Catch a Whiff – Parshat Vayikra 5777

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Have you ever had the sensation of breezing past a department store perfume counter and suddenly conjuring a vivid memory of a grandparent? Or walking into someone’s home and having the smell of dinner carry you away to your childhood? It is widely accepted scientifically that brain anatomy is responsible for this strong connection between smells and memory. The olfactory bulb, which starts in the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain, is directly connected to two of the brain’s emotion and memory centers: the amygdala and hippocampus.

I don’t need to understand the anatomy to know there are certain scents that just make me happy in an instant. The smell of Olga bread from my favorite restaurant in Detroit can make my mouth water. The smell of good Texas barbecue is enough to make me ravenous no matter how full I am. The smell of the challah on Friday or Havdalah spices on Saturday bring me to a place of instant peace.

Of course it’s not just food. The sweet smell of Shiri’s head as she rests it against me when she cuddles makes my heart melt. I have one particular sweater that belonged to my father; if I hold it close, I’m embraced with the faint smell of his cologne. More than sight, sound, or touch, our sense of smell has a unique way of tying into our taste buds and our memories so that we are instantly moved by the various odors around us.

This week we begin reading the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), the third book in the Torah. This book contains many practical laws to guide our communities as well as the original laws of sacrifice, and it’s filled with rules and laws about gifts we should be making to God: gifts of well-being, gifts of thanks, gifts of apology. It also has within its chapters the text known as the “holiness code,” which directs us in how our relationships with others should be created and managed. But the first portion of the book, which we read this week, focuses mostly on the types of offerings we will make to God as both individuals and as a community.

As God in the Torah starts to outline the different sacrifices that the Israelites are expected to make for various reasons, we begin to see God’s reaction to these sacrifices. Chapter 1, verse 9 evokes “a gift of pleasing odor to the Lord.” We know that it’s our physical makeup that makes smells pleasing to us, but how is this possible for God, with no physical makeup? Does God have the same human reaction that I have? The commentators emphatically reject the notion that God is actually smelling the sacrifices. Instead, what is described as pleasing to God is that the Israelites are doing what is asked of them.

I see a direct parallel to how we interpret memories and behaviors. It’s not the chemicals in the odors, but the feelings associated with them that matter. Traditional sacrifice has long been abandoned in favor of more modern interpretations of how we offer praise to God. It’s not the sacrifice itself, but the intent behind the sacrifice that is “pleasing to the Lord.” Obviously it was because my dad was who he was that the memory is so special; the cologne is simply a reminder of that. These emotional triggers are superficially enjoyable, but it’s up to us to create those memories in the first place.

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Mmm . . . Torah – Parshat Vayikra 5776

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I have an addiction to the Food Network. I could spend hours watching other people prepare food, talk about food, and even eat food, but I never end up watching for long stretches of time because it always makes me too hungry. How I wish I could taste or simply just smell the delicious foods being prepared. Whether it’s Bobby Flay barbecuing, the Chopped competitors creating their fast-paced masterpieces, or the sugary sweets of Cupcake Wars, it all looks so good I wish the programming was scratch and sniff.

Reading the Torah there some instances when I wish I was able to be present in that exact moment being described. The book of Vayikra has several of those moments for me. This week as we read parshat Vayikra, we begin the third book of the Torah, which details the many sacrifices and the active mitzvot of living as an Israelite. This begins with the explanation of the sacrifices that we are to give daily, weekly, and yearly. We learn that there can be a sacrifice made in times of joy and in times of sorrow. There is a special sacrifice for being guilty of a sin and others for complete thanksgiving. As sefer Vayikra continues, we learn about the laws of how to treat one another, how to engage in holy relationships, and how our calendar and meals should reflect our innermost values and desires.

It may sound strange to say that hearing about these laws makes me hungry, but virtually all of the sacrifices have to do with food or food stuffs over a hot fire. It reads like a barbecue recipe, with fragrant smells abounding.

Interestingly, the Torah describes each burnt offering as “a gift of pleasing odor to the Lord.” That is to say that the smell of the sacrifices is something that God could take in. Anything wrong with this picture? Well, the rabbis certainly had a problem with this notion. After all we are told not to create “images of God” and that God is not in human form, and yet here we are, reading about a God with a nose. This might lead to an incorrect understanding that we are offering sacrifices not to God but to some other anthropomorphic “God,” which violates the Torah.

To reconcile this controversial thought, Rashi, the great medieval commentator, suggests that what is pleasing to God is not the aroma, but the fact that Israel is doing God’s will. In other words, it’s not the physical odor of the sacrifice, but the physical act of the sacrifice that matters to God.

God’s version of the “smell-o-vision” that I so unashamedly desire is the vision of his creations doing good in the world. Parshat Vayikra teaches that the ephemeral proof (the “odor” if you will) of our good deeds is only one aspect of mitzvot, and probably the least important one at that. It is the long-term and long-lasting results we’re after. Those are the results that matter to God and the ones that should matter to us.

Now if you’ll please excuse me, this talk of food is making me hungry.

