do the soul work of Shabbat), then maybe we could be the instruments of peace.
Again, some might read this Parsha a one admonishing us about crime and punishment. Again, we bring about our own punishment by failing to do the work. Does this mean that if I flick on a light this Shabbat something terrible will happen. No.
What it means is that if we don't do His work in caring for our resources and improving the lives of all, the pendulum is already in swing and the penalties will come. The lesson here is about things much bigger than you or me alone. It is about doing incremental work -- doing our parts, our avodah, Her Service through our lives and actions, every day.
We will not complete the work, but we have our part in it -- each of us. Leviticus means laws and the Vayik'ra means Called out -- the lessons are still there, harder to learn because the time-distance gets larger every day, and so does the criticality. So when I was an Israelite sitting in the wilderness near the mountain, what did these words mean to me? How would I have been 'avday Elohim', God's worker. And what has changed?
4. Purifying Expansion
This week's Parsha is about Purifying Expansion. The purifying is the gift of Chesed, mercy and the expansion is the allowing for development under Hod, glory. This expansion is a derivative of restraint. If we think about the relationship between a teacher and a student, both benefit. The teacher gives the instruction and by receiving it, the student gives a benefit to the teacher, who wants so much to teach.
This is our relationship with the Divine in this Parsha. The Holy One provides the lesson and it is not a particularly easy one. In fact, it could even appear to be a trick lesson in that one has to work hard to even see that there is a lesson here. And that is part of the purifying gift, because to really 'get it', we have to 'cleanse' ourselves of our own ego and baggage and step into other people's hearts and minds. Then and only then can we really learn the lesson of this Parsha.
And as the One's avadim, She will be gladdened to Her Nefesh, (soul) that we are learning such a challenging lesson. Not everyone can learn this lesson. Perhaps by learning it, we are choosing ourselves as His avadim -- and there is wonder-full peace that can be found there.
1. Avadim: Av'day Elohim -- God's workers. What does that mean? Avadim have tasks. What's your task for today? How do you know when it's complete? What are God's responsibilities to Her avadim? Can we be redeemed? Do we want to be? What's our connection to the Earth, the soil. Why is Shabbat so important for the soil? What do avadim do on Shabbat?
2. Walking in My statutes: Torah says if we walk in His statutes, the rain will fall and the trees will give forth their fruit. How do we walk in Her statutes? Are statutes things that support the ecosystem and help the rains to fall when they should and nature to sustain us? How should we walk? What details are given? What details are left to us? Why?
3. Nefesh - YHVH: What is God's Nefesh? How does it compare to ours? What does it look like? What does it feel like? What does it taste like? What does our Nefesh attract? What does it like? What does it abhor? How are our Naf'shim (souls) connect to the One's Nefesh? Can we feel them touch? Can we feel them blend together? How do we know it?
6. We finish Vayik'ra
Khazak, khazak, v'nitkhazeyk. This is the traditional phrase to indicate completing a book, a unit of learning. It means Strength, strength, and let us be strengthened!
It is always a celebration when one completes a volume of learning. We are now challenged with strengthening ourselves through what we have learned in the now completed volume of study.
This celebration is so important that if one were fasting and one completed a volume of study, one would be enjoined to break the fast and celebrate (Which we always do with food). In fact, people sometimes schedule things so that this is the case for some of the minor fasts -- such as the one for first-borns right before Pesakh.
For those who enjoy trivia -- the following is included in many Chumashim:
Vayik'ra [Sh'mot in brackets] (Bereyshit in parentheses): Number of verses: 859 [1,209] (1,534)
Number of Parshayot (weekly portions): 10  (12)
Number of Sedarim (triennial weekly portions): 23  (43)
Number of Chapters: 27  (50)
Other trivia: God mentioned as Elohim or HaElohim --5 times [69 times] (188 times)
God mentioned as Elohay (God of...) -- 44 times* [60 times] (31 times)
God mentioned as YHVH -- 311 times [398 times] (165 times)
* different form from Bereyshit or Sh'mot in that here it not somebody's God (ie the God of Ya'acov), it is usually "your (pl or sing) God" or his God.
There are many traditional interpretations of the parsha that I neither talk about nor mention. That is done from a position of space. I trust that the average reader is either familiar with these or can find many of them easily in other commentaries readily available.
Thanks for reading this. If I have offended you, please forgive me -- that was not my intention. If you found some joy or happiness in reading this, thank you for allowing me to be a part. If you found a reason to think about something more deeply - kol hakavod and thank you!
And to the people giving me feedback thank you so much! I enjoy all of it. (Including the typos) You have made this weekly practice wonderful.
(c) 2001 Shafir Lobb All rights reserved