Vayikra: Leviticus 1:1 - 5.26

The very first word of the Book of Leviticus, vayikra, presents us with a wonderful lesson.  The word means “he called”.  From the context we know that it is God who calls to Moshe.  For me, what is most interesting is that the last letter aleph is always written noticably smaller than the rest of the letters in the Torah.  It practically shouts at us to ask “why?” 

The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, offers an insightful explanation.  He points out that in fact the letters in the Torah come in three sizes:  large like the ayin and dalet at the beginning and end of the Shema; regular like the majority of letters in the Torah; and small like the little aleph in vayikra. 

He suggest that the different sizes correspond with thoughts (large), words (regular) and deeds (small).  Thoughts and beliefs, are associated with the large letters because they are the meta principles.  They help shape how we view and understand the world.  The regular letters correspond to words we use to express our thoughts and beliefs.  Since we are constantly in search of the right words to articulate our beliefs and thoughts we need many words.  Finally, the little letters symbolize our actions.  The connection between the little letters and action teaches us that the many little things we do in the world matter. 

I like how even the different sizes of letters in the Torah offer us with insight and wisdom.

Shmini: Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47

Leading up to Parashat Sh'mini, the Israelites have begun to use the Tabernacle that they built and have been learning about the laws of sacrifice and the ways of their new relationship with God. At this stage in the history of the people, the priests (Aaron and his sons) are integral to the religious practices of the community. They perform many of the rituals of sacrifice on behalf of the community.

In Parashat Sh'mini, Aaron, the High Priest, comes before God to make offerings of purification and expiation (make amends, apologize) for himself and on behalf of the Israelites. His willingness to do this represents a confession of his own shortcomings, a humble admission of his imperfections and mistakes. It is pretty amazing to think that we human beings have been making mistakes throughout history and we continue to do so. There must be a good reason for that!

Mistakes-we all make them, young and old alike. Although they may be frustrating, mistakes provide parents with a great opportunity to demonstrate for their children how to process and deal with things in a healthy and productive manner. By acknowledging your own mistakes, you reveal that you are not infallible. When you pick yourself up and start again, you are showing your children that it's perfectly acceptable to not be perfect. By looking at mistakes as learning opportunities, by admitting when we miss the mark, we are more open to examining our behavior and determining how not to make the same mistake again. By asking "How can I learn from this?" we are provided with a valuable lesson for ourselves and for our children.

By: Ellen and Peter Allard

Shmini: Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47

We are about halfway through the year the Jewish year.  As if to remind us of this the Torah portion this week is the same one that the reading for Yom Kippur is taken.  Since the portion always falls about halfway through the year it is reasonable to ask is just coincidental or intentional?  If it is just coincidental then at most we might say, “that’s interesting”.  Since there is a rule of thumb that says nothing connected to the Torah is coincidental it must be this way for a reason, that it is, it is intentional.  What then is the Torah (Judaism?) intending for us by this convergence?

I propose that in some organic, evolutionary way this six month reminder serves several purposes.  I am presenting what I think is intended in the form of questions:

#1 How are you doing on the areas in your life you reflected on during the High Holy Days (HHD) that you felt needed attention?

#2  Since both the HHD and Parshat Shmini both deal with boundaries (time for the HHD and space and holy/not holy for Shmini) how are you doing respecting the boundaries in your life?  Are you creating secure boundaries between your holy space and time and the bump and grind of your work-a-day life?

#3  The first chapter in Shmini deals with sin offerings.  Yom Kippur expects us to reflect on our sins from the past year.  In the biblical days sins were expiated through sacrifices.  Today we use the power of teshuvah.  Are there still sins from last year for which you need to do teshuvah?  Are there people (from last year or from this year) from whom you need to ask forgiveness?

Tazria: Leviticus 12:1-13:59

This week's Torah portion introduces the various categories of tumah/impurities emanating from human beings. This is followed by a myriad of permutations of the disease called tzaraat, commonly mistranslated as leprosy.

What tzaraat is, in fact, is very unclear. Rabbinic interpretation based on a later reference of tzaraat suggest that it is some sort of spiritual malaise, for the sin of speaking lashon hara (evil speech), amongst other transgressions and anti-social behavior.

Tazria Leviticus 12:1 - 13:59

If you happen to read this week's Torah portion expect to be mildly grossed out and majorly confused.  Tazria graphically discusses a variety of bodily emissions, discharges and eruptions.  The most common responses to Tazria include "why", "what's the point", "this is in the Bible" and "gross".

