Vayikra -- Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26

A strange miniature Aleph opens this week’s parsha, the only one of its kind in the Torah. What does it mean? In our study of the Zohar, we discovered the most remarkable insight:

A miniature aleph — deriving from a diminished place, diminished becoming great as it joins above.

The mystics understand this seemingly obscure scribal tradition of miniaturizing this particular Aleph as a way of showing that although the divine called to Moses, and although the divine showed Moses tremendous respect by constantly speaking to him, Moses still constantly diminished himself before the divine and also before the community of Israel. Indeed, cultivating humility before the divine encounter is a central concern addressed through all the offerings made in the Book of Leviticus.

The Book of Leviticus is also a compendium that sharply contrasts with our classic prophetic teachings, which compose most of the weekly haftarot. For the prophets, the God of Moses is the divine source of morality, and social justice is maintained through the fulfillment of ethical commands (mitzvot). According to the renowned Israeli scholar Dr. Israel Knohl, the Priestly Torah in the Book of Leviticus is distinguished by the centrality of cultic command (as opposed to ethical command); this cultic command is portrayed as the principal content of divine revelation. In his book, Sanctuary of Silence (2007), Knohl argues that the unmediated divine revelation that "is the climactic moment in Israel’s history" is "not revelation at Sinai but revelation at the Tabernacle, associated with sacrificial worship."

Waiting for the cultic calling, it is only fitting then that Moses hears the still, silent voice of the divine from the nexus of cultic activity — the Tent of Meeting [Ohel Moed]. From this point of calling [Vayikrah] — the namesake of this third book of the Pentateuch — the laws of offerings, whether meal or animal, are communicated. These include: (1) Ascent offering [‘olah] — wholly raised up in ascent to the divine by fire atop the altar; (2) Meal offering [minha] — prepared of fine flour, olive oil, and frankincense; (3) Peace offering [shelamim] — animal burned on the altar, with parts given to the priest and other meat eaten by the one bringing the offering; (4) Sin offering [hatat] — brought to atone for transgressions committed in error by the high priest, the entire community, the king, or any Israelite; (5) Guilt offering [asham] — brought by one who has misappropriated property of the sanctuary or is in doubt of transgression.

It is remarkable that even in moments of apparent disconnection from the divine, there is always a way to draw closer in the act of repairing by remaining connected through ritual life. The key to opening the doorway of connection, though, is to be as humble as the diminished Aleph.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's parsha illustration marks my last for Beth Sholom. It's inspired by storyteller Joel Lurie Grishaver's insistence that we, as contemporary Jews, "try to look Leviticus in the eye – to take it on its own terms. No rationalizations. No mutations. No metaphors. ... Look directly into the fire at the bottom of the altar, and without flinching tell it: 'Go ahead, make my faith.'" Leviticus is hard. Much of Torah is hard. That's partly why it's been a privilege to create weekly parshiyot illustrations for the past 112 weeks (just over two full cycles). Torah study of all kinds demands we look long and hard into the flames, even when it's easier to look away. In so doing, we can spot the threads of personal or communal significance that run through Torah's black fire on white fire like pure threads of techelet, here radiating heavenward amidst a burning offering. Todah rabbah for looking and reading with me. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayeitzai — Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

To flee from a challenging situation may strike us irresponsible. However, sometimes taking leave is not about fleeing, but taking hold of a new chapter in life. This is what is at stake in the opening words of this week’s reading: "Jacob took leave of Be’er Sheva and set out for Haran." (Genesis 28:10) Jacob is taking leave of his hometown of Be'er Sheva to dream of something more – a Promised Land.

En route to Haran, Jacob encounters that place, falls asleep, and then dreams of a ladder connecting heaven and earth. This powerful vision of angels ascending and descending upon the ladder serves as a further signpost for Jacob’s journey onwards to the Promised Land. The next morning, Jacob raises the stone upon which he laid his head as an altar called, Beth El.

While in Haran, Jacob devotes fourteen years to work and raising a family including: his six sons with LeahReuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun, and their daughter, Dinah; Dan and Naphtali, sons of Rachel’s handmaiden; and Gad and Asher, sons of Leah’s handmaiden, Zilpah; and finally Joseph, born to Rachel.

After this extended period, in a surprising turn for biblical narrative, Jacob yearns to return home. After repeated attempts at swindling Jacob to stay, Laban pursues Jacob but is warned not to harm him. Jacob and Laban make a pact on Mount Gil-‘Ed, allowing Jacob to continue in his ascent to the Holy Land, accompanied again by angels.

The rabbinic mind prefers from the outset to read this story as a "taking leave" that teaches an important message: when one is dedicated to cultivating a just and righteous life, then taking leave makes an imprint upon the very place you depart from.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by the "dream stone" on which Jacob laid his head. According to Jewish storyteller Joel Lurie Grishaver, this magic rock was created by God to help people recall their dreams and was used by generations of biblical protagonists: Jacob sleeps on it; Joseph chips off a piece to carry as a rubbing stone; Jeroboam builds a temple over it. Eventually, though, the rock is smashed into countless shards by Hezekiah and the pieces were "passed from hand to hand, place to place," the world over. Grishaver writes "every time that Joseph Caro dreamed of the Shekinah, a piece of rock was near. Every time Rashi understood a piece of Torah in one of his dreams, a sliver of rock was on the spot." Yup, it's quite a rock. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.