Don’t Speak – Parshat Vayikra 5775

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There are times in my life when I’ve used words inappropriately, whether it was in the heat of an argument with a loved one or a harsher-than-necessary reaction when disciplining a student. There are times when I’ve promised to do something, knowing full well that I would never have the time to do it. There are other times when I’ve opened my mouth, intending to say one thing, and instead said the complete opposite. We all know the rule “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Saying just the right thing at the right time is often difficult, but keeping quiet can be even harder.

Multiple laws in the Torah remind us of the power of our speech. The very beginning of the Torah is the creation of the world, which happens by God speaking about the light and darkness and it becoming so. Just as words from God can create and destroy the world, so too our words towards each other have the power to create and destroy. This lesson is driven home in parshat Vayikra, which we read this week.

When it comes to routine and ritual, the Torah has us covered. This week as we begin sefer Vayikra, the book of Leviticus, we find ourselves immersed in the listing of mitzvot (commandments) on how to live our lives. This begins with the explanation of the sacrifices that we are to give daily, weekly, and yearly. We learn that there can be a sacrifice made in times of joy and in times of sorrow. There is a special sacrifice for being guilty of a sin and others for complete thanksgiving. As sefer Vayikra continues, we learn about the laws of how to treat one another, how to engage in holy relationships, and how our calendar and meals should reflect our innermost values and desires.

Chapter 5, verse 4 of our text states, “Or when a person utters an oath to bad or good purpose – whatever a man may utter in an oath . . . if he realizes his guilt . . .” The Torah expects that uttering oaths will lead to guilt. In this section of text, the Torah is warning against saying you’ll do more than you can. “Say little, do much,” as we learn in Perkei Avot, was the original version of “Under promise, over deliver,” a lesson from which we can all learn.

Instead of letting words simply fall out of our mouths in the midst of an argument or in an attempt to have the last words in a conversation, we are reminded to think first about the impact our words will have. It’s like the adage that we ought to think twice before speaking once. If it isn’t necessary, if it isn’t positive, if it isn’t helpful, or if it isn’t attainable, then it isn’t worth saying.

Shabbat doesn’t have to be merely a time to refrain from work; you can take this opportunity to rest from the sarcasm, to rest from the unsolicited advice, and to rest from the circular conversations that leave us unfulfilled and unproductive. Say little, do much.

Uniquely Me – Parshat Vayikra 5773

“Well, if Johnny jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?”  You’ve heard this familiar retort and perhaps even used it to try to shed light on the temptations of peer pressure.  The question is posed to prove that sometimes what the group does is not always the right choice for every individual.  The question reminds us that each of us has the ability to make choices for ourselves and our own best interest.  But, this is not always easy, especially when you are young and want more than anything to fit in.  We go to extra lengths to fit in, whether it’s dressing in a way that looks “cool” but really makes us uncomfortable or making a bad judgment call and stealing lipstick from the drugstore or cheating on a test.  We spend a significant amount of time, whether consciously or not, trying to walk the fine line between individual needs and desires and the desire to fit in with the group. 

This week we begin reading sefer Vayikra, the third book of the Torah.  This book is full of rules and laws that delineate types of sacrifices, both communal and individual, the establishment of priests and sacred worship, reminders about what to put into our bodies, how to remain pure, and the consequences that result from breaking these rules.  The tie that binds each of these sections of text together is that of community. 
Sefer Vayikra and our parshah this week begin with God asking Moses to speak to the Israelites.  Chapter 1, verse 2 states “Speak to the children of Israel and you say to them, ‘When a person presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, from the herd or flock should y’all choose.’”  This verse begins by instructing a singular individual and concludes with the plural, speaking to the entire community.  Both individual and communal offerings are required in the text, but the switch mid-verse is peculiar. 
The rabbis warn in Leviticus Rabbah, a 6th-8th century work of commentary, the individual must not be influenced to inauthentic action by the community.  Leviticus Rabbah picks up on the word used in verse 2 for a person, adam, teaching that an “offering must be like that of Adam, belonging to you and not stolen, offered solely to express your love of God and not to impress your neighbors.”  That is to say that while offerings and ritual are meant to be performed in community, the action must be authentic.  Making an offering because you want to appear more generous to the community or to jump on the latest trend of “spiritual practice” because it is what everyone is doing will lead you nowhere, according to our text. 
Rather, performing the mitzvot that are laid out in sefer Vayikra should add to our own unique relationship with God.  An unknown Hasidic master taught that we enter the sanctuary as individuals, but the experience of worship leads us to transcend our separateness and become part of the community. 
The central part of the book of Vayikra is known as the holiness code, which describes the ways in which an individual behaves ethically and morally.  Holiness, according to our text, is being yourself, your truest and best self.  That’s truly the easiest way to live a life full of honor and blessings.
THIS TOO IS TORAH:  We actually refer to Vayikra indirectly every time we read from the Torah as a community.  During the Torah reading, a Kohen is called to approach (k’rav) to have the first aliah, just as the priests in old times would approach (k’rav) to perform the duties of the sacrificial service.

photo credit: fotologic via photopin cc