Hard as it is relate to this portion I've found at least two points of common interest. First, the ancient Israelites were as uncomfortable with bodily discharges of all sorts as we are today.  How we deal with our discomfort today differs dramatically in form but not in intent.  Bodily discharges, yuch.

Interestingly enough, the second point in common has to do with another topic that makes us uncomfortable: synagogue dues.  Then as today our communities are populated by people with different financial means.  Today we manage this with scholarships, dues abatement, special discounted rates etc.  Our biblical ancestors also wrestled with economic diversity within their community.  According to chapter 12, vs 8 "if her means suffice not for a lamb, then she shall take two turtle-doves, or two young pigeons". Seems both generations of people shared some of the same problems and came up with similar solutions.

Metzorah Leviticus 14:1 - 15:33

Wisely, our ancestors never limited themselves to a literal reading of the Torah.  This week's Torah portion is a great example of how they were able to mine gems from the most arcane passages.  Metzorah deals extensively with a mysterious ailment called tzarat, mistakenly labeled as leprosy.  The reality is that we have no idea what it is, nor did our ancestors.  They, however, intuited that this condition is likely a metaphor for something else.  They justified this possibility by linking what is described in Metzorah with a Torah portion in Numbers where Miriam, Moses' sister, is punished with tzarat for speaking badly of her brother.  From this connection they concluded tzarat was a punishment for slander.

Granted, it is a stretch to find a connection between white patches on skin or the walls of a house and gossip. In fact, what these earliest commentators were doing was impressing up their students the seriousness of gossip and slander.  In other words, they saw this Torah portion as hyperbole.  They understood (what many of us seem to forget) that gossip and slander is like a dangerous and insidious infection that is harmful on many levels.

Achrei Mot/ Kedoshim Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27

“Ben Bag Bag said: Turn the Torah over and over for everything is in it…”  Perkei Avot 5:25

In an odd way Achrei Mot indirectly supports this idea while providing instructions to the priests, Israelites and by extension us about how to deal with blood and death.  The Torah portion begins with a reference to the deaths of Aaron’s two sons and another deadly warning.  Then further on it talks about blood.  Finally it instructs the priests to wash themselves in pure water after being in contact with blood and death. Death, blood and washing, does this sound familiar?

In the mid nineteenth century Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis wanted to figure out why so many women in maternity wards were dying from puerperal fever — commonly known as childbed fever.  After following several false leads he eventually hypothesized that cadaverous particles were being transferred by medical students and doctors after doing autopsies to women as they were delivering their babies and causing their death.  To prove if his theory was correct he started having everyone wash their hands and tools with chlorine, a superb cleanser.  In fact, he used it because of its smell rather than its effectiveness as cleaning solution.  Although Semmelweis didn’t actually know why it worked, he had nevertheless discovered that washing somehow prevented the onset of childbed fever. Not for nothing, doctors in 1845  didn’t know much more about the spread of  disease than the ancient Israelite priests 3500 hundred years ago.

It is hard to dismiss that the authors of Leviticus had not intuited a similar connection between blood, death and washing as had Semmelweis.  Ironically, we are as dismissive of the potential wisdom of the teachings of Leviticus as the medical profession was about hand washing for many years after Semmelweis’ discovery.  Indeed, even as recently as twenty-five years ago  the CDC published a report titled “Hand Washing - The Semmelweis Lesson Forgotten?”  Perhaps Ben Bag Bag was right.

Achrei Mot/ Kedoshim Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27

Speak to all the congregation of the Israelites, and say to them, "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy". (19.2)

Reb Menahem Mendl of Worka explained that this does not mean that one must attain the level of angels, something which is impossible. All that is expected us of is to strive to the level of which we are capable. Be holy: in whatever circumstances you find yourself; strive to increase in your holiness little by little in your holiness.

Emor Leviticus 21:1 - 24:23

On the same day it will be eaten; you will leave none of it until the morrow; I am the Lord. (22:30)

This passage can be understood in light of a teaching from the Talmud (Sotah 48), that whoever has food for the present and says, "what will I eat tomorrow?" is of little faith. From this we learn two important lessons. First, strive to live in the moment and do not worry about what will come tomorrow. Second, have faith that tomorrow will be as full of blessings as today.

 Leviticus 25:1 - 27:34

When you come into the land which I give you, then will the land keep a sabbath to the Lord. (25.2)

Shabbat for people affirms our basic right to be free from the abuses of slavery. Torah extends this same basic right to the earth by teaching that it too has intrinsic value, above and beyond how it benefits us. Attributed to Rabbi Yitzhak Breuer

© Copyright Rabbi Howard A Cohen