Don’t Speak – Parshat Vayikra 5775


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

Praying with your Feet – Parshat Vayikra 5772

Routine.  In nearly all of my education courses, they stressed the importance of routine and action.  I have my morning routine: wake up, get breakfast and watch the weather, shower, get dressed, and go to school to set up my office for the day.  Children learn best when they know the routine and what they will do each day.  As teachers we start at the beginning of the year putting the schedule up on the board, making known to the students the expectations in the classroom.  Before long, the morning ritual includes setting up their desks and getting out the needed supplies for the day.  We are creatures of habit. 
What makes these habits and routine so important is the purpose and meaning they add to our days.  Without our morning ritual of saying “Bye, I love you” when we leave the house for work or drop off students at school, our day might feel incomplete.  When a piece of our routine is missing, it has a noticeable effect. 
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 listings 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.
While reading about our history in a book is helpful, the text teaches us that nothing can beat setting a routine and actively engaging with the world around us.  The former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Ismar Schorsh, said “Ritual is a way of giving voice to ultimate values.  Each of us needs a sense of holiness to navigate the relentless secularity of our lives.”  The words of parshat Vayikra and those continuing throughout the Torah illustrate the fact that from our most basic origin in God’s image, we need routine and ritual.  The Torah offers these in a way that brings meaning to otherwise mundane activities like eating and waking up. 
When you go on a trip, you might use your GPS to know where you’re going.  When you assemble a new bookshelf, the instructions can be a helpful guide.  Each step is checked off the list, and when the trip or project is complete, you can feel a sense of accomplishment.  Jewish ritual is meant to do just that for us.  The Torah provides us with rituals to help keep our daily lives on track.  To give us a blueprint for action during those times when it feels exceedingly difficult to approach God or people we might have wronged.  And the Torah’s rituals, while set and defined, provide us with the opportunity and inspiration to create our own rituals to bring new meaning to our lives. 
ללמוד  To Learn: ללמד  To Teach: לשמור  To Keep:  לעשות  To Do:  From the moment we wake up until the moment we go to bed, we find ourselves engaged in ritual actions.  Judaism helps us by framing our day with prayer and blessings.  Did you know that it takes 12 seconds for the blood to flow properly from your head to the rest of your body when you stand up?  If you do it too fast you’ll feel dizzy.  There are 12 words in Modeh Ani, the first prayer we say upon waking.  There are 12 words in the lines Shema and Baruch shem k’vod that we say as we lay down to sleep in the evening.  Consider adding these or other Jewish rituals into your day. 
מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ, מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם, שֶׁהֶחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ.
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, ה  אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ, ה  אֶחָד.
בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד.

Just Call Out My Name – Parshat Vayikra 5771

In the times of the Bible, instead of responding to a text or tweet, people would hear the call of theshofar, the ram’s horn.  Interestingly, in today’s world of Facebook, Twitter, blogs, text messages, Blackberries, emails, and other forms of electronic communication, we seem to have returned to those one-way instant messages reminiscent of the shofar.  Actually picking up the telephone and having a fully interactive conversation with someone seems to be outdated and old fashioned.  In place of saying “just give a call” we now make all of our plans through text message, making James Taylor’s famous lyrics, “Winter, spring, summer or fall, all you’ve got to do is call,” seem sadly out of touch.
But what about when God calls?  Or when we want to call God?  In Biblical times, this often involved a sacrifice, but how does it work in a world of flashing alerts on our smartphones or caller id?  This week we begin sefer Vayikra, the third book in the narrative of the Torah.  Literally, Vayikra means “and he called,” and this section of text is largely about God calling out to us and us calling up to God through sacrifices and living a holy life.  But, the word is written in a unique way in the Torah.  In the text, the aleph, the last letter of the word, is written smaller than the rest of the letters. One reason for this oddity might be that if you remove the aleph from the end of Yikra, he called, you are left with the root Yakar, meaning precious or dear.  Perhaps the small aleph is there as a reminder of the small, silent, precious cries that we have to listen really closely to hear and look really hard find. 
Sometimes our cries are big, but stay hidden within us. Other times we call out to each other, whether in the Facebook status asking for help on a project or the mass email hoping to get a ride from the airport.  Perhaps the call is a call for attention like a scream on the playground or acting out in class.  Maybe our calls to each other are small like the look in one’s eye or a frown instead of a smile.  I know that when I see the flashing red light on my Blackberry alerting me that I’ve missed a call, I often get a flutter in my heart.  Was my ringer volume too low?  Did I step away from my phone for too long?  Did I miss someone important needing help from me?  Did I miss a call that could have changed my life or their life forever?  We’re often so caught up in the flashing signs and alert sounds we hear constantly that we sometimes miss that low, monotone call asking us to open our eyes to something right in front of us.
However we call out, to whomever we cry, may our cries be heard, our prayers answered, and on this Shabbat of calling out and connecting, may we feel the blessings of God’s answer. 
Family Discussion Questions:
  1. Our ‘ethical covenant’ teaches that to be respectful is to have Shmiat HaOzen, being a good listener.  What can your family do to make sure that everyone is heard and listened to?
  2. If you could leave God a voicemail, what would it say?