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.

Korah -- Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

DFacebook_CoverDesign_Korahuring a brief visit to Dublin, the birthplace of Oscar Wilde (October 16, 1854), I was struck by the author, playwright, and poet's quick wit and keen observations about human nature. Wilde once quipped that, "Arguments are extremely vulgar, for everyone in good society holds exactly the same opinion."

Torah, on the other hand, teaches us about respecting a diversity of opinions. Such respectful but creative tension [makhloket] comes to be understood in the aftermath of Korah.

By inciting a mutiny against Moses, Korah is justly decrying a hierarchy that he sees as unfair. He proclaims his own brand of spiritual grandeur — "We are all holy!" This is a very real, egalitarian challenge to the hegemony of Mosaic leadership and its preferential granting of the priesthood to Aaron. In the end, Korah and his mutineers are consumed by fire as the earth swallows them up. Why then does Scripture later mention (Numbers 26:11) that "the children of Korah never died?"

The sages of the Mishnah picked up on the cues from Korah and went on to teach the following in Tractate Avot 5:20: "Any dispute [machloket] for heaven’s sake will ultimately endure; while any dispute [machloket] which is not for heaven’s sake will not endure. What is a dispute for heaven’s sake? This is a debate between Hillel and Shammai. What is a dispute that is not for heaven’s sake? This is the dispute of Korah and his assembly." In other words, there is a difference between petty squabbling and good arguments that allow for growth amidst real difference. Shammai and Hillel exemplify what it means to be involved in disputes for heaven’s sake, given that before either one would launch his own argument, his first step was to cite the opposing position; only after having done so would he then make his own argument. This posture displays a deep respect for opposing points of view and the realization that truth is discovered as part of a process that emerges in civil dialogue.

The vibrancy we yearn for in our Jewish lives comes by living in that creative tension between the Mosaic path and the Korahite path. The challenge before each of us is how to create that single vessel within community – to make space to foster the creative tension to enable our moral grandeur and spiritual audacity to be fully lived.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an illustration of tzitzit tied with a thread of techelet, wool dyed blue with blood extracted from a sea snail. Why this image? At the end of last week’s parsha, Moses was tasked with telling the Israelites that God commanded them to "make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue on the fringe of each corner." (Numbers 15:38) Many of our traditional biblical commentators believed that this "unbearable law" (Pseudo-Philo) was the final straw for Korah and his allies, and therefore gave rise to Korah’s rebellion. But, as James Kugel points out in his How To Read The Bible (2007), "Korah was not really interested in changing the system, merely in taking it over. He was thus a dangerous demagogue." Here, we see the techelet tied to the tzitzit according to the instructions given by Rabbi Abraham ben David (c. 1125–1198), also known as the RaBad or Raavad. